Advice about running is easy to come by. Whether it’s how you should train, what you should eat, or what shoes to wear, we are bombarded with articles, videos, and social media posts by people more than willing to share their opinion.
While most advice is well-intentioned, it’s rare to have a piece break through the noise and make a meaningful difference. But every so often, there is a suggestion or instruction that hits home and changes your entire view on running.
We asked several top coaches what advice has stuck with them and changed their coaching for the better. Read on for their answers and suggestions on how to apply these essential truths to your running.
Greg McMillan—Coach, Founder of McMillan Running
Do the training, so you can do the training, so you can finally do the training necessary for your goal.
It’s no surprise that hanging around with legendary coach Arthur Lydiard leads to some great coaching advice. Greg McMillan was touring with Lydiard on his final U.S. tour when Lydiard impressed upon him the importance of preparing properly for the race-specific portion of a training cycle.
McMillan says, “It was all about raising the quality of the training in the race-specific phase. The better prepared an athlete is to do the race-specific training in the last few weeks before a big race, the better she will do.”
Knowing the final phase of training is the most important is a freeing concept for McMillan. “Coaches and athletes are often in a rush,” he says. “They want to be as fit as they can be now.” But the training can be more gradual and more patient when the full emphasis is placed just on the race-specific training.
That allows McMillan to be more flexible to work around an athlete’s life when writing a training schedule. It also lets him emphasize the essential foundational fitness the athlete needs to be working on early in the training cycle, rather than trying to do race-specific training throughout. This approach has mental benefits as well, according to McMillan, who says the mind has trouble focusing 100% on intense training for too long.
The key thing to remember when it comes to your own training, is that, “Everything before the race-specific phase is preparation,” McMillan says. So it’s important to be patient, build your fitness over time, and only step into more intense training when you’re really ready for it.
Tim Broe—Head Coach, Saucony Freedom Track Club
Don’t be afraid to run fast in practice.
As a professional runner, Tim Broe was coached by Ron Warhurst, the former University of Michigan coach. Although Broe specialized in the steeplechase and 5,000 meters, Warhurst’s background coaching middle distance runners meant that there was plenty of fast speed work during training.
Broe says that speed was always a part of his training year-round, even including fast 200’s during the cross country season, which they effectively used as Broe’s “base” training for the summer track season.
That kind of speed work wasn’t something Broe had done before training with Warhurst, and the emphasis on speed has stuck with Broe as he has transitioned into coaching. Broe says not only does he like to mix in fast speed work throughout the training cycle, he also likes to include it during otherwise “moderate” track workouts. For example, he likes to finish practice off with two to four fast 300’s at the end of tempo workouts during the competitive season.
Even though you often hear the advice to not push too hard during a workout to avoid leaving the race on the track, Broe says this kind of short, fast speed work is vital to include in your training. “You can’t expect to race fast if you haven’t practiced it, and it’s important to get used to being on the edge of blowing up as you hit the 100-meters-to-go mark,” Broe says.
Amy Begley—Head Coach, Atlanta Track Club
Give yourself 18 months to make improvements with a new coaching relationship.
Working with post-collegiate runners on the Atlanta Track Club Elite team, Amy Begley knows the challenges that come with coaching someone who is making a change from a college coach they have trained with for several years. “It takes time for them to learn the program and for you to learn about them as an athlete,” Begley says.
To help with that transition, Begley says she keeps in mind a piece of advice that John McDonnell gave her husband when he was running at Arkansas. McDonnell would tell all his athletes that it would take 18 months to see improvements with a new coaching relationship.
Knowing that athletes aren’t expecting immediate success with a new program takes the pressure off both the coaches and the athletes. Begley says, “As coaches, we can stick to our program and let it have time to work while creating confidence with the athletes.”
Having that patience is key for runners of all abilities, Begley says. Even if you are self-coached, you’ll need the same patience when starting to follow a new training plan or philosophy.
Andrew Kastor—Head Coach, Mammoth Track Club
Andrew Kastor was already an established and experienced coach in 2008, but that was when he says he received his best coaching advice. His wife, Deena Kastor, was coming off a broken foot, so he traveled with her to meet with legendary sprint coach Dan Pfaff to make sure that her stride mechanics were correct as she started back running.
Kastor says that after showing Deena the drills he wanted her to do, Pfaff left them to work with another group of athletes across the track. Kastor says he and Deena began talking about different topics and losing focus on the drills, when from across the track they heard Pfaff yell, “Deena! With purpose!”
That short instruction hit a nerve with Kastor and has stuck with him ever since. “I tell my athletes all the time that the exercises need to be done ‘with purpose,’” Kastor says. Drills and exercises require focus to ensure they are being executed properly, and the mental attention helps wire the actions in the brain to improve movement patterns. “With purpose” is a reminder Kastor finds his runners often need when warming up for workouts, even as professionals.
The “with purpose” advice relates to the mental side of the actual workout as well. Hard physical effort also requires focus and it’s important to avoid things like checking your cell phone between reps and other outside distractions when you should be working to get the most out of the workout.
Overall, he says that “with purpose” is a reminder to him to focus on what you’re doing with your training and why—and that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing purposefully.
Ben Rosario—Head Coach, Northern Arizona Elite
If all we ever did was tempo runs, we would have done just as well.
Although Ben Rosario coaches elite athletes with the Northern Arizona Elite team, he believes you don’t often need a notebook full of complicated workouts.
That belief was reinforced for him while listening to a talk at a coaching clinic by Bob Larsen. Larsen emphasized the fact that there was no better workout than a tempo run. Larsen’s advice was in line with his own personal experience working with athletes. “Getting affirmation from one of our sport’s most successful coaches of all time is always nice,” Rosario says.
“If I am ever in doubt about what to do for a given workout, I am probably going to do some sort of tempo run or a workout in that lactate threshold zone,” Rosario says. That’s where you get the most “bang for your buck” in training whether you are an elite or recreational runner.
It’s important to remember that training doesn’t have to be complicated. “When in doubt, Rosario says. “Do a tempo run!”