My Approach to Coaching Runners

*Each Sunday night I send an email Newsletter to each of the athletes I coach who train with me via 3-month programs.  A few of my "Tips for the Week" recently revolved around my main service, which is the mental approach to training and racing.  The following paragraphs offer some insight into how I approach being a running coach.

Scheduling and Prioritization

These 2 terms are synonymous to me.  Scheduling is prioritization.  Each week of a runner's program, there are workouts highlighted in green.  These are the key workouts that I want them to hit no matter what.  When scheduling gets tight, always put the priority on key workouts.  If you value your race performance and/or improving your fitness, then make these the priority.  I want the athletes I coach to look forward to these workouts, so I encourage them to let me know if there are motivational issues that need to be addressed.  Adults know how to shuffle their days around as they need to, but my objective is to ensure they are always relatively fresh for the track/speed workouts because then proper pacing, or intensity, can be learned more easily.

Structure & Accountability

The training programs are designed with the general assumption that the athlete will hit every workout on the program, knowing that OFF days and recovery weeks are already built into the program.  I bring up this point to remind folks that recovery weeks and OFF days are designed with the assumption that you'll need them at specific points in your training.  However, when you miss workouts, or a string of workouts, that will most likely alter the program.  Depending on what workouts you miss and how that coincides with your race/vacation schedule, there may be a major overhaul to your program.  This is the major difference between following an online program vs. having a personal coach.  A coach can adjust on the fly and account for reality.  I understand no program is set in stone and that's a phrase I use myself.  So, we have to account for missed workouts.

The other side of the spectrum is that I also assume an athlete I coach won't overdo it with the training.  This is my reminder not to go above and beyond the call of duty.  The practical implications are that you may do too much, too soon.  This is a relative variable, not an absolute variable.  In other words, an hour run doesn't affect each of you the same way.  Generally, I assume that a runner won't add any extra running into the program that had not already discussed.  I tend not to be an overly conservative coach, but I lean toward the conservative side based on the fact we are not professional athletes and we are built with more (specific) limitations than our immortal running counterparts.  Bottom line: You should not slack on your end by always doing the bare minimum (or less), nor on the other hand do I think a runner should try to be competitive against the training program by doing more than what is designed.  Weekly recaps are a great way for me and each runner to have this conversation.

Runners and athletes invest in DC Running Coach for many, many reasons.  Many people sign up with DCRC to "have accountability and structure in the training."  Accountability is a sometimes too strong of a word to me, but I get the point.  You feel more apt to hit the workouts and stay dedicated to training (and live an active, healthy lifestyle) if you have a mentor and/or someone helping to guide you.  The programs that a runner receives from me in the first few phases have more structure in them compared to the programs they get from me after about a year or more of training with me.  As I mentioned above, if a runner misses a workout (or two) for a given week, then that typically shifts the priority and/or focus of the workouts for the next week (or even within that week).  The point?  I need runners to check in with me each week.  Therein lies the accountability.  I need a constant pulse on the training.  In terms of valuable feedback to a coach, completing a workout and missing a workout offers the same value.

Are the athletes I coach allowed to improvise when they need to or be spontaneous?  Absolutely!  Remember that freedom of choice and flexibility are the most powerful tools in a training program.  However, my definition of "significant deviations" from the program are usually what would cause an athlete to "draw outside the lines" and risk a nagging injury.  I'm here to guide the training, which to me means keeping a healthy balance between offering freedom of choice in the training and keeping the training between the lines, or not flying off the rails.  So, there you have the looser definition of the word "accountability" that I prefer. 

Finally, related to prioritization, there is room to be more selfish in your life once you get closer to your peak race and really want to ensure you feel great during race week.  To help you understand what that means and to give you peace of mind in doing so, here is the link/blog I'll be sending to my runners a few times in the Fall:

Train hard!



Dealing With Injury

There are some DC Running Coach runners dealing with nagging injuries, but almost no major setbacks.  Certainly, preventive medicine is the best medicine, like strength training and a strong off-season dedicated to correcting problem areas.  If an injury does set in, my goal is to take a conservative approach so that it doesn't linger.  I don't believe in training "tough", I want to train smart.  Taking 1 - 4 weeks off from running is sometimes what is needed. It's a short-term loss for a long-term gain.  In the grand scheme of things, that short time frame of not running is so minimal compared to the great things you'll accomplish once you're back running consistently at 100%.  However, I must say that the mentality of "losing fitness" during a 1-4 week layoff isn't warranted.  The Olympians might "lose fitness" in such a short time frame.  Why?  Because they are the pinnacle of human fitness.  The ceiling effect offers the teaching point here.  We are not Olympians, so you have to abandon the "losing fitness" mentality, it isn't warranted and it will only do harm to your psyche.  

There is much more to write about on this topic, but I'll keep it focused.  

Aqua-running is your best alternative when you're not cleared to run.  The research shows it's better than other modes of cross-training in terms of keeping your run fitness up, but aqua-running has to be done as intervals, or high-intensity, not jogging in the water.  And I'm typically referring to deep-water running, not in the shallow end of the pool, although the latter is permissible depending on the nature of the injury. This is something else the research tells us.  The other main variable that must be considered with pool running is that the mechanics need to resemble running, not a high-knee (up-down) action.  Otherwise, the muscular system isn't trained the same way and the carryover effects are lost. 

Having been coaching with DCRC since 2006, I would say that 25% of injuries are non-running related (bike accidents, softball game, etc), 25% are new injuries stemming from some underlying muscular or neuromuscular issue, and 50% are recurring injuries. Hence, my strong plug for physical therapy, strength training and embracing recovery periods during training, no matter how long they have to be.  If you're in this game for the long haul, then it's easier to embrace this holistic approach to training. Take care of your bodies.  If the problem area "feels better," that is different than it being 100%.  Be sure to respect the difference.  You know your bodies better than I do, but I offer more emotional un-attachment than you regarding your training. So, consistent dialogue between athlete and coach is key in keeping the balance between what you know about yourself and what I know about yourself. :)  I also am empathetic (not just sympathetic) to anyone who has to miss enjoyable run workouts.

Train hard (and smart)!




As the weather turns from pseudo-spring to actual-spring, the motivation to be spend more time outside typically increases in most individuals.  For those that don't flinch in the face of non-ideal weather, there is a greater sense of pride in doing workouts outside.  Being dedicated to your training despite non-ideal weather is a dose of pride.  When you're the only one outside on those kinds of days, it should boost your ego and your sense of determination and motivation.  Having great weather should not be your only motivator, but nor should training through non-great weather be your only source of pride.  Look back on what you've accomplished now that we're about halfway through 2013.  I hope the athletes I coach feel the same way as I do that it should only be labeled as "successful", regardless of what conditions have unfolded.  This is 100% tied into goal setting.  

DC Running Coach runners are hitting PRs at most races, or at least course PRs.  They've most likely added new modes of training into their routines and/or changed their running form for the better. They've most likely solved some of the riddles of their health and states of their bodies.  Some of them are experiencing a nagging injury right now, but it hasn't sidelined them for the previous 6 months, nor will it for the remainder of the year, and they've already been training/racing well despite it.  If you're a runner, always remember that most people in your age group in the general population don't do what you do.  Have pride in your dedication and commitment to goals (but make sure those goals are set correctly).  Have pride in your dedication to an active, healthy lifestyle.  I'm just here to help folks go faster and/or farther with, and to add some structure and accountability in the grand scheme of things.  

I ran my first race in 1.5 years last weekend, since my "retirement" and I have to be honest that the athletes I coach inspired me to dust off my brand new racing shoes.  Will I be out there racing more now?  I don't know yet.  I leave that decision up to how well I pick up playing guitar.  It doesn't matter because as a coach I want to instill in my clients the same sense of pride I have in being active virtually every day ("sweat once per day", according to Lululemon).  You can take the view that "life is short", or you can take the Jethro Tull view that "life is a long song".  Whichever way you view it, be proud about something you do in life.  Running is an easy choice, again, because most people can't do it or won't do it—phrased alternatively, they can't stick to a healthy lifestyle (at least not in the U.S.).  Running is also not as easy as other modes of exercise, which is related to the previous sentence.  

George Carlin taught us that pride should be attached to things we've worked to achieve, and to not attach pride as easily to conditions that were given to us, like being half-Irish on this Mother's Day.  Mom is wonderful, but I attach more pride to my athletic/running accomplishments than I do to being born half-Irish.

Stay active and be proud about it.



Pushing Yourself

The phrase "push yourself" can vary in meaning from person to person, and can even be a vague set of instructions from a coach or trainer.  Does it refer to a given workout, applied to that single moment, or is it a way of life, or both?  A practical definition of "pushing yourself" that I like is "Sweat once per day," which is the mantra of Lululemon.  Other than scheduled rest days and recovery weeks, I agree with that mantra wholeheartedly. 

I admire anyone who can persevere on a long-term basis in terms of staying true to the goals they have set.  I'm proud of the athletes who I coach because of the way they push themselves as evidenced by their motivation on a day-to-day basis, such as heading out the door for early morning workouts in the dark (and often cold conditions), or staying committed to the workouts after a long, stressful day at the office.  And so I appreciate when runners show up to the track ready to put in hard work even when they don't have their A-game that day.  I'm proud of them for prioritizing their health and a physically active lifestyle.  These are good practical definitions of "pushing yourself."

In the grand scheme of things, when considering the year as a whole, I'm less concerned about the data/performance of each workout as I am the day-to-day logistics of how an athlete stays committed to a goal.  As a side note, commitment is easier when the task in enjoyable, so keep it fun and keep yourself entertained!  

What does "pushing yourself" mean?  It means being motivated, which means being committed to put in the hard work when it's time do to so.  If you want to call this mental toughness then so be it.  Mental toughness has as much to do with your dedication to training on a day-to-day basis as it does with running fast at the end of a race.  I never want an athlete I coach to be consumed by their running/training lifestyle, but there is a mentally healthy, performance-related benefit to being committed to holistic approach of training (massage, PT, ST, XT, stretching, sleeping well, etc) on a year-round basis.

It's my job to make sure runners don't push themselves outside of their boundaries too soon or too often, so "train smarter, not harder" is another good mantra.  As you enter your peak race season, make sure you are honest with yourself about how hard you are pushing yourself! 

Train hard!