When I spoke with legendary running coach Bill Squires earlier this month, I asked him to share three life-long lessons for runners with me. Squires, now 83, still speaks with a straightforward lucidity, but I couldn’t get him to give me three reasons. All he wanted to talk about for our allotted hour was training groups.
If there’s one person who is qualified to dish on that subject, it’s Squires. After all, the Arlington, Mass.-native practically wrote the book on training groups. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, while at the helm of the Greater Boston Track Club, Squires supervised the training of icons such as Bill Rodgers, Greg Meyer, Dick Beardsley, and Bob Hodge—turning them all into world-class runners.
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No matter how much I wanted to steer conversation away from training groups to other topics like the importance of long runs or training on the course you plan to race, I couldn’t get Squires off the topic. In his thick Massachusetts accent, his language growing saltier throughout the chat as proof of his passion, he kept repeating why training groups are so important.
“Listen, you got to understand that when you train in a group, you do things you didn’t think you could do. It’s as simple as that,” Squires says. “You can’t do it alone. No way.”
Squires shared numerous stories that all ended the same way: runners ending their season by achieving what they didn’t believe was possible at the beginning. It was a pack mentality. As a runner’s level of confidence grew with each workout, the group’s collective confidence grew along with it. In Squires’ eyes, there’s no such thing as the loneliness of a long-distance runner. To him, group training was the key ingredient for individual success.
Here are his three keys to fostering collective success:
1. Form sub-groups according to ability.
Squires insists that runners need to train with other people who can push one other to get more out of themselves. “You got to have people all up there elbows to elbows,” he says. “There’s strength in a group like that. It’s the only way you can get better—by getting pushed by people and pushing people.” Squires recalls that before new runners were allowed to join a particular group, they had to complete a weeks-long routine that Squires says “gave them a little base” before they were observed and assigned to one of three sub-groups. And within the three sub-groups, runners could move up (or even back) depending on how they were holding up in workouts.
2. Designate leaders and deputies.
Squires firmly believed in group leadership and delegation. “I always had that one superstar whiz kid in each of my groups,” he recalls. “He was the guy who had the fastest times and everyone drooled over. I made him—that guy—the main leader.” In addition to that one leader, Squires would also deputize two or three co-leaders. “Those other guys wanted to keep up with the leader,” he says of the co-leaders. “And everyone else wanted to keep up with all three of them.”
3. Always keep the groups guessing.
For Squires, there never seemed to be a rigid plan or schedule for a particular training day. “[Arthur] Lydiard once asked me where I got my training ideas from,” Squires recalls with a laugh. “And I told him I dreamed them up. They all came from my head!” Without a doubt, Squires had masterful intuition. He could read his runners. He recalls going into training sessions with a general idea of what he wanted his runners to do, but would deviate depending on how the workout was progressing. “There was always that one new guy who wanted to know exactly what we were doing—how many and for how long. And after a while, he knew not to ask me that,” Squires says with a laugh.
Squires would watch his runners coming around the track and could tell what they needed. “I looked at their arm carriage,” he explains. “A runner’s arms can say a lot about them. I knew from their arms if they were done or if I could give them some more.” Squires says this kind of uncertainty within workouts helped trained his runners mentally for the chaotic dynamic that can often unfold in races. “If a runner’s aware of everything that will be asked of them, they won’t know what they’re really capable of,” he contends. “I was the coach and the ‘how far? and ‘how many more?’ part is my job to know—not theirs.”