Barry Magee: Olympic Medalist and the “Lydiard of Today”

Last month, I wrote about meeting Peter Snell in Dallas before I departed for the year. I recently got the chance to meet one of his good friends and training partners, Barry Magee, who was also a Lydiard-trained athlete and a major player in the 1960’s Kiwi running dominance.


Best known for his bronze medal in the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome, Barry also earned a number of major race titles, stadium records, and World #1 rankings during his career. He won the 1960 Fukuoka Marathon and the 1961 World Games 10K (also breaking Zatopek’s stadium record), was part of the 1961 World Record 4×1 mile relay (along with Snell, Halberg and Philpot), was ranked 1st in the world in the 10K and 2nd in the 5K (1961), and represented New Zealand at 2 Olympic and 2 Commonwealth Games in events ranging from the 5K to the marathon.

Still actively involved in the sport today, Barry now coaches 40-50 runners throughout New Zealand as well as a few abroad. He’s been coaching for 40 years (full-time for the past 14 years) and absolutely loves what he does, sometimes so much that his wife has to drag him away.

I recently spent a couple hours chatting with him in his Auckland home, and here are some take-away points from our conversation.

Barry’s Training

  • Barry was 5x the New Zealand National 10k Champion and 2x the Marathon Champion. Despite that and his other accomplishments, he considers himself the lesser one of Lydiard’s boys.
  • Barry and Halberg were the first 2 to do Lydiard’s complete training program.
  • A typical day for Barry would be 10 miles in the morning and 20x400m in 68 seconds (200 jog recovery) in the evening.
  • Barry’s 3 secrets of success: training, training, training. Training is the key to everything.
  • Snell and Halberg specialized, but Barry tried all distance events.
  • He was a negative-splitter– felt twice as good at the finish so he tried to float for as long as possible and then go. It was also much more fun to feel good the whole way and finish strong.
  • Barry raced Murray Halberg around 100 times and lost 95 of them, but he went out to win EVERY time and always believed he could. He never ran for second.
  • Like Snell, Barry worked 50 hours a week (as a grocer) while training, finding it challenging and exciting.
  • The marathon is the most satisfying and special event to Barry– such a dramatic event because one mistake and you’re gone.
  • At age 54, Barry ran the Christchurch marathon in 2:44 (56th at the halfway point, 26th at the finish).
  • Barry says New Zealand “punched above its weight,” referring to New Zealand’s small population but big presence in international running in the 60’s and 70’s.
  • There’s a terrible dropout rate in running now between 19-21 years old in New Zealand, but in Barry’s day, he was just messing around until that time (he only ran a few times a week until he turned 17).
  • Barry’s principle in life and running: “With God, all things are possible” (featured on a big sign hanging in his living room)

Barry’s Coaching

  • 99% of how Barry coaches is Lydiard-style, only 1% is Barry. I asked him what that 1% was and he said that everything is not in Lyriard’s books so he has to fill in the little gaps. Barry once asked Lyriard why he left some stuff out (like running 10k in the mornings) and Lydiard said, “Well they should know that.”
  • Barry’s athletes take 1) calcium + magnesium, 2) iron, 3) B12 or B complex (energy-producing), 4) 1000ml/day of Vitamin C (helps restore your body in half the time).
  • Although God put all vitamins and minerals in fruits, vegetables, oats, etc., we can’t get everything from our food anymore. From 1950-2000, a study showed that all fruits and veggies lost 15-60% of their vitamins and minerals because the soil is becoming more depleted.
  • Barry tells his athletes to “train, don’t strain.”
  • Gym work satisfies some people, but Barry thinks it won’t make them better.
  • Barry thinks you should have a balanced life and not just run. “Live life and make running a bonus.” Don’t live to run. Running only is a very small circle to live in.

Arthur Lydiard

  • Lyriard said it takes 3-10 years to make a champion, and felt that following his program for at least 3 winters and 3 summers was ideal.
  • Lyriard’s athletes took 6 months to peak for 1 race.
  • In Lydiard’s pyramid (Periodization of Training), the goal is to get the cardiorespiratory system working as efficiently as possible.
    Phase 1: conditioning (10 weeks for marathoners, 8 for distance runners)
    Phase 2: hills
    Phase 3: repetitions and time trials
    Phase 4: sharpening up and racing (although they’d race earlier, this would be the key racing period)
  • The biggest secret of Lydiard training was pure conditioning.
  • Barry never had speed, just stamina; if you build that up enough, you become tireless and can just continue on floating.
  • Lydiard was a steak and vegetable fan and didn’t want to go to Korea to coach because he’d have to mainly live off fish, so he sent Barry over there to teach the Lydiard way. Korea went on to win gold and silver medals in the next Olympics.
  • Barry was Lydiard’s spiritual guru and said his funeral.
  • No one knows how Lydiard knew everything, but he could lecture and teach to doctors, experts, etc. and stun them in their own areas.
  • Lydiard spent 5 years trying things out on himself. He ran up to 250 miles per week in experimentation and determined that 100mpw for men was good, but the composition and pyramid had to be perfect.
  • Compared to other successful training programs at the time, Lydiard’s was relatively low volume. Paavo trained 6 hours a day to achieve greatness, Zatopek trained 6.5 hours a day because he heard what Nurmi was doing and upped that a bit, and Lydiard only had his guys train 1-2 hours a day (around 100mpw).
  • Lydiard wouldn’t have white sugar in his house but liked honey. He had his athletes consume 200g of glucose or honey in the 48 hours before a race that was 10k or longer; it turns into glucose and stays in body for the later stages of the race.
  • Lydiard thought the best iron was in fillet steaks.
  • Barry said it was impossible to be coached by Lydiard and not be mentally strong. There were no wimps or fools in his camp, and they were made to be mentally undefeatable. If someone pulled out of a race, they’d be so scared of Lydiard that they wouldn’t call him for weeks.
  • Lydiard wouldn’t tolerate people questioning his proven methods– he’s credited with 18 Olympic golds.
  • Lydiard and Barry don’t discourage supplementary training if you have time, as long as it doesn’t take away from training. However, none of Lydiard’s guys went to a gym.
  • Lydiard’s athletes respected and trusted him to the utmost. He coached 6 Olympians (3 Olympic medalists) in his small group and when he said you could do something, you know you could.
  • To Barry, Lydiard was much more than a coach.

I concluded the interview by asking Barry the same 2 questions that I asked Peter Snell. Here they are:

It was really neat talking to one of New Zealand’s most iconic distance runners in his home, and learning that Barry’s trust and belief in Lydiard’s training was so deep that he changed virtually none of it in the way that he coaches today, despite continual advancements in sports science and technology. I appreciate Barry welcoming me into his home and opening up to me about his remarkable 50+ year involvement in athletics.

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