The 4 Lessons My Coach Tried to Teach Me (But I just Wouldn’t Listen)
A few weeks ago I was invited back to college to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of our cross country team’s first ever Ivy League Championship. It was awesome to reconnect with old teammates and reminisce about our college training days.
At one point we all gathered around our former coach and recollected our memorable performances and reflected on our stupid training mistakes.
Interestingly, not one of us said I wish we had trained harder. But we all wished we had trained smarter.
Then my coach something interesting that really hit home. “I tried to tell you guys and you just wouldn’t listen. I’d already made these same mistakes and tried to make sure you didn’t repeat them.” For context, my college coach was John Gregorek, a two-time Olympian and 3:51 miler.
At first I thought not taking advantage of my coach’s wisdom was a result of still being in my college rebellious years. But as I reflected further, I realized it’s the same issue I often encounter with the runners I coach.
I now find myself in John’s shoes, trying to tell the athletes I coach, “I’ve been there and I’ve done that”.
Sometimes they listen, sometimes they don’t.
In hopes that you can learn from some of my experiences, here’s what I would change if I could go back in time and avoid some of my biggest training mistakes.
Don’t be a slave to mileage
Like many runners, I was a slave to the numbers in my training log. I was more focused on increasing miles per week and recording impressive workouts than I was with the outcome of that training – racing well.
The focus and my metrics were completely backwards.
I can remember waking up the day after hard races and being so sore I could barely walk down the stairs. The smart decision would have been to hit the pool or bike for an easy cross training session to deliver blood, oxygen and nutrients to my damaged muscles and then some stretching, massage and icing. Instead, I laced up the shoes and put in 10 miles. God forbid I come up 10 miles short on my weekly mileage.
Missing one easy 10-miler would have done absolutely nothing to deter my fitness. But, it would have allowed me to recover faster and return to quality miles sooner.
The same theory applies to trying to run through injuries. When I felt my achilles tug or my calf start to spasm, rather than worrying about how my mileage was going to look for that week and trying to run through it, I should have immediately backed off and focused on prehab and rehab. As a result, rather than missing an entire week or two of training, which was always the result, I would have missed a day or two and been back to quality training without the slightest hiccup in fitness.
Adhere to the purpose of workouts
I wanted every training day to be faster. If my coach assigned me a tempo run, I was disappointed if I didn’t run faster than scheduled.
In the days before GPS watches, we ran the same courses every day and I had every run recorded (and checkpoints along the way) to compare to previous days. A good day was running faster than I ever had before.
As a result, I wasn’t getting the full value from workouts (a threshold run is not targeting your threshold if it’s at race pace) and I wasn’t utilizing easy days as intended (to recover and build aerobic endurance).
It was wasted training.
In today’s training environment with apps, watches and training platforms designed to measure and record every waking (and sleeping) data point, the temptation to always want to beat previous runs is more difficult to ignore than ever.
Unfortunately, using tracking devices to be faster in training every day is backwards. Instead, we should use that data to adhere to the purpose of each run to extract maximum value from that session.
Rather than being excited you ran your fastest easy day ever, use your watch to slow yourself down when you see the pace creeping faster. Instead of seeing if you can beat your previous tempo run pace, challenge yourself to be more consistent with your splits and spend more time in your threshold zone.
Do the right type of strength work
I was notorious for spending hours in the gym after training runs. Unfortunately, most of that time was wasted doing the wrong type of strength work.
Not only was I just making myself more tired than I needed to be without any direct return on investment to my racing fitness, but I was neglecting work I could have been doing to make me faster and healthier.
- I should have traded those useless, light weight and high rep shoulder shrugs for running-specific plyometrics designed to develop explosive power and speed (a major weakness).
- Rather than performing ineffective hamstring curls or countless reps on the adductor machine (both have been proven to have no value to runners), I should have focused on fixing my specific weaknesses and form flaws (in my case I have a glute that doesn’t fire correctly, which results in a limp) with targeted exercises (like this one for hip extension).
Not only would I have avoided a lot of wasted time in the gym, I would have run faster.
Roll with the punches
You’re going to have bad days – it’s an unavoidable part of training. Olympians, World Champions and World Record holders have them too.
I, like many runners, let those bad days get me down and shake my confidence. Looking back at my old training logs you’d think I was suffering from severe depression. Having a bad workout on Friday would ruin my entire weekend.
Not only is this not productive from a training standpoint, it’s not a healthy or fun way to approach running.
Relaxing about my training would have made me less nervous at races and allowed me to enjoy the process more. Just as important, it would have prevented negative thoughts from creeping in my head and causing ruts in training and racing when I couldn’t get positive momentum going.
Heed the lessons I should have learned from my coach and you can avoid these simple, yet significant mistakes with your own training.
Now, if I could only finish my plans on that flux capacitor…..