Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Tue, 14 Aug 2001 09:20:23 -0400

Coaching Coaches


We need more people like Amy Lyga. She saw an empty space in the sport and stepped in to fill it.

"I am starting a cross-country program at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis," she wrote this summer. Amy contacted me because my name appeared under Joe Newton's on the book Coaching Cross-Country Successfully.

"I literally read the book in one sitting -- nodding my head in big 'yes' movements, and becoming extremely excited to start what I hope to be a very long-lasting tradition at DeLaSalle," she wrote. "What would be your top-10 list for a successful program?"

The advice in the book is strictly Joe Newton's, I told her. He has succeeded more and longer than any other high school coach. The best part of his book isn't the training plans (which could overwhelm novice runners), but the organizational and motivational tips.

I have done no coaching of the type that Amy Lyga is undertaking. So my 10 recommendations are phrased in terms of what I'd want from any organized running program involving a child of mine, a close friend or myself.

1. Let anyone and everyone run. This includes runners who don't look the part and don't appear to have much talent. You never know which ones will catch fire, both helping your team results and (more importantly) making running their longtime love.

2. Start slowly. Assume that most of your runners have trained little over the summer, or in recent years, or ever. Try not to discourage -- or worse, injure -- them in the first weeks of training. Start with modest distances and slow paces, and work up from there. At high school age they shape up quickly.

3. Reward improvement. You can't praise or celebrate too much a jump in distance or pace. It's as big an accomplishment for a runner to drop from 10-minute to nine-minute miles as to go from sixes to fives. Let all the runners know that you appreciate their efforts equally.

4. Emphasize PRs. This relates to the point above, with a slightly different twist. It's a way to measure success in races. Teach runners that they can "win" by setting personal bests. Winning this way doesn't require beating anyone, but if their PRs keep dropping the higher placings will come automatically.

5. Preach pacing. Young runners are notoriously impatient, typically starting their runs and races too fast and finishing too slowly. Show them that their best times come from running at an even pace, or from finishing slightly faster than they started.

6. Require attendance. Improvement in running comes through repetition and consistency. Runners who keep showing up get better, and those who don't, don't. Make training so exciting and rewarding that they don't want to skip it.

7. Train beyond the season. The foundation for success is laid outside the racing months. This is when persistent runners gain the edge on those with more natural talent who take long vacations. Even easy off-season training beats doing none.

8. Practice hard-easy. No runner can work hard every day. The harder days are essential, because racing is hard work. But the easier, recovery days are equally important -- and maybe more so because they're more numerous and they make the hard work WORK.

9. Watch for trouble. Look out for the early signs of injury or illness, which a runner might try to hide or might not even notice. Cancel a run or stop it early to keep a minor problem from becoming major.

10. Teach by example. Show up whenever the runners do, and let them see your excitement for the sport. Work to improve in your coaching, as they do in their running. Ask them to do no training or racing that you wouldn't do (and haven't done, or are doing now) yourself.

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