I have run for 48 years and covered somewhere around 140,000 miles. From the time I graduated from college, I have coached myself. This may sound unusual—some might even consider it a glaring exception to the rule. After all, we have long been in an age of agents, personal trainers and health clubs.
However, I do not think of myself as that unusual. To me, it shows how we have lost sight of just how individual and independent athletic success can be with just a little self-motivated focus. In a way, relying on yourself is a lost art. I competed in two Olympic marathons, trained with no coach, and continued moving on in the sport with an entourage of zero.
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My simple, basic theory involves running very easily—at what I call conversational pace—75-90 percent of the time. Integrate short, fast interval training at 5K race pace if you want to run faster. If you want to run a marathon, add a long run once a week working up to at least two hours (20 miles if you're very serious). A clear outline of these training theories can be found in my book, Running for Peak Performance.
In a way I think of myself as a "sandlot" runner. Follow me on this:
It's acknowledged that many major league baseball players come from the sandlots of the western hemisphere and the best World Cup soccer players can come from any place in the world where there's enough dirt on which to play a pick-up game with anything closely resembling a ball.
In the same way, many of the best runners can come from the sandy, unmarked, unmeasured trails of the world. We forget that these trails are not just in Africa. They can be in Scandinavia, Oceania and North America. The commonality? These future elite athletes are honing their skills, strengths and endurance by themselves. The baseball and football of my youth were played on neighborhood fields between teams chosen on the spot and played without uniforms, adult supervision or coaching. When it was too dark to see the ball anymore, the game was over and we went home. The first three years of my running, I learned by doing and paying attention. I think I just came full circle much more quickly than most.
At age 11, I decided on my own to run to and from school a few days a week because I had read that French downhill skiers, who were then my heroes, ran in the off-season for training. It was 1962 and the struggling Austrian skiers went home to the farm in the summer to work on the harvest and buck bales, while the dominant French were running and weight training. This was the point when I began relying on and trusting my instinct for self-coaching. I decided to give it a try, modified some low-cut basketball sneakers with flexible soles, and headed out the door. I never told anyone what I was doing, much less sought out a coach or a team. It was two and a half miles to school and that seemed far enough.
As for pace, all I knew was that I shouldn't get too sweaty.
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Six years later, after running in prep school at Northfield-Mount Hermon in Western Mass, I enrolled at Yale and joined the track and cross country teams. I knew that the Coach Bob Giegengack was very good—he had been the head coach of the US Olympic team in 1964. What I did not understand until three years later, was that his manner of coaching would suit me very well.
Right from the start, he pointed out that Yale was a place where you came to learn and so he would not simply dictate workouts. Rather, he would teach us over time how to coach ourselves. He did this by basing our training on a very simple core theory that had enough room for variation to keep it interesting and then always discuss what we were doing before and after workouts.
We always warmed up by jogging slowly for a mile or two and then going to him to find out what the workout for that day would be. There was no posting of workouts on the bulletin board ahead of time. We had a general idea of what a workout might be on a particular day of the week, but the specifics were always a surprise.
We were always asked how we felt and learned that it was important to be honest with both ourselves and with "Gieg" because this would have a bearing on the intensity of the workout. Every day we were gauging our recovery from the days before to make sure we'd rested enough.
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After every workout, which we timed ourselves, reported back and told him how it had gone. There was always some discussion of how that fit into the long-term program. Somehow Gieg kept everyone's information straight. If you paid attention, you began to understand his theory: Short, fast intervals if you wanted to run faster and all other running at conversational speed. I added the once-a-week long run for distance runners like myself.
Finally, remember that the more consistent you are in your training, the less you must rely on a perfect training run every day.
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