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Long Distance Running Program

An Adaptation of The Lydiard System

The following long distance running program is not just a program perse. What I endeavour to do here is to provide a bit of background information into how and why certain protocols work for running distances of between 5k and 42k. The long distance running program that follows this article is largely based on the philosophy of Arthur Lydiard, who, as many runners would know, was one of the most influential distance running coaches in history.

The All-Round Endurance Athlete

One of the common problems facing endurance athletes is all-round conditioning. One look at most marathon runners will reveal that they are physically good for only one thing, running a long way at an impressive pace. There is very little difference between the sustained running speed and the sprinting speed of a top-level long distance runner. They simply don’t possess the ability to sprint at paces even untrained individuals are capable of.

This sort of highly specific conditioning has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand they are highly conditioned for the task at hand. Little else is needed in order to accomplish the goal of a good marathon time. On the other hand there is n zero room for error. This is a problem because, given the extensive duration of a long distance race, there should be a lot of room for error. What I mean is that a perfect pace needs to be maintained right from the outset because the athlete has almost no capacity to make up ground later in the race and if they make up too much ground too early they very well may “hit the wall” in the latter stages.

Running is a highly specific discipline. It is often thought to be a natural human ability, however it isn’t as natural as once thought. Take a look at a gazelle or a cheetah. There is little doubt that these creatures were meant to run, it’s in their nature and they’re born with the skill. Humans on the other hand are not. Look at an untrained person running. They look about as coordinated as a cow on a unicycle. A person has to learn to run.

Being a learned activity and something very unique compared to other things, running is highly specific. This applies to all types of running. Any type of running a person engages in will help improve running ability at all other levels. Don’t take this to mean that constant long jogs will improve sprinting ability. However mixed running training will benefit all types of running. For example, a 400 metre runner is possibly the most efficient runner. They possess the ability to sprint short distances at a maximum pace. They can sustain a near-maximal pace for up to 60 seconds. And, given their training volume, are also capable of running long distances if the need arises. This can’t be said for a marathon runner or most other long distance runners, with the exception of an all-round endurance athlete such as Haile Gebrselassie.

An endurance athlete, in order to excel, needs to possess various levels of running ability. They also need to call on all energy systems throughout a race. The common problem in very long races like the marathon is “hitting the wall”, which essentially means the athlete has exhausted their glycogen stores and has run too long above their lactate threshold and simply cannot maintain that intensity. This results in a natural breakdown in physical and mental capacity and the athlete is simply forced to slow down or stop.

It is for the above-mentioned reason that an endurance athlete needs to engage in a well structured, well balanced training regime that ensures all energy systems are adequately conditioned to the specific, general and unexpected demands of the race.

The Endurance Training Conundrum

Taking the above information into account it may appear simple to the untrained eye as to how to create a long distance running program that will address these issues. Simply ensure the athlete does plenty of steady volume, combined with short and long, super-high intensity intervals and voila, you have an all-round, conditioned endurance runner. If only it were that simple.

The problem with designing an effective long distance running program is that certain types of training may contribute to a detrimental result, meaning that it might actually cancel out other qualities. I’ll give you the example of a 100 metre sprinter. What do you think would happen if you made a 100 metre sprinter go on 20k runs as half of their training? For those who don’t know, it would ruin their results. Strength, speed and power would simply begin to disappear because their muscles would be gearing up for increased oxidative capacity, a trait only a distance runner can appreciate.

The same thing can happen to a distance runner with too much speed work. If they perform too many high intensity intervals they very well may be compromising production of certain key aerobic enzymes. However eliminating speed work altogether will result in the original problem of a one-dimensional athlete with no capacity for output above their conditioned levels.

The Lydiard Method

The Lydiard method began as a self experiment born out of Lydiard’s frustration from his hard efforts and lack of decent race results. The Lydiard system contains elements to enhance all aspects of your running - including speed, strength and endurance - with the end result being an increase in your ability to sustain a higher speed for the duration of a race.

The conditioning phase of Lydiard training stresses increasing your steady state pace, or your capacity for sustained running speed, as high as possible for any given circumstance. For best results it is recommended you train at a pace that is 70 - 100% of your aerobic maximum when you engage in long distance volume work. This is by no mean typical long slow distance work. Training at this rate will leave you feeling sufficiently “gassed” at the end of a session. 

Aerobic/Distance Training

The real essence of the conditioning phase of Arthur Lydiard’s training method is the long runs. Specifically there should be three of these per week. The Finns got a little over-excited with intervals that they missed the need for specificity in long distance running programs. Aerobic training at moderately high volumes is absolutely essential in developing the endurance athlete. Increased numbers of capillaries are produced, resulting in an increased ability for your body to transfer blood gasses and essentially deliver more oxygen faster to working muscles. Your lung capacity improves, both by increasing the amount of air taken in during a single breath and by utilising more of the oxygen within each breath due to increase numbers of pulmonary capillaries. The left vetricle of the heart increases in size and stroke volume, meaning the amount of blood pumped per heart beat is increased, hence more oxygen is carried around the body per minute increasing your VO2 Max.

Anaerobic/Interval Training

Anaerobic training exists in most long distance running programs. It is included in order to develop your ability to withstand oxygen debt and anaerobic capacity. The higher your anaerobic capacity the higher the level at which you can perform within a sustainable aerobic state. When you are not well conditioned in steady state, aerobic performance you can reach lactate threshold fairly early and at a relatively slow pace. Performing above anaerobic/lactate threshold means you can only sustain the pace for a finite amount of time. Eventually your tank will be empty. With conditioning you will be able to push this threshold up a little and what used to be anaerobic is now on the high end of aerobic, meaning that it can be sustained. It makes sense that running slower requires less energy and can be sustained for longer periods of time. For this reason the goal should be to get your steady state pace, or your best aerobic pace up to a respectable standard before incorporating anaerobic interval training.

With anaerobic training your goal is to reach a high level of oxygen debt and lower your blood’s ph level. This forces your blood to build buffers against fatigue. Once you have built these buffers there is no need to go beyond that. For example, you don’t need to increase your anaerobic capacity to the extreme levels of a 2000 metre rower or 800 metre runner. This is unnecessary and excessive and will only invite injury. You simply do not need extreme levels of anaerobic capacity because it will not be used.

Anaerobic training, like steady state runs, should be done about three times a week. The goal is to run hard, allow enough recovery between workouts, then run hard again. This should be done using intervals that last at least 30-45 seconds, all the way to several minutes of extremely intense running. It is not necessary to predetermine the precise number of intervals needed in a given session. The volume of anaerobic work for a long distance runner should be gauged on a session by session basis. Basically when you feel you have had enough and your body is significantly taxed it’s time to call it a day.

If you want to create an increased anaerobic threshold and race well it is essential that you perform interval training. However be warned, if you overdo it you will begin to undo all the hard work from your targeted long runs. It may make sense to run hard and fast all the time but it will reduce production of aerobic enzymes and compromise your ability to sustain race pace for the duration of a race. Use it wisely and try not to do more than 60 minutes per day three days a week.

Sharpening the Blade

Once you have built impressive high-level, sustainable aerobic conditioning and an ability to withstand and recover from oxygen debt it is essential that you maintain this and continue to improve racing efficiency without losing condition. If you continue to perform long, high intensity intervals that stress the lactate energy system you will compromise your aerobic fitness. If you neglect anaerobic training and only do steady state work you will undo all your hard work from the intervals. The goal is to do what Lydiard referred to as “sharpening”.

Sharpening is a form of training that involves running short 50-100 metre sprints with slow aerobic work in between. This will not lower blood ph because it is not sufficiently crossing into the lactate system, it is mostly an effort of the creatine-phosphate system. This form of training will allow you to maintain your ability to withstand oxygen debt while still allowing high-level aerobic conditioning to coexist. Sharpening can be done once or twice a week without compromising aerobic development.

Summary of the Lydiard System

It is necessary to grasp the goal of training, which is to increase your anaerobic threshold so you are able to perform at a higher level that is still sustainable. However for the endurance athlete this can only be done in relation to your oxygen uptake efficiency and your capacity to exercise aerobically. So in other words it is necessary to run as many miles as possible (without overtraining) at a high-level aerobic state in order to lift your oxygen uptake efficiency to the highest possible level as a foundation for anaerobic conditioning.

To maximise efficiency and make the most of your training time it is important to train at a level just below lactate threshold during your long runs, which is the highest aerobic level you can sustain without going anaerobic.

Supplementary/Complimentary Training

The best form of training to include in a long distance running program is running, of course. However there can often be imbalances and weaknesses that running can’t fix. Running won’t make anyone strong, but strength is needed in any physical task regardless of intensity, including distance running. For this reason there are certain complimentary training methods that I consider essential. Keep in mind though that this section has nothing to do with Arthur Lydiard’s training system.


Strength training is an essential component of all physical conditioning programs, long distance running programs are no exception. Strength training should be incorporated intelligently and not excessively for the endurance athlete.


Flexibility is important but not in the way most people think. Simply stretching until you become as flexible as possible is not indicative of intelligent training. Certain muscles, when they become too flexible, can inhibit the muscular efficiency of a long distance runner. Flexibility should be incorporated into a long distance running program only to balance out excessively tight muscles.

Core Stability

Core stability is important in all physical endeavours. With a poorly conditioned midsection you will tire easily. When your core is well conditioned you will save yourself a lot of energy that would otherwise be wasted trying to keep your body upright. Core stability also aids in posture control, which in turn promotes gait efficiency.

Muscular Power

Muscular power is less important for endurance athletes than for a shot putter for example. However it is still necessary to a certain degree. This has no bearing whatsoever on metabolic processes, it is entirely localised muscular power we are referring to here.

The Program

Ok now that you have a bit of background information on how to design a long distance running program, it is time to get down to business and actually lay it out in a practical and applicable format.

This program will come in three phases as previously discussed. The following are the three phases of a long distance running program. Each phase lasts six weeks. Here we will provide one week worth of workouts for each phase. The idea is that you will complete each workout in succession with a day’s rest before starting the cycle again.

  1. Volume build-up phase. This phase is designed to build up oxygen uptake efficiency and capacity. This is where you will perform increasingly higher volumes of running at near maximal aerobic levels.
  2. Oxygen debt tolerance phase. This phase involves building on your current level of aerobic fitness by upping your anaerobic threshold and hence allowing your volume training to be performed at a faster pace.
  3. Sharpening phase. This phase will allow you to maintain your anaerobic threshold while not compromising your aerobic efficiency.

Phase One

During phase one you should aim to increase your pace each workout without training anaerobically. The goal is to maintain a high-end aerobic state for a specific distance. Each week should also see an increase in training volume of between 2-5%.

Workout One

Run at 70% of maximum anaerobic pace for 40-90 minutes (depending on which week you’re up to)

Workout Two

Strength work, performed at high intensity.

Back squat for 12-12 reps.

Lunges for 15 reps.

Bent over row for 12-12 reps.

Pull-ups/chin-ups for max reps x 1 set.

Overhead press for 12-12 reps. Superset each set with a set of maximum push-ups.

Workout Three

Run at the highest aerobic level you can for 60-120 minutes (depending on the week you are in). Try not to train anaerobically.

Workout Four

Power work.

Tuck jump hurdles, 5 sets of 5.

Squat jumps/broad jumps, 5 sets of 5.

Workout Five

Begin the workout with a brisk walk for 15 minutes then progress to a run at 50% of aerobic capacity for 15 minutes then progress to a run at 75% of aerobic capacity for 15 minutes then progress to a run at 100% for 15 minutes then reverse the workout with each period lasting only five minutes. The time for each period should increase each week to a maximum of 25 minutes each.

Phase Two

During phase two you should increase the volume at your discretion. The volume prescribed is only a guide and should be scaled to meet individual needs.

Workout One

Perform workout one from phase one.

Workout Two

Perform workout two from phase one and…

Set off on a steady run for 15 minutes then begin sprinting at maximum pace for 30-60 seconds. Run steady between sprints for two minutes. Complete a total of 4-5 sprints, try not to get carried away with volume here or you will overtrain.

Workout Three

Perform workout three from phase one except halve the volume. Then…

Run 4-5 hill sprints with three minutes recovery between each.

Workout Four

Perform the power workout from phase one, and…

Run high intensity intervals lasting 2-3 minutes each. Rest 2-3 minutes between intervals. Complete a total of 4-5 intervals. Remember, intensity is the focus here, not volume.

Workout Five

Perform workout five from phase one.

Phase Three

This final phase is to be done during a competition season. Some of the workout from the previous two phases will be repeated, however the anaerobic intervals will be scaled back as well as some of the volume. During this phase it is advised to scale back the training significantly before competitions and take a rest of four days even two and a half weeks.

Workout One

Workout one from phase one.

Workout Two

Workout two from phase one, and…

10 x 50 metre sprints with a very slow jog recovery between intervals.

Workout Three

Workout three from phase one.

Workout Four

Workout four from phase one, and…

5 x 100 metre sprints with a very slow walking recovery between intervals.

Workout Five

Steady state run at 65% of maximum aerobic capacity for 60 minutes.

That concludes the long distance running program based on the Lydiard method. Keep in mind that this is a recommendation and a guide only, it’s not set in stone, because obviously I don’t individually know each and every athlete that will be using this program. Tread carefully and consult myself or a similarly qualified professional for more specific advice and program design.

Also keep in mind that this program is based on long distance running in the realm of 10k, half marathon and marathon. It may need to be scaled for distances longer or shorter.

Return to our home page from long distance running program.

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