I think we can all look back at our time in school and remember a few teachers that really made a mark on our lives; one of mine was Professor Watts at University of Illinois. I had her for several English classes but my first with her was the one that I’ll always remember. Prof Watts paired us up for our mid-term project and I was with a guy named Tim. We were working on a paper focusing on T.S. Elliot’s famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” We met several times and turned in the paper. Next class Prof Watts asked me to stay after to talk. She told me to re-do the paper but this time by myself. I was beyond mad; mostly because Tim got off with an B and I had to re-do it for a grade. After spending the weekend feeling sorry for myself; I began to work on the paper at 9pm Sunday night to turn in Monday morning. I stayed up for hours pouring my heart into it and looking back; it was the best paper I ever wrote. Monday morning I turned it in with bags under my eyes to Prof Watts; she just smiled.
Two years later, a month before I graduated I stopped into her office to say bye. We had a good conversation. Before I left, I asked her why she made me re-do that paper but not Tim. “Michael, one thing you will learn if you have not already is that no two students are the same; so you have to find different ways to help them learn. I’ve been at this a long time and can spot different writing styles pretty easy; Tim gave his all to that paper, you did not. While being a full time student, Tim was also working 30 hours a week as a janitor and living at home with his sick mother. He was giving his all to every aspect of his life. You had more to give. You can not push every student the same.”
One of the best things I love about coaching is finding what works for an individual. I do not nor will ever believe in a one size fits all program; does not work. A coach needs to build a specific training program for the athlete and the event they want to run. I have never been interested in having a conventional training; I only care about what works. Sometimes what will work best for an athlete is not following the norm and reading their mind and body to find the winning formula. I had a lady join our team in 2015; prior to being on our squad she ran the same workout each and every day; got on the treadmill and every mile got a tad faster. This told me much about her. As the weeks went by I noticed Lauren was coming to workouts with a smile on her face and leaving workouts knowing she could have done one more. So after every two week cycle; I upped her volume. I normally do not like having first year athletes increase too much too soon but Lauren Kerjes wasn’t a normal first year athlete. Towards the end of the summer she finished her Sunday long run at 96 miles happy and healthy. Sure as death and taxes; Lauren sent me her weekly summery at 8pm stating that she ran 100 that week. As mad as I was that she went out that afternoon so she could get to 100; it told me how much she is loving the process of long aerobic miles. She got to 100 miles/week quicker than any female I have ever coached and was rewarded by running a 2:44 debut marathon and qualifying for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.
Until recently when my wife got me a tablet; I used to do all my workouts from memory and e-mailed them out on my phone. Now that I am more organized; I have everyone separated in two groups; not based on times or gender but on their strengths. Within those groups I’ll have everyone cover different bases every two weeks but the way they do it is different. One of my guys has a very stressful job and is in grad school; running needs to be fun for him (plus he hates cross training) so his mix is plenty of miles at a moderate to medium effort, hill strides for strength and intervals 1-2 times a month depending on his “A” race; doing this he has stayed happy, healthy and cut several minutes off his half marathon PR to now a blazing 1:04. In the other group I have a lady who joined our crew last year and has had some foot issues in the past. To train her I use more triathlon methodology than running to keep her healthy. I originally wanted her to have her fall “A” race be Indy but she had a work conflict so ran Naperville instead. It’s a smaller race and was a little worried she’d be solo. During the race someone told me that Alyssa Mae stopped by the high school (around mile 9); I was worried something happened. She crossed the line at 1:16; a new PR. I asked Alyssa why she stopped, very calmly answered “had to go to the bathroom.”
We take our easy days easy and our hard days hard. Very boring but it works. Consistency, patience and effort; nothing more. I have had a few over the years not get the results they want right away, their eyes wander, and they go off. Everybody’s looking for the secret; that one thing “everyone is doing”. People are always saying there’s an easier way. Let me tell you—there’s no easier way. My athletes train hard; but it’s not without thought. There’s no magic session. It’s about how you put it together. We just try to do everything right so no stone is left unturned and success is inevitable . Everybody’s wondering about the workouts. That’s the easy stuff. Any idiot can buy a book with 50 workouts. It’s the way you put them within the training cycle. It kills me when I see coaches just give this blanket generic advice out or use one elite runner to show everyone what they should be doing; most likely some runners will try it with no success or injury. Why? Everyone is different and you have to mold the training advice to the specific event they are training and the person who is training for it. I saw a webcast the other day where a coach was saying how ALL runners NEED to lift 2-3 days a week and in some instances; lift before a hard workout. The majority of the audience is recreational, training for highly aerobic events and with about 4-5 hours (maybe) a week to train; so you want them to spend 60-90 min a week/30% of their time doing anaerobic activity for an aerobic event? If the audience is a bunch of 800m runners; no problem….but a bunch of 5k-Marathon runners?
The plans I write for runners are built around the individual; if it’s unorthodox who cares; we roll with it. What matters on race day is that the training was tailored to the runner and that you attacked it with consistency, will and self-belief.
I have always been an admirer of Emil Zatopek and Ron Clarke; two of the greatest distance runners of all-time. Zatopek won gold in the ’52 Olympics in the 5k, 10k and Marathon; something that most likely will never be done again. Clarke was the first man ever to break 13 minutes for 3 miles and also held the world record in the 5k and 10k. The two best runners of their time and you could not pick two different training styles. Zatopek was famous for saying “I already know how to run slow; I want to run fast” so he was on the track 5 days a week doing intervals. Clarke never used a stopwatch and very rarely did track work; everyday started easy and by the end of his runs no one could keep up. They trained very differently but used unbelievable consistency to the program they believed to work for them.
We don’t work on what is scientifically right or wrong; we work on to find out what works for you. That’s what I’m after. Professor Watts taught me well.