It has been a fairly quiet few days up here at the family cottage, overlooking Sawyer’s Cove, halfway up the Maine Coast. I had intended to share this time with Joni, but in the end she couldn’t make the trip, so I’m here alone. And even after accounting for running, making and eating meals, reading the news, starting an odd project here and there, and plenty of sleeping, I still have plenty of time on my hands.
I expected this, and that’s why I brought up several books that I’ve been meaning to read or re-read the last several weeks. These are running books, more specifically, books that primarily address training theory and practice. Some I’ve digested before, like Martin and Coe’s Better Training for Distance Runners and Daniels’ Running Formula. Others have been sitting on my shelf mostly unread for the better part of a year, like Steve Magness’s The Science of Running. The reason I’ve chosen these for my vacation reading material (instead of some detective novel or paperback thriller) is because I’m trying to prepare a couple of presentations to give at a running camp in a few weeks. I figured these books would help me brush up on modern (and not-so-modern) training ideas.
But there’s a nasty side-effect of reading such books: the rude awakening when I discover that what I knew for certain just ain’t so, as the saying goes.
Organizing workouts to boost vVO2 Max? Discredited! R and I paces for training? Passé! Sending skinny runners into the weight room to do numerous lifts at low weights? Wrong-headed! It’s discouraging to think of how I have been promoting practices that seem to have been no good, or at least less effective than I thought. It’s even more discouraging to look further back to the habits of the 1990s and consider how much of what we did then is out of fashion now. (When I first started coaching in 2001, cross country runners still did fifteen minutes of static stretching before every run… I recall those days with the same shudder that I get when I look at an old photo of myself with 1980’s-style facial hair).
But at least I’ve evolved, right?
Yes, I suppose I get credit for at least trying to stay current, and not stubbornly relying forever on the folklore and workouts of my own youth. On the other hand, the realization that I’ve been wrong before and will certainly be wrong again is unsettling, and presents me with a dilemma.
I know that one of the most important functions of a coach is to instill confidence in his or her athletes. Confidence takes many forms, from foundational belief in one’s self-worth, to the general confidence that supports ambitious goal-setting and intelligent risk-taking, to the specific confidence in one’s preparation for an important race. In helping athletes develop these different facets of confidence, and especially the latter one, I find myself sometimes projecting rather more confidence than I, myself, feel.
In the final weeks of the cross country or track seasons, I preach the value of our specific workouts and routines with the conviction of a true believer. I allow no cracks of doubt to appear, and instead focus on repeating how ready we are for the test to come. But deep down, I’m always wondering whether we did the right type of training in the right proportions, and backed off at the right time — not too soon to lose fitness, but not too late to leave us too fatigued for optimal performance.
The worst time in the world to read training books is in the last few weeks of a season. That is NOT when I want to realize that I’ve been using an out-dated training model that emphasizes x, when I should have been having the kids do more y, or even z.
I know that in my own running past, I’ve made the mistake of reading an interesting article about running shortly before an important race, and decided to change something in my training at the last minute. Never mind that I’d developed and executed my training plan over months and months, and that I was within the window of time when the only training effect still open to me was to ruin the work I had already done. No, I’m embarrassed to say that on more than one occasion, I lacked the confidence to ignore the advice I was reading until another day, and instead tried something new in the final weeks of my preparations. It never went well.
‘Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well,’ Shakespeare wrote, and so I did.
But in coaching, I have mostly been able to resist this temptation. I don’t think it’s because I am actually more confident that my training ideas are always right. I think it’s because I’ve realized over the years of working with so many kids, that actual training is ALWAYS imperfect, maybe even counter-productive at times, but the intangibles matter a lot more than the details of the training. When it’s time to perform, the intangibles — the extent to which each athlete feels valued as a person, the chemistry among teammates, the sense that we are in this thing together, and so on — those things rule the day.
This afternoon, I’ll go back and hit the books some more. I expect I’ll cringe a few times as I see research-based critiques of the training methods I’ve most relied on, but I’ll try to learn something that can help me do better this fall and next spring. It’s summer after all, and I can afford to go back to the drawing board to an extent.
But come late October, all of these books will be banished from my sight. I do NOT want to learn anything in October that I can’t learn by watching how my runners are responding to the training I’ve given them. I can afford to be a humble student in July; in three months, I will be the very model of confidence.
And believe me, we will run like the wind.
I really found this to be an enjoyable and refreshing post. As a young collegiate coach, I have also struggled with the questioning of wether or not we’ve done the proper training/workouts during a specific season. Though I think you hit the nail on the head with your line about the intangibles. You see it so many times with kids who perhaps were injured early in the season or summer and might not have the “proper buildup” or do the same workouts as the rest of team. Though at the big end of season meets they still pull through in their respective roles due to camaraderie and values established on the team. Thanks John!
p.s. I’m one of Tyler Andrews friends/former Tufts teammate and now coach at Amherst College. I’ve been following you blog for awhile and it has been great reading all your posts.
Hi Luke, thanks so much for reading and commenting!
I’m glad my perspective resonated with your own experience. I find it really interesting to simultaneously be have some humility about my ability to choose the right training paths for runners, and also project sturdy confidence so that the those runners feel positive and don’t get bogged down in what they DIDN’T do to prepare. It’s a balancing act, for sure!
Best of luck at Amherst (my home town)! I hope all your runners return with a great summer base and an even better attitude for the Fall.