There was a year when I actively courted runners, invited them to train with my little group, and put across the effort to let them know I had a vested interest in their success. That sort of intensity leads to a coach emotionally tying themself to every success and failure. More emotional trauma...when an athlete makes to 'move on' to another coach, to stop training with the group, or worse, to quit running altogether.
There's only so much deep blue funk one can stow in the trunk. After a while, Suzanne felt the need to provide some wifely advice, 'just worry about the folks who are still here.'
Now when the occasional phone call/e-mail comes I provide a thumbnail sketch of what I'm about, what I do, when and where I can be found, and so on. Even when the initial feeling-out period is lengthy when a runner comes out for the first time the first workout doesn't feel like a first date. It feels more like a blind date.
Thank goodness for the Internet. Just like a potential courtship merits a quick background check to ensure no unpleasant surprises, I appreciate the opportunity to chat up the athlete via e-mail or telephone. I try to do a little homework; look for recent run performances and trends which give a hint what this person wants out of a coaching arrangement. This way the first session can be spent observing the athlete go through a baseline workout, rather than 'getting to know you' questions. Not unlike those occasional unguarded moments after the first adult beverage has kicked in, athletes often reveal important stuff later on in the first meeting.
Sometimes everyone goes home happy. Sometimes, like real-world dates, the first encounter doesn't quite synch as perfectly as both parties initially hoped.
After a couple of months of e-mail chat an athlete came out for the first time, just recently. I had a few recent race results to give baseline expectation, and I looked forward to pairing with an athlete around their ability level. The new athlete showed twenty minutes into the warm-up, when I asked them to do a quick mile jog. They then went off onto a grass field near the track without telling me a thing. So far, this is not going well.
The equivalent of your date texting friends between drink service and appetizer arrival.
After the first set, I assigned a set of 350-meter repeats at a little under threshhold pace. The athlete complained of some hamstring discomfort, so I modified the effort. Then they asked to run the opposite direction on the track, to which I acquiesced. Finally, I decided it prudent to shut the workout down. After an easy quarter jog, I asked if there were any possible causes for the hamstring discomfort.
Unguarded moment: The athlete ran a trail half-marathon a week earlier, on a training volume which included thirty miles of running, with an aggressive schedule of weight training, core work, Pilates and stretching each week.
Unless the efforts are of very-high quality (less likely!) a training volume of thirty miles a week is a little on the light side for a good (comfortable!) half marathon experience. The additional weight training, core, Pilates, and stretching...what Dr. Jack Daniels describes in his Running Formula as 'support systems,' may "produce fewer direct benefits" in run performance, "but may mean the difference between success and failure." Athletes who lack flexibility, muscle strength, or need a little more mental/psychological toughness may benefit from these types of 'support system' work. Daniels warns, however, that adding a load of training just to fill time gaps in the week, rather than satisfy known deficiencies is unproductive to the overall training program. There is such a thing as too much strength training, stretching, or cross-training. What's the goal? If the goal is to become a better runner and the exercise regimen is not improving -- or worse, causing you injury -- you're probably better off doing something else...like taking some down time after a race.
The idea of recovery after a half-marathon -- no running for every hour raced, no hard running for every mile raced -- had never crossed this particular athlete's mind.
To top it off, the athlete then said they preferred longer repeats during workouts, to which I replied it would take a few weeks for us to get more comfortable with each other. I have a four-to-six week cycle of workouts I consider a base for future training. Shorter repeats allow a runner to learn to go fast and stay relaxed. Short fast efforts, over time, allow the runner to do longer, fast efforts.
I have two words for anyone who thinks short repeats at speed are only good for short racing distances. Emil Zatopek.
If running repeats up to 400 meters, at varied intensities, was good enough for Olympic medals in the 5,000 meters (twice), 10,000 meters (twice), and the marathon, then who am I to argue?
I'm not saying short repeats are the only training necessary to be a decent distance runner. Overdistance builds basic physiological and mental adaptations to the task at hand; tempo runs and easy running also have their place, but sometimes we focus on a particular distance or intensity, not because we knew our limiters, but because it reinforces what we already do well. It makes us feel good about our running.
Sometimes, run training isn't about feeling good at that particular moment in time. When jogging (easy running) was described as being as simple as brushing ones' teeth, (Olympic medalist and coach) Bill Dellinger replied, "true, but training is like having your teeth cleaned for an hour, every day."
I walked out from the track to my car as the athlete went to go do a few extra miles on the trail. At that point I was certain who would lead and who would follow in the dance between coach and athlete.
Whether the tune will change...it's too soon to tell.
Michael Bowen is a training specialist/running coach who lives and trains in the Pensacola, FL area. He works with runners of all ability levels, both remotely and in-person. He and his wife, Suzanne, travel frequently to New Orleans to participate in and support races and triathlons. He also writes a blog, "If I Were Your Coach..."