The Winged Foot Interview

There is a new running site run by Alex Harrison called The Winged Foot, with which I agreed to do an interview. I thought I would share the interview here as well. Their questions are in italics and my answers follow. Hope you enjoy it.

Many runners know you from the book Running with the Buffaloes, but may be unaware of your current career as a coach and writer. Can you share briefly your path after graduation?

I earned my masters in Kinesiology and Applied Physiology and then took a coaching job as the Head Track and Cross Country coach at Pratt Community College is Pratt, Kansas. After two years at Pratt I then moved back to Boulder and worked for six years at the University of Colorado as the middle distance coach and recruiting coordinator and assistant cross country coach. From there I moved on to coaching post collegiate athletes. I coached post collegiate athletes in Boulder for three years and three different athletes won national titles.

What are some of the biggest coaching lessons you learned from your time with Mark Wetmore? How do you differ from him as a coach?

Obviously the focus on the aerobic metabolism and building the aerobic metabolism throughout the athlete’s career. A focus on the weekly long run. Basically all of the things someone would glean from reading Running with the Buffaloes. One difference is that I put more emphasis on doing preventive work and ancillary work. My rationale for this work is that you if you can stay injury free that leads to constancy in training and consistency in training almost always leads to PRs. That said, I think my approach to coaching is often misunderstood or misrepresented. It’s not like the runners I’ve coached don’t run. Brent Vaughn had several weeks in the 120’s before he won the US Cross Country title last year. It’s just that he also did hours and hours of ancillary work each week as well. I think people see the videos of the General Strength and Mobility (GSM) and assume that’s the majority of the work, when in reality the majority of the time the athlete is running.

Besides Wetmore, who are you biggest coaching influences?

Mike Smith at Kansas State has been a great mentor and someone from whom I’ve learned a great deal. Some of my core beliefs come for Mike. For instance, he is the person who explained to me that metabolic changes occur faster than structural changes. Said another way, your heart and lunges gain fitness before your bones, ligaments and tendons have the chance to adapt. Or if we use a car analogy, your engine can get bigger before your chassis has a chance to become strong enough to handle it. With this view of training it logically follows that athletes should spend considerable time doing non-running activities to strengthen their body so they can handle more running or more intensity (or both more running and more intensity). I think this is why some talented athletes habitually get stress fractures or other over-use injuries – they spend time cross training and keep building their engine during the their injury, when they could be strengthening their body to handle their talented metabolic system.

I’m also indebted to people like Dan Pfaff and Vern Gambetta who have taken the time to answer questions and to help me understanding how distance running can be view as part of sound track and field coaching, something that I think is often lost in the distance community. I’ve also been fortunate to have Dr. Robert Chapman‘s number on my cell phone for several years and being able to call him when I have a question about exercise physiology or altitude training has been a big help. Finally, I’m an avid listener of the Canadian Coaching Centre’s podcasts and I’ve learning a great deal listening to the world’s best coaches discuss their approach to working with athletes.

You are obviously well-versed in training physiology with your advanced degree. How important do you feel it is to have a strong scientific background as a coach?

Well, given that I spent a decent amount of money getting a masters and a ton of time studying, I should probably say that it’s critical, but to be honest, I think the fact that I went through a rigorous graduate program was more important than the content at that I actually learned. I’ll give you an example. I took a class taught by the chair of the Kinesiology and Applied Physiology department, Dr. Moore, that was focused completely on cardiac myocytes (i.e. heart muscle cells). Now, I never think about how cardiac myocytes contract when I’m coaching, but I have no doubt that I gained some critical thinking skills that I’ve used in coaching. So the fact that even though I had taken exercise physiology and neuromuscular kinesiology and biomechanics as an undergraduate, none of those classes forced you to think critically and creatively, where as graduate level courses did. My first year in grad school I was still on the team and competing (and working as a teaching assistant) so I was a bit overwhelmed, but that second year I really enjoyed both the coursework as well as my graduate project, which was a qualitative analysis with two Sports Psychology professors.

But back to the question, I think a background in exercise physiology is obviously a bonus for a distance coach, yet I think critical thinking and creativity (and thus problem solving) are more important.

When I started working with middle distance runners at CU I wished I had remembered more of the content I learned as an undergraduate, specifically how different muscle fiber types fire and how the nervous system works with the muscular system.

All that being said, some of the best coaches come from other backgrounds. I’m a big fan of sprint coach Vince Anderson and he’s a trained architect. Architecture is about problem solving, but so is coaching. For instance, over the course of seven or ten or fourteen days, a coach working with a 1,500m runners needs to get different types of work in, while also allowing for recovery so that adaptation can occur. For me, I felt like my mental capacity during graduate school expanded so that when I finally had the chance to coach I was better able to come up with solutions for problems (rather than copying other coaches training design).

I don’t know if I’m answering your question or not. I’m really glad I had the opportunity to get a graduate degree, but my point is that if someone has the opportunity to push the boundaries of their mind and expand their critical thinking skills, that’s the key to becoming a better coach.

There are schools of thought, primarily Arthur Lydiard, that strength training is redundant for those who are surrounded by hills. First, do you agree with this sentiment, and second, what are they key exercises that runners who are in the flatlands need to do to complement their training to simulate the benefits of hill training.

Well, strength training is necessary for the 100m – assuming you want to run to your potential. I think the spirit of your question is valid – hill work is great for distance runners and is an elegant solution to the question “How can we improve power and therefore improve Running Economy (RE)?”

I’m probably not the best person to ask this question of. I will say that I asked Coach Wetmore why he didn’t do Lydiard’s Hill Phase with his athletes and Mark’s response was that he had done it during his time as a high school coaching but he didn’t see any better results with that phase than with his periodization (read Running with the Buffaloes for examples).

My view of hill training is simply this. I really like running up a 1% or 2% hill at 1,500m pace early in the yearly macrocycle (100m or 150m). I think it really helps strengthen the posterior chain and I think it’s very safe. But once athletes do that for a few weeks then I want to see athletes running fast on the track. I don’t think we do enough fast running with distance runners. From high school 3,200m runners to collegiate 10,000m runners to adult marathoners, there is a disconnect between the simple fact that fast running is the most specific plyometric exercise a runner can do. So a speed development workout every ten to fourteen days is what I like to see for distance runners, though I’ll admit I get nervous about assigning this type of work in the middle of marathon training.

The other thing we tend to forget is that there is a trend toward more lower leg and foot injuries from Lydiard’s era to the present day and I’m not sure you could take a group of high school kids and have them do the hill work – whether you call it bounding or springing – and not have a high percentage of foot and lower leg injuries. Sprinting up the hill, yes, but springing/bounding up the hill, I’m not so sure. I don’t think the cost/benefit is very good. But the flip side is I’ve simply never used the traditional Lydiard Hill Phase when working with athletes, but I’m sure other coaches who have used it can explain how it works and how it’s effective.

Final point is that I very much believe in hilly long runs and I think that fits within the Lydiard worldview of training.

There are obviously different physiological needs for different events. What exercises are more important for an 800 runner versus a miler versus a 5K runner and what is the variation of intensity versus repetitions for each, as well as exercises invoked, i.e. weights versus plyos? Also, how does the type of lifting change as the season progresses and enters racing and championship stages.

I like how your thinking with this question, but to be honest, this would take hours to discuss. What I will say is that I don’t view General Strength and Mobility (GSM) work or Power oriented work (i.e. Plyos) as separate from the running training…and I think that’s different than most people’s view, especially athletes’ view of the issue. I think runners have been taught the running is the important stuff and everything else is nice…kinda like the frosting on the cake. It’s fine if you have time, but it’s not what is important. When I write training I’m designing all of the non-running work alongside the running and I’m valuing both types of work. Now, this is not to say that in a two and a half hour practice that you’ll spend equal amounts of time of non-running training and running training. But the flip side is that athletes need to value the non-running work as much as they value the running; it’s not superfluous extra training, but rather training that will lead to the athlete eventually being able to run more or run at higher intensities. To borrow a quote for Bill Belichick, “If you can do more, you can do more.” If you can do more GSM then you can do more running. I firmly believe that the western runner is going to need to do more work over a month, a year, a career if they are going to run on the world class level and for that reason I assign lots of GSM work to help strengthen the body so the athlete can eventually handle more running.

I should say that this isn’t something that I came up with – it’s not an original idea. I think people would be shocked by how much general strength work Jerry Schumacher and Alberto Salazar have their athletes doing. For instance, I saw Galen Rupp win the US junior 5k title in College Station as a high school athlete, then do repeat 1ks (at a tempo pace), with his rest a set of hurdle mobility exercises (with Coach John Cook overseeing the hurdle mobility). He wasn’t even in college yet and he was following not only the “hard days hard, easy days easy” concept (so in this case getting in more work on race day because he wasn’t challenged in the race) but he was doing hurdle mobility work while he was getting in his aerobic running.

Final thought is I am moving away from the weight room as a coach. While I love being in the weight room and seeing an athlete do, say, a speed squat to box jump complex, I’m not convinced that I’m getting an different stimulus in that room than I can’t get at the track with medicine balls and shot puts and fast running. More and more I’m becoming a convert to Vern Gambetta’s idea of the “weight room without walls.” But that said, I wouldn’t have that opinion now if I hadn’t had a good six or seven years where I was obsessed with training in the weight room. I learned a lot from the strength coach who worked with track, Vernon Stephens (now with the San Diego Chargers). Being able to go into the weight room and bounce ideas off him was great for my development as a coach.

Also, an intelligent track coach will always have the following thought in the back of his or her head. “Strength Training in the United States often has the goal of muscle hypertrophy, yet muscle hypertrophy is not a good thing for most distance runners. Is this exercise/group of exercises/training day in the weight room sound for distance runners?” I think that much of the work we think is important in for runners in the weight room comes from strength and conditioning coaches who are first and foremost trying to make athletes bigger…and this isn’t the goal of weight room work for runners.

Having advanced physiological knowledge is one thing, but being able to apply your knowledge to training distance runners is another. How do you bridge the gap between knowledge and application?

I think this is where the people skills come in. You have to like people and want to work with people as a coach. People are difficult and distance runners are sometimes extremely difficult (i.e. when you tell them they need a day off or they need to back down their mileage so they can absorb the hard training they’ve done). But the flip side is there are numerous coaches who have no background in exercise physiology and are fantastic coaches. Frank Gagliano doesn’t have the scientific knowledge of Dr. Joe Vigil, but both are great coaches and the commonality is that they are both great with people. Athletes trust them. And that means athletes trust the training, a must if an athlete is to run to their potential.

If you had to pick 3 books every runner should read, which 3 books would you pick?

Stress without Distress by Hans Selye
The Olympian by Brian Glanville

I feel strongly about the first two, with the first highlighting the importance of recovery and the second being a great read for anyone who races. For the third I’d go with Running the Lydiard Way (or any of the other titles by Arthur Lyrdiard) for the simple fact that his training had the biggest impact on training theory. However, it’s hard to implement his training schedules verbatim, yet the broad concepts are obviously important. But there are so many great running books. Best Efforts by Kenny Moore is a fantastic read. For coaches and athletes serious about including non-running training into their training schedule, Athletic Development by Vern Gambetta is a great resource.

What drew you to coaching post-collegiately?

When I was a junior college coach the AD – a former women’s basketball coach – told me not to get too upset about the fact that I’d care more than the athletes care (about getting better). I think that sentiment is often true at the collegiate level, but it’s not true with the right post collegiate athletes. So that’s what’s fun about post collegiate coaching. I could ask the athletes to do a ton of work – a morning workout, then an appointment with a therapist like Dr. Richard Hansen, then an afternoon run, then some GSM before bed. Three training opportunities in one day, plus a treatment session. When you do all of the work and then you see the results, such as an athlete winning a US championship, it’s very rewarding.

But that said, I simply like being at the track and I can see myself working with high school runners at some point in the future. I’ll need to mellow to be able effectively work with that population, but I really enjoy the energy and enthusiasm that high school athletes bring to the sport. They’re the soul of the sport.

As the director of the Boulder Running Camps, you get to work with high school runners from across the country. How is coaching high school runners different than coaching professionals or even collegiates? What specific challenges do you face with high school kids?

I really enjoy the two weeks of the Boulder Running Camps. I’ve also had the chance to work at Nike’s Elite Camp in Beaverton. That said, I don’t consider that work coaching because I’m only with them for such a short amount of time.

The thing that is so special about the Boulder Running Camps is that kids who love running and think they can’t possibly love it any more, often return home loving it more than when they showed up to Boulder on the first day of camp. That’s a testament to the great counselors I’ve been lucky to have.

What prompted you to start blogging and making educational videos for runners? What information are you trying to highlight through these mediums?

Well, I started my blog for one simple reason. After I spoke at a coaching clinic I wanted a place to put the notes and the material that was presented. That lead to producing some videos to show coaches and athletes what I did at practice. From there is just grew.

The tagline of the blog is “A resource of coach and athletes” and I hope I’m meeting that goal with the blog. I’ve really enjoyed the audio podcast interviews and I hope to continue doing that. If time allows this spring and summer I have a couple new additions to the site that I think people will find helpful.

What aspect of coaching gives you the most joy?

Helping an athlete transcend a former self. Your PR is ______ when you wake up, then you go out and run faster, that’s really special and I feel lucky to be a part of that process. But simply being at practice and working with people is great. I love doing that. And I must say that the two weeks of the Boulder Running Camps are my two favorite of the year because there are so many great questions and so many athletes hungry to get better and hungry to learn more about training and the sport.

What advice would you give to runners hoping to get into the coaching profession? Is it more about what you know, or whom you know?

Well, we could talk for a long time about this. So many people identify collegiate coaching as the ultimate goal. I was really lucky to be an NCAA Division I coach, yet it was a lot of luck. But the flip side is I took a job as a JUCO coach that some people might have considered beneath them. Being a head coach at twenty four was a fantastic opportunity and I’ll be forever indebted to Mark Wetmore for his strong encouragement that I take the job at Pratt Community College. But for some other people the path is a graduate assistant or volunteer position that eventually leads to a paid job.

One thing that has changed is that there is a generation of coaches in their fifties that all started as high school coaches, then moved to the college ranks. I think collegiate athletic directors need to look more closely at the high school coaches who are dominant in their area and seriously consider them. But the flip side is most high school coaches can’t (or won’t) take a job that is often $20k or more LESS than what they make as a high school teacher. It’s not uncommon for college coach to make hundreds of thousands of dollars less in their career compared to a high school teacher, assuming they both have a masters degree. So money is an issue. And another issue in collegiate coaching is recruiting. Recruiting never ends. You finish with the NCAA Outdoor meet in June and July 1st you need to be calling recruits. That’s the toughest thing about a collegiate coaching for a distance coach is that, unlike volleyball or even basketball, the calendar never allows down time.

But one thing that I think people who want to coach should consider is that there is no lack of adults looking for advice on how to run a marathon or half marathon. Frank Gagliano told me once, “Coaching is coaching.” I agree. Last year I got a lot of joy out of coaching four adults for the Chicago Marathon as part of Nike sponsored campaign. It was a blast. So if you have a full time job and want to coach, keep your ears open at the next dinner party you’re at and you may be surprised who wants to be coached. The only way you can become a coach (and become competent) is to start coaching.

What goals do you have for the upcoming year, coaching or otherwise?

My goals for 2012 revolve around doing a good job raising our four month old and three and a half year old. Next would be growing by releasing some new titles – really excited about that. I’m really proud of though it has been a lot of work. We are on pace to grow the Boulder Running Camps this year and that’s exciting. I write weekly for and I enjoy that work. Finally, I just finished shooting a series of videos for (which will be adding running content later this spring) and I’m looking forward to using those videos to help runners with their training.

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  • Greg Strosaker

    Greg interview Jay, and thanks for the insights.  I’m reading Running with the Buffaloes now, and am honestly shocked at the prevalence of injuries even early in the season.  It’s no wonder that you’ve developed the appreciation (or, maybe passion) for ancillary work.

  • Matthew

    Great stuff, Jay! Speaking of BRC and loving running, two-time camper Ellen set a new PR in the 16 last week. :-)

  • CoachJay

    Fantastic!  Tell her I said hello.  That’s great news.

  • interview coaching

    Nice interview. It is like interviewing a barefoot runner. I learn some insights  and idea after reading this conversation.