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

Fri, 7 Feb 2003 16:32:08 -0500

Thank a Coach


Teaching and coaching are endurance activities, reaching far in distance and time. The teacher-coach can't imagine who will grab hold of these lessons and run with them -- and how far.

Most of the lessons that have served me best in life date from high school years. I learned typing with Mrs. Churchill, writing and speaking with Mrs. Keho, and running with Mr. Roe. They keep teaching long after our semesters together ended.

It's never too late to thank an old teacher-coach, and we're never too old to find a new one. In 2002 I discovered a coach who lives a thousand miles from me and I've still never met. He taught me without knowing he'd done it, and he gave me a great last year.

Jack Farrell doesn't coach a team anymore, having retired after a brilliant career at Thousand Oaks High School in southern California. At age 57 he now teaches the coaches who read his articles on the Web and hear him speak at coaching clinics.

"It's a thrill to get to share my ideas with a new crop of coaches," says Farrell. "Theoretically I still contradict virtually every other clinic speaker, and I relish the role of maverick."

Not all mavericks are brilliant. Sometimes they're nothing more than grumpy contrarians.

But most coaching geniuses were seen as mavericks at first. They swam against the prevailing tide on their way to acceptance of their methods.

The best example from the past half-century: Arthur Lydiard. The New Zealander contradicted the wisdom of his era that to race faster a runner must train equally fast most of the time.

Lydiard's runners spent most of their year logging big miles at much slower than race pace. Skeptics scoffed that they all would turn into slow marathoners -- until two of them, Peter Snell and Murray Halberg, won Olympic gold medals on the track.

About 10 years ago Jack Farrell returned from a coaching sabbatical with new ideas to try. He reduced training to these simple terms (introduced to RC readers in issues 398 and 399, which remain in the website archives):

1. Run about the same distance every day, with beginners running as little as two miles.

2. Increase the distance slowly, by about one mile per month, with team veterans peaking at eight miles.

3. Race about one minute per mile faster (in a 5K) than current training pace, which improves gradually with better fitness.

Farrell expected the training pace to improve for each runner during a season and throughout a high school career. This happened as a natural result of better fitness, and not from seeming to try any harder.

He says he looks at pace "in my usual upside-down fashion." Many programs key training pace to racing results or goals, but Farrell does the opposite by predicting race performance from training pace.

"I asked my runners to train in their comfort zone, usually defined as the ability to run and still talk," he said. "I often had to slow down those who tended to 'race' the training runs. My runners called sessions like these 'ego-fests.'

"The system is as simple as this: Run gradually increasing mileage at a steadily decreasing pace. From that formula the racing times will drop.

"My runners did race the 5K at about a minute per mile under their average training pace on the roads. But the race results followed the training, rather than the other way around.

"I never dictated the pace for the daily runs. But I monitored it carefully and could then predict rather reliably how a runner might race."

The results? Boys teams from Thousand Oaks won California cross-country championships in 1993 and '94, and ranked as high as second nationally. A girl from that school ran even better.

Kim Mortensen won the national high school cross-country title in 1995. The next spring her times led the nation in three events, and the 3200 of 9:48.59 remains a national high school record.

One good test of any training method is how adaptable it is to runners of wide-ranging ages, abilities and ambitions. I couldn't be less like Jack Farrell's former athletes. They were young enough to be my grandchildren, and they trained to race while I have little urge to race anymore.

So I have little reason to stretch my runs extra-long or push them extra-fast (and to shorten or skip many days as a result). Yet Farrell has influenced my running.

His writings have prompted me to smooth out my efforts, to make all days more alike and more of them better than before. With only slight modifications I adapted Farrell's methods for kids to meet my current needs and wishes.

My adaptation of his three guidelines became: (1) Run no harder on any one day than it would be possible to run almost every day; (2) add five minutes (about a half-mile) a month until daily runs peaked at about an hour; (3) race a 5K/10K one to two minutes faster than training pace.

The results? In racing terms, no times worth mentioning. In health and enjoyment terms, better times than I've had in decades.

Jack Farrell, the self-proclaimed "maverick," has proven that his methods work with young runners. He also can teach long-ago graduates who aren't too old to learn something new.


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