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Exclusive Kara Goucher Interview

Kara Goucher at the 2009 World Championship Marathon. Photo:
Kara Goucher at the 2009 World Championship Marathon. Photo:

The American running superstar talks with Matt Fitzgerald about running by feel.

Kara Goucher is one of the most exciting personalities in American running today. The 31-year-old member of the Portland, Oregon-based Nike Oregon project has run the fastest half marathon in American history (1:06:57), won a World Championships bronze medal at 10,000 meters, and finished third in the New York and Boston marathons.

A few days before Goucher, who is married to fellow elite runner Adam Goucher, ran the World Marathon Championship in Berlin last summer, the Wall Street Journal published an article about her under the title, “Run More, Think Less.” It discussed Goucher and her coach Alberto Salazar’s “run by feel” approach to training and racing. Now, it so happens that I am currently writing a book entitled, RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel. So I thought it would be fun to interview Goucher on the topic of running by feel. And it was.

Matt Fitzgerald: How far in advance do you and Alberto Salazar plan your training, and in how much detail?

Kara Goucher: Honestly, I usually find out the night before that I’m having a track session and then I show up to the track session and I usually find out then what the workout is. In my old situation, when I was training under coach [Mark] Wetmore, we had our workouts laid out about a month ahead of time. But now it’s done on the fly based on how I’m feeling and how I’m responding and things like that.

Does Alberto have more extensive plans that he keeps to himself until the last minute, or does he truly make it up as he goes along?

I think he has a few key, crucial workouts that need to be accomplished before you’re ready to go, but he doesn’t have a concrete day of when it needs to happen, or a specific pace that it has to be. I think he has a few workouts in his head that he thinks you need to do next, and then he waits a day and sees how you feel and then decides, “Okay, tomorrow we’re going to do a [particular] session.”

It’s not that he’s trying to keep it from me; he still doesn’t even really know which workout he’s going to give me until the next morning. And sometimes we’ll adjust it at that point as well based on how I’ve warmed up.

Are any of your workouts truly unscripted?

Kara Goucher winning the 2009 Rock N Roll Chicago 1/2 Marathon. Photo: ASI
Kara Goucher winning the 2009 Rock N Roll Chicago 1/2 Marathon. Photo: ASI

I do like to look at my mileage. If I’m trying to hit 105 [for a week], I like to make sure I hit 105 or 115 or whatever. But that’s just something I like to see by the end of the week. On a day-to-day basis, a lot of times I get out there and I’m just dragging, and I’ll say, “You know what? Today’s going to be a shorter day. But if I really feel like I need to get those 10 miles in, I might run eight-minute pace, which I think a lot of other elite runners would laugh at. But that’s just how I am; I really take my recovery days to recover.

Sometimes I feel great and a recovery day may be 6:30 pace, but other days it may be literally eight-minute pace.

How often do you modify planned workouts based on how your body feels right before, or even after, starting them?

We’re definitely open to making adjustments. I would say that two-thirds of the time everything goes as planned. But as often as one out of every three workouts won’t go as planned. So a couple things will happen. Like when I was getting ready for Berlin I was supposed to do a set of eight by one mile and three-quarters of the way through the first one Alberto said, “Stop. Go jog six miles, take a good long nap, and jog another six miles. We’re going to try again tomorrow.” We just completely stopped it and I did it the next day and had great success.

Sometimes you’re getting close to race time so you need those days of rest on the other end of the workout [so pushing it back is not an option]. When I was getting ready for Boston I was doing a very similar workout—nine by one mile—and I really needed to get that in, but I was really struggling. [Nike Oregon Project coach] Jerry Schumacher was actually monitoring my workout that day, and what we started doing was, first we went down to 1200s to keep the pace, because it was important that I keep the pace. So first we went to 1200s, and then we even went down to 800s. But it was important that day that I ran a certain volume at a certain pace, so I just had to push through it, but we still made these little adjustments along the way so that I could still succeed in the workout even though I was having a tough day.

When it was all said and done, I did get the distance I needed at the pace I needed; it just wasn’t what we thought it was going to be at the beginning.

What feelings do you pay attention to in deciding on the appropriate workout to do on a given day? Is it mostly fatigue and soreness?

Kara Goucher en-route to a third place finish in Boston. Photo:
Kara Goucher en-route to a third place finish in Boston. Photo:

A lot of it is fatigue—the way I’ll feel when I’m warming up. I don’t mind warming up slow, but there are times when I’m already struggling a little bit. I can get a lot of feedback from my warm-up drills—high knees and stuff like that. If I can’t be snappy at all doing high knees and butt kicks—if I’m just plodding, it’s probably not the best idea to try and do something hard.

Do you also pay attention to how your body responds to different types of training and use what you learn to customize your training to fit your needs?

Yeah, I actually train a bit differently than my training partners, just because of the fact that I am more of a workhorse. Some people need to feel fresh and rested. But I handle a heavier load better than some of my teammates. I wasn’t always like that, and it’s something that we have gone to more. I actually feel better after I come off sessions like nine by one mile or a 15-mile tempo run than I do after running quarters [i.e. 400m repeats] and stuff like that. Sure, maybe it’s not as hard physically, but I don’t come off of it well. I feel sore, I get beat up, I don’t feel good. I’d rather go hammer out the miles. So we’ve adjusted to that. And I think it indicates that, although I don’t feel I’ve proven it yet, the marathon is my best event.

Does your training in fact evolve as you learn more about your body, and as you develop as a runner?

It’s totally evolved. When I first got here I did kind of what the other guys were doing. Everything was quite a bit shorter: shorter tempo runs, a lot of 600m breakdowns, and stuff like that. There are still days when we do the same workouts, but it’s become a lot more individualized. I tend to be out there a lot longer than everybody else.

Does your coach act as a check against your temptation to ignore your body’s warning signals?

Absolutely. To reach a certain level it takes a certain amount of hard-headedness. I’ve seen that with my husband as well. Sometimes he will look at me and say, “You should probably take the afternoon off.” And I’ll say, “Are you crazy? I have to get these five miles it!” But at the same time I can look at him and do the same thing. Both of us need that person who can look at us objectively.

Alberto wants me to train as hard as I can possibly train. But he knows there is that threshold [of overtraining]. But I just want to be good so bad, and I don’t ever want to feel that I am slacking, so I will keep hitting my head against the wall. So for me it’s essential that I have these people in Alberto and Adam that I trust to tell me, “No, you’re being crazy. You need to back off today.”

Do you also use emotions such as motivation, confidence, and enjoyment to guide your training decisions?

When I’m struggling physically, my confidence is going down. It’s all interrelated for me. When I’m feeling fatigued, then I start to doubt myself, then I start to struggle in workouts—it’s like this spiral effect. I think keeping track of your mood and your appetite—all these things are very important.

Your body is so amazing, the way it works. There are so many different areas to pull information from. It’s not just, “I couldn’t hit this pace today.” It’s also, “I’ve been feeling kind of funky lately. My head’s been in the clouds.” Well, that’s probably an indication that you’re worn out.

What is the role of objective performance feedback in your training?

Kara Goucher running at the 2009 USA Track and Field Championships. Photo:
Kara Goucher running at the 2009 USA Track and Field Championships. Photo:

All those things are still very important. I can’t just say, “Oh, I felt tired, so I just skipped this chunk of training,” and then all of a sudden I look at my logbook and I only ran 80 miles a week for the last three weeks. You have to do a certain amount of work to compete with the best people in the world. So I think it’s more about little changes that you make throughout the week—maybe pushing a workout back a day or modifying a workout.

One of my goals leading into Berlin was to run 120 miles a week for three or four weeks. That was important, because even though I was tired a lot, that was that extra step that needed to happen. There is a dose of reality in everything. If you can’t do workouts that predict that you can run a certain time, then you’re probably not going to run that time. So those things do matter; it’s just a matter of being sane about it and letting them fall in when it’s appropriate.

Alberto is known for embracing innovations such as antigravity treadmills. But on the other hand, there are some very “old-school” elements of the way he trains his runners. Does he have an overarching philosophy that encompasses both new and old ways of doing things? Is it just about doing what works whether it’s futuristic or ancient?

Yeah, that was one funny thing about that Wall Street Journal article. They said that we don’t have technology; we just throw it away. We were laughing about that because we have the Alter-G, we have everything. Whenever anything new comes along we get a bunch of them and we try it out. We are not opposed to technology, but we do believe the bottom line is that you have to work hard.

We have tried so many things, and we will continue to try things. It’s just the way we are. The bottom line is that 90 percent of it is running. It’s just old-school mileage and running hard. But there is that other part: the cooling vests and the Alter-G and all that. What if that gave you a half a percent? In a marathon, who knows?

The capacity to tolerate suffering is such a big part of running. How do you develop that capacity?

I think it’s important to just be honest about it. I think denial just sets you up to fail. It’s unrealistic to think, “Oh, well, I’m in such good shape and I’ve tapered, It’s going to feel awesome.” No, it’s not. It’s going to hurt. You have to accept, “Okay, it’s going to come.” The pain is going to set in. Then you’re more prepared. And then you think, “Well, what am I going to do when that happens?” You have to make a choice: is it worth it? I think it’s worth it.

Even if you’re running a PR, it’s going to be hard, because you’re pushing your body further than you ever have before. It’s just accepting that there are going to be those times when it hurts. I think it’s just important to be aware that those doubts are going to come and be ready to tell yourself, “No, I’m okay, I’ve been here before.” I’ll think back to all of the things that I have done in my training that have prepared me for this moment, and I look for all those small glimmers of hope that keep me going. “It hurts, but I am running a great pace.” “Maybe I am tired, but I still have control over my body.”

You work with a sports psychologist. Does that work include efforts to develop your mind-body connection?

That’s a big part of it: just being able to really listen to yourself. For me it’s about being able to focus on all the positive things. When I’m running a marathon or another race or even a hard training session and I’m hurting, I pick out all the good things. When you’re running, there are a million things telling you you can’t do it. Your foot hurts, it’s windy, someone else looks great. I try to find those few positive things that tell me I really can and focus on those. And it takes knowing yourself and knowing your body and being comfortable with that.

And of course it’s not as though you’re trying to fool yourself with happy talk. You’re looking for real, valid information that you can do it.

Yeah, right. You think back on workouts that you’ve really done, not workouts you hoped to have done. “I’ve been in this place before. Even though I’m tired, I still have good knee lift.” Little things like that, that are real and that you know about yourself.

Your main competition comes from East Africa, where a run-by-feel approach is predominant. Do you use their approach as an example to emulate in any way?

My favorite races are the big races with international fields, because they race purely on the way they’re feeling. Sure, there’s some strategy involved. It’s not like they’re running mindlessly. But for the most part they’re running by feel. I just enjoy that so much. It’s always important to do what works for you and to know what your strengths are, but I think that sometimes we obsess too much about running a certain time, or making a qualification or setting a record that it can hurt us.

But you know what’s really important? I would much rather win the Boston Marathon and run 2:32 or 2:33 than run 2:20 and be fifth. Sometimes it’s about the actual race, and competition. And I admire that about [the African runners]. Yes, sometimes [Tirunesh] Dibaba and [Meseret] Defar go after records, but in the championship races you don’t see them race like that. They’re racing strictly to win.

When I was in the Olympic final in the 5K, where we ran 15:40, they didn’t care, because it was about winning that medal. I really appreciate that, and I think that’s maybe why I’ve been able to do well in championship races—because I feel like I can appreciate that.