So what if you’ve never exercised before, but now you want to (or you’re told you “have” to)? What do you do if you’ve had a layoff because of injury or illness and you want to build back. How do you manage this? How do you build aerobic capacity or regain it?

With all the emphasis on High Intensity Interval Training (which I enjoy and have written about here), one might get the idea that there’s no other way to begin to exercise than to dive in, work out till you throw up and, if you survive, repeat that. (Not to be indelicate but it’s often said that one knows they’re doing “Tabata intervals” correctly when they are on the verge of throwing up!).

Perhaps you’ve tried that. Perhaps you became so sore you couldn’t move for several days and were reluctant to try it again? Or you realized that you can’t do a “high intensity” workout more than once or twice per week. But your doctor wants you to exercise daily? Well you might be tempted to write the doctor off as “not being up with the latest exercise research” (who isn’t unless one is in the field full time?), but before you do that you might want to take another look a the situation. After all the people with the longest lifespans per the “Blue Zone” book are walking on average 5 to 7 miles per day or 10,000 to 14,000 steps or so in pedometer speak! So maybe more capacity, in general, is better than we’ve given it credit for!

If that’s your case, you’ll want to read Arthur Lydiard.

One of the guys at the Facebook Group “HeavyHands User Group” (a great group of thinking practitioners of exercise), shared this document: “Jogging the Lydiard Way” . (The document is hosted at the Lydiard Foundation.)

At first glance I wondered why I should read this… I don’t like “jogging”… and this writing is OLD… Lydiard wrote in the 70’s. With my share of intellectual snobbery (I confess) I was sure that something this old had surely been improved upon.

But passages like this caught my attention:

“…I recall in 1962, speaking to a group of men in Hawera, a small town in New Zealand, about jogging and I made this statement that I believed that anyone who can walk can run and if they really feel inclined, they could run 20 miles and this applied to old people even in their 70s.

After my talk, an old fellow by the name of Wills came to me and said that he was interested in running. However, he was 74 years of age and had had 3 coronary attacks. He was a big man of 280 pounds, obese and looked completely out of condition. He also asked if I believed that he could run 20 miles.

I was a little doubtful when I looked at him, but I told him go and see his doctor and explain just what he had in mind). I said that as long as he did not have a diseased heart and had recovered from his previous attacks, I doubted whether the doctor would be against him trying.

Well, Mr. Wills started jogging, with his doctor’s consent, and the first time that he tried to run for his 15 minutes, he only got as far as 30 yards and had to walk for a time before trotting along again. After a few weeks, he was able to run for the full 15 minutes and was, soon after this, running much longer time.

In 6 months from the day that he started jogging, Mr. Wills actually ran 20 miles without stopping. Besides him on push cycles rode members of the local newspapers – the hardest work they had done in years, just to see what would happen. Maybe they could see the headlines in the Daily: “Joggers Dies on Road”. However, Mr. Wills handled his 20 miles in fine style and, today, 8 years later, is a healthy and vigorous man of 82 years of age who, 3 years ago, rode a racing push cycle around a New Zealand mountain called Mr. Egmont, a distance of 100 miles on Christmas morning for a workout. On his arrival back, on being asked by the local press, what his reactions were to the ride; he remarked that it wasn’t any problem except the traffic worried him. Mr. Wills was a man who started from behind scratch by having had coronary attacks that he was fortunate enough to have survived…”

We hear a lot about excellent programs such as “Couch to 5K” because of their success in getting people to walk, jog, or run their first 5k adventure. This man – following Lydiard’s advice – went from “couch to 20 miles” in six months! At age 74!

How did he do it?

While you will want to read Lydiard’s book for yourself (it’s only 50 pages), he basically taught something we’ve forgotten… to “train not strain” and “have something left over” after the workout.

Like the person who shared the document, I’d say this logic applies to jogging, bicycling, heavy hand walking, kettlebell swinging… almost any physical endeavor one wishes to build aerobic capacity for.

Here are my takeways… feel free to add your own in the comments:

1. Forget prescriptions in books or even by experts about what you “should” be able to do. You must start where you are and build from there.

2. Start with 15 minutes daily preferably. Don’t do anything “Till you drop”. Ease off enough of your activity to complete your time.

3. Resist the temptations to compete or “go faster” until you have invested plenty of time in “going slow”… keep going easy but go longer instead of faster at first. Later in the book, Lydiard has some tables to help people progress from 15 minutes of jogging per day to jogging up to an hour at a time. But he never says “in 15 minutes you should cover ____ miles”. Go whatever speed allows you to complete the time whether jogging or heavy handing. If trying to do kettlebell swings for time, use the weight that lets you finish the time. If rowing, go for the time too.

Lydiard’s theories are adaptable for any capacity building exercise approach.

Personally I have two temptations to fight regularly… to overexert myself or to do nothing at all. Yielding to the temptation to over exert one day often leads to the temptation to do nothing the next (or for subsequent) days. Just today I woke up with some crazy plan to over exert myself instead of trying to gradually improve what I’d done yesterday… thankfully by the time I started to work out I was “cured” of that notion!

I’d heard this term in another context but it seems to apply here… “go slow to go fast”. In this arena of physical capacity building it means to not over extend yourself… to build gradually and incrementally. One does not even need to always work out the same amount of time daily.

For example, After one builds up to an average of 30 minutes, some days will be hour long workouts, and the next a mere 15 minutes to “keep moving”. But overall one’s aim is to gradually progress while not being forced to stop by going at too high an intensity. Over time (and probably less time than you may think) gradual improvements produce amazing results … like the man who went from “couch to 20 miles” in 6 months (and then a 100 mile bike course)! He does caution though to not work out less than every other day if one wishes to progress. Personally I’m aiming for 5 days using his concepts (though I’m not a jogger!)

So when you’ve downloaded the book, read it for yourself and leave your takeaways in the comments.