DIARY: Learning from coaching

I am entering an exciting period not just as a runner but as a coach: For most of my “stable of runners”, show-time is fast approaching and races will be coming fast and hard throughout the season. We’ve had an encouraging start with medals, podium finishes, personal bests and a few wins to boot but going into the season what’s more important is what we have all learned. I talk a lot about training, so today I’ll talk a bit about coaching.

Do good results validate the Lydiard system?

Not as I see it, my own training and that of my group do not provide a test of the Lydiard system (it has stood its test long ago) but rather of our ability to apply it practically and this is a shared effort: My ability as a coach to interpret and communicate the approach and my athletes’ ability to follow and adapt to it.

Training, even with a largely perfect system, remains an art because the application to reality is where you can mess it up. The coach can ruin things by making the wrong adjustments both before and during the training plan commences and by focusing on the wrong details at the wrong time. The athlete can mess it up by misapplying the training sessions, ignoring correct advice, feeding wrong information to the coach, or not doing the work.

How does pressure on a coach compare to that of an athlete?

This varies wildly. I don’t get nervous before most races, only the important ones, so generally following an athlete you have invested time and passion in is more nerve-wrecking. But there’s a responsibility on a coach to try and be calm and collected as well, so if I’m present at a race I would see this as part of my duties.

For important races, I think nothing beats competing yourself, the only advantage the competitor has is the ability to run out the adrenaline once the gun goes.

Greatest learnings?

The Lydiard system is demanding to modern athletes. We are not as strong as our immediate predecessors, our diets are poorer, our lifestyles less ideal and with every generation that passes we lose more of the inherent toughness our species was bred with.

This is not irreversible, but it does mean that especially the seven day week programme needs to be very carefully dosed. I have runners having excellent results on five days per week as this almost ensure no injury breaks.

As Lydiard warned himself the unique combination of high volume and relatively solid speeds causes an increased risk of shin-splints with it. This is a fairly easy injury to manage, but can turn serious. Our group saw a few incidents of this that we thankfully contained before they became too serious but the learning would be that even with the stronger athlete’s it pays to be conservative for as long as possible.

What about the patience required?

This is the most difficult part for the athletes and the coach: Really I should say to everyone who comes to me “Give me three years and I’ll make you better than you ever thought you could be.” But three years is a long time and most people are in a hurry. There are no shortcuts, however, and Snell took three years to mature and Arthur called him the fastest maturing athlete he had.

The Lydiard system builds upon itself so every cycle tends to be better than the first. The greatest difference between a person following the Lydiard system and one that follows the complex system is that you should see a greater continuous improvement over time from the former but with a slower development early on.

But runners I coach don’t have to wait three years, the truth is the system works magic very quickly. Aerobic fitness increases hugely very quickly and the ability to handle and recover from workloads likewise. It will make you feel like a different person.

Hardness

My greatest joy comes from the testament of runners who barely contemplated a long run before suddenly running sub-90 minute half-marathon in training and enjoying it. It comes from people saying they miles pass faster because they feel like “moving”. I like hearing this because it reflects the ethos Lydiard was looking for (leaving me to hope we understand his vision) and because it reflects an almost military hardness and attitude to running as a piece of “work” which is done day by day.

Our society today always looks for the “easy way”. We do intervals because at least when we run fast we don’t run fast for too long. When we do long runs, we run them slow because then at least it’s not too taxing.

So the early stages are the hardest?

For our forebears, eight hours of hard labour, was a day’s work. Eight hours hunting or eight hours shovelling cement was probably tougher than your average ultra. Jogging serves a useful purpose in recovery and in bringing very unfit people to a state of reasonable fitness. It has no other place in the serious runners armoury. You know you have people of the right mind-set and competitive spirit, when they persevere in the early stages of the program.

This is where most people face the greatest challenges both in terms of organising their time and surviving the mileage. It takes both the right mental attitude and the wisdom to back off when needed least lose a few weeks to nurse an injury.

Injuries, did you encounter many?

The program is unforgiving on niggling injuries, there is no two ways around that, so one definite lesson is not to let anyone embark on it until fully healed and having completed a period of easy jogging.

The faster aerobic running builds a strength far beyond what slow aerobic jogging can provide, but if something is already half-broken it will likely not take it.

What about the later stages of training?

Firstly, these are the hardest on the coach, because this is where you have the most details to remember. Every runner has different goals, a different performance level and a different tolerance to anaerobic exercise. One mistake at this stage of the season can lead down a vicious spiral of overtraining.

For the athlete it is the most frustrating as they feel they have more and more energy, yet they are running less and less. I try to describe this to them as “being a tiger on a leash”. This is how you should feel by the time race day comes along.

During the pre-season races, you also have to work closely with the athlete to try and help them not run all out in the early season races. This is very hard for competitive runners to do, yet it is an important skill to learn. Personally, I try to encourage this by giving conservative targets to hit, explaining the purpose of the pre-season race in the grander scheme of things, and choosing races with slower courses so that people do not chase personal bests yet.

Anything else?

I could write books about just these first three months! Being a coach is incredibly instructive, and you learn something new about training and about people in almost every interaction. Everyone is a different personality, and this is the greatest challenge. You have to be all things to all people without compromising the ethos of the system unnecessarily.

Where the great coaches, like Arthur and Bill Bowerman, had an innate advantage was that they seemed larger than life. When they walked into the room, they commanded your respect. When they told you to jump, you did not ask why.

Yet, modern coaching and modern athletes are generally more dialogue driven. Our head-coach in Crusaders shared with me his philosophy that he believes the coaches’ greatest calling is to make himself redundant and I share this view. Initially you are a teacher, then a mentor and finally just a trusted consultant and advisor.

No one can understand the athlete’s body better than the athlete, so where you can contribute most as a coach is by making the training system ingrained in the athlete’s mind so they can go away and make informed decisions for themselves in each day’s training.

Should you coach?

If you have the time and inclination and if you are confident you can make the right decisions, then yes. Go on a training course, read a lot of books, watch a lot of racing, and reflect on your own running a lot. Work on your people skills (this never ends) and find out what tools you can build to make contact with your runners as easy as possible.

If you want to provide more than a basic training plan for people, coaching is a hobby that can get quite time-consuming even though people will need very different levels of attention, so be sure you can commit. If you can’t, you’ll only leave yourself open later for guilt that an athlete did less well than they could have because you didn’t have time to make the best decisions.

One way to deal with this is to be sure to empower the athletes early on with enough knowledge and information that they can take as much responsibility themselves for their day-to-day decisions and only use you for the “big ones”. Even then, you are only human, and will make mistakes. I try to live by grandfather’s dictum that “everyone can make a mistake once, only a fool makes it twice.” I don’t always succeed, but it’s something to aspire to.

Finally, have a clear idea of why you are doing what you are doing.  I came into coaching because of the pain I felt of having wasted good years of my career experimenting wrongly with my training and setting myself back. I looked around, found the safest and most proven approach (Lydiard’s) and decided to learn as much about it as possible and allow no distractions.

Only when I realised that Lydiard himself perfected it over nine years of trial and error did it dawn on me that the greatest problem is that there is too much “noise” out there. If you change programs all the time and take different advice all the time, you’ll never get consistency and you’ll never perfect the basic principles to your own needs.

I made the decision then to not just perfect it for myself but try to help others do the same so that they would not waste the time I had wasted doing it. An athletic career can be a fragile thing and when I looked around and saw a runner with great potential but little to show for it, it left me with a sense of unfairness for most of these runners work as hard as any. So to me, that is my mission: To allow people to be the best they can be and not waste their precious time. If you want to get into coaching, find something equally strong to motivate and drive you and ensure that you always put your athlete’s welfare and well-being above all other concerns.

Comments