L.S.D. Guru of Japan

Eriko Asai, left, with the late Coach Isao Sasaki

Feb. 3, 2022 — When I came back from my one-year stay in New Zealand with Arthur Lydiard to Japan, I did a quick translation of his “Lydiard’s Athletic Training” in Japanese, hand-written, and asked my friend who was a junior high school teacher to make a dozen or so copies on cheap brownish paper and sent them to various high school and college T&F team coaches…and two corporate professional team coaches. Interestingly, I never heard a word from high school and college coaches; but I got rather enthusiastic response from those two corporate team coaches. One was then almost a rock-star figure in Japan, Team S&B’s Kiyoshi Nakamura who coached Toshihiko Seko — he sent me a hand-written post card and suggested me to come up to Tokyo to visit him some day. The other was Isao Sasaki, the head coach of Team NEC (Nippon Electronics Corp.).

Coach Sasaki was fast rising star coach in Japan at the time. I came back to Japan from my year stay in New Zealand with Arthur Lydiard and “Arthur’s Boys” in November of 1984. The first marathon I saw back in Japan, merely a few weeks upon my return, was Tokyo Women’s Marathon won by East German’s Katrin Dörre. A tiny Japanese woman, Eriko Asai, finished second in the time of 2:33:43, which at the time was the second fastest time by Japanese female. She was being coached almost one-on-one base by Coach Sasaki on the basis of relatively new concept of marathon training in Japan — L.S.D. (=Long Slow Distance). His training method hit the spotlight when 2 other (male) runners he coached, Fumiaki Abe and Hiroshi Sunaga, took 1–2 finish at 1985 Lake Biwa Marathon, both bettering Frank Shorter’s course record since 1973. His book, “If You Run Slow, You’ll Race Fast”, gained almost cult-like followers and has been re-printed and re-edited by Eriko Asai and still going strong today. Interestingly, I thought about sending him this Lydiard booklet because I noticed Asai was doing “the Lydiard lacing” (there was a big picture of her in the Japanese T&F magazine; big and clear enough to be able to see her lacing) when she ran Tokyo Marathon!! “He must be interested in Lydiard,” I thought. I still remember the time when he called me at my parents’ house in April 1985; my mother, who answered the call, was staring at me while I was talking to him. After I hang up, she asked me which “Sasaki” it was. “Coach Sasaki at Team NEC,” I said. “Which NEC?” she said. I was supposed to be just being a bum in New Zealand, taking a break from university in America. Why in the world this famous marathon coach is calling me!!

Coach Sasaki, left, and Eriko Asai at their NEC office in May 1985

It was May 1985 when I took a bullet train to go to Tokyo and visited both Coach Nakamura as well as Coach Sasaki. Coach Nakamura treated me with sushi. Coach Sasaki treated me with special soft-shell turtle soup; a very special delicacy in Japan. Sasaki showed me the copy of my hand-written “Lydiard’s Athletic Training” that I sent to him. “I was just thinking about how to go about with Eriko’s training, leading up to 1988 Seoul Olympics…,” Coach Sasaki said. “Then this came in the mail…. It was like a message from God. ‘Get back to the fundamentals…!’” Sasaki was a decent runner at university. He went on to join one of the corporate teams but he was always injured or sick, trying too hard, training too much and too fast all the time…, and never excelled as an athlete. Then he came across the concept of Long Slow Distance. This is the method to “build foundation” upon which you can do more race-specific training; the second half of which so many people seem to forget. His book begins with this quote: “I heard some American coach once said that ‘if you can’t run 3-miles in an hour, your chance of becoming an elite runner is slim…’. I completely agree with this. But this quote is most probably made for a beginning runner in mind. But my point is: ‘If you can’t run AS SLOW AS 3-miles in an hour, your chance of becoming an elite runner is slim…”.

Eriko Asai winning the 1994 Nagoya Women’s Marathon in 2:30:30 at the age of 34

Of course, they weren’t quite running “20-minutes-per-mile pace (3-miles in an hour)” in training… Eriko Asai, with a PR of 2:28:22, was actually running at….8-minute/km pace. That’s about 12:45–13:00 minute-per-mile pace!!! Abe and Sunaga were running a bit faster; about 11:00–11:30 per-mile pace. As we all know, however, Arthur Lydiard didn’t like the idea of L.S.D. He recommended higher level of aerobic running. But what annoyed him is actually the fact many people labeled Lydiard’s “Marathon Conditioning” of 100-miles-a-week as L.S.D. It wasn’t. But what he actually meant is that “running at higher aerobic effort would yield better results for time spent training”. He — and his runners — all had a full-time job and time they could spend training was limited. He hated wasting time. But if you have time — like Japanese corporate team runners who often train 3-times-a-day — , by all means, you CAN run slow; as Lydiard used to always said: “You cannot run too slowly”!! Naturally the results show; you CAN employ L.S.D. type training and succeed. For Team Sasaki/Asai, 2-hour is standard L.S.D. run. Besides L.S.D. runs, they often put extra weights in the backpack, put it on their back and went for 3–5 hour long hiking over rugged country course. They popularized the term: “leg-building” workout.

Nearly 9 years after I met him, Coach Sasaki was diagnosed with a bad case of skin cancer in the spring of 1994. With that, Coach Sasaki and Erik Asai decided to get married in September that year. They went to Honolulu Marathon for their honeymoon. But their married life didn't last long; Coach Sasaki passed away in March 1995. He was only 52-years-old. Now in her 60s, Eriko continues to run marathons (around 4-hours); published 2 more books on Long Slow Distance training method, continues the legacy of her coach/husband. Of course, Coach Sasaki was not the first to preach Long Slow Distance. Joe Henderson, and, of course, Germany’s Dr. Ernst van Aaken come to mind…. I believe there was an article somewhere (of L.S.D.) titled: “The Humane Way to Train”! When Lydiard first explained his runners ran 100-miles-a-week, most leading experts of distance running those days said “Arthur’s Boys” were super-human to be able to handle such volume! But what they didn’t take into consideration is, while they were so used to hard, fast interval-type training, Lydiard’s runners were running those mega-mileage aerobically. In other words, slow or relatively fast, they were still doing well within themselves. “If you want to run fast on the track…,” Lydiard always said, “then start running slow on the road and country…”. As Coach Sasaki and Eriko Asai had proved, this concept still works. — Nobby Hashizume

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