Long Slow Distance

Arthur Newton (1983-1959) was an English long distance runner who, although only starting at 38 years of age, quickly rose to prominense after winning the Comrades Marathon in 1921.  Hosted in South Africa this is now the worlds oldest and longest ultramarathon race and is 55 miles long. 1

What makes his win and subsequent running career interesting is that Newton eschewed the training methods of the day, which were solidly in the “no pain, no gain” camp.  Instead, he focused on easy runs at a comfortable pace while preparing for a race.  His view on training can be summed up in the following rules: 2

  1. Practice as frequently as you can
  2. Never allow yourself to approach real exhaustion

In that era of foot racing it was common practice for runners to only train for the 6 weeks leading up to the race.  Newton’s ideas were revolutionary as he trained year round, but made sure to stay as fresh as possible every day and only pushed himself during actual races.

The 60’s and LSD

In 1969 Joe Henderson published the seminal book The Humane Way to Train.  In it he coins the term Long Slow Distance, while giving credit to Newton as the Father of LSD.  The small book gets an incredible amount of backlash as the message is so contrary to popular thinking at the time.  Run slower, race faster.

Henderson showcases six runners, himself included, and discusses their training methods and results.  And those results are impressive, with Boston Marathon wins and pack leading marathon times.  These all achieved through liberal application of the two points made by Arthur Newton back in the 30’s.

Long Slow Distance in Life

It’s said that nothing worth doing is easy but often we push too far in the opposite direction, going for broke then burning out and becoming disillusioned in the process.  Eventually this leads us to quit the very thing we enjoyed doing in the first place.

Instead, we can apply Newtons principles to any goal we wish to achieve.

Practice as frequently as you can – This is both a mindset and a prescription for action.

When you acknowledge the fact that your goals are going to take some time and settle in to do the work, you will be in the right frame of mind.  So much emphasis is placed today on overnight sensations and easy wins, but it is the things that we work hardest for that we value the most.

This also calls for you to examine your goals and to not attempt to do too much at any one time.  Consistently applying yourself towards a goal or result takes up a substantial part of your day.  Having too many things going on at one time will result in you flaming out on all of them.

Never allow yourself to approach exhaustion – Newtons advice related to running injuries and he recognized that if you push yourself too hard and get injured, the resulting time away from training would put your progress back to a worse condition than you started.  Pavel Tsatouline, the Mad Russian, has a similar approach to kettlebell training.  His Strong and Sinister program calls for daily kettlebell training, but never to failure.  This slow and steady approach results in impressive cumulative gains.

This approach is about capitalizing on the incremental gains we make every day.  We love stories where people push themselves to the limit in order to accomplish something.  Less discussed but more impressive is the staying power of somebody who shows up every day, puts in the work, then puts it aside until the next day.

To improve we must practice.  Whether writing or running if you put in too much time too soon you’ll eventually burn yourself out.  This has the net result of hindering your development and overall gains.

Base and Sharpening Work

Tom Osler was one of the runners showcased in Henderson’s book; an early proponent of the LSD philosophy.  He himself went on to write one of the classics on distance running and he remains active today.

In his book The Conditioning of Distance Runners he lays out the idea of Base and Sharpening work.  Base conditioning is achieved through the consistent application of long slow distance, while sharpening work is performed more infrequently while leading up to race day.

We can use this same theory to achieve our goals in life as well.  Build upon previous successes and do the base work consistently, but sharpen up and challenge yourself on occasion as well.  By performing progressively harder efforts in your activity of choice you will see just how much you’ve improved over time.

Write 10,000 words in a day or run that marathon.  Show yourself what you are capable of and push your boundaries.  People overestimate what they can do in a day, but underestimate what they can accomplish in a year.  It is the cumulative result of putting in the work day after day that propels us to greatness.

Develop a Long Slow Distance mindset and you’ll be amazed at what you can get done.

Show 2 footnotes

  1.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comrades_Marathon
  2. Races and Training.  Newton.  1949

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