“All my search for the perfect training system convinced me of something else: The essence of athletics is the pleasure you can get out of it.”
— Arthur Lydiard, 1962
Lydiard, as I continue sharing more of the chapter, Key to Conditioning, explains what being ‘fit’ really means. I’ve gotten to this place several times in my running career and understand exactly what he is saying. I’ll let him explain it better than I ever could…
I make this point now before you being to think that having to run a hundred miles a week can’t possibly be in the least bit enjoyable. I actually came to enjoy knocking myself about because I came to grips with myself so frequently and at such a challenging physical and mental level. There is a personal internal conflict to be fought, but fighting it is not a bitter battle. It is a simple unalloyed joy to tackle yourself on the battlefield of your own physical wellbeing and come out the victor. There are no war wounds, no scars, only the honours you award yourself for personal physical achievement. Most men – and this includes a lot of athletes – go through life without ever knowing what it is like to be really physically fit. They may think they are fit but by real fitness I mean the state of body conditioning in which a sedentary office worker can go out and do a hard day’s physical labour and never feel tired. That is the state my athletes are in. Their physical reactions, their heart conditions, their powers of recovery are such that they don’t get tired in the sense that they cannot drag one foot after another and think only of collapsing into bed. To them, twenty-mile runs are sheer pleasure and they will quite cheerfully follow such a run with a day’s concreting in their own or someone else’s home or with a session of coaching and running with a school of young runners. This is not because they are exceptionally fit in the sense that they are super muscle men but because, as anyone can learn to do, they can run twenty miles easily and enjoy it physically and mentally – and feel ninety percent better for it afterwards.
There are jokes and laughter in training with these boys, not a grim, gasping grind with an eye on the watch and the mind concentrating on forcing the body to do the mind’s bidding. Certainly they train hard, and everything they do has resolute purpose, but it is relaxed effort because they like it. They finish without fatigue because a progressive schedule, without calling for any excess of speed, has conditioned their bodies to cope with these distances easily. They are tuned and toned to a peak that few men attain and even fewer fully appreciate.
I don’t say there is no physical discomfort in first attaining this fitness. There is. But it is short-lived and, once a man is fit on distance running, it is a condition he won’t willingly surrender. I have known men to stop training in the belief that they have got past it, but the minute they get that slovenly feeling that comes with loss of condition they can’t get their road shoes back on fast enough. Fit men develop a pride in themselves that transcends the moderate effort they are required to make to maintain that fitness. Many of my school of runners now don’t run in the hope that they will win races. They run because they want to stay fit in later life and because they enjoy the social atmosphere and freedom of body and spirit experienced in bush runs, road runs, and jogs along the beaches.