Thank you for your time, Coach Johnson
Mick: I’ll start off with basic questions on how you got started and how you have developed your philosophy on training and racing. I’d like to send several follow-ups as we go along.
Jay: Preface to all comments: Collegiate freshman are the youngest athletes I have had the pleasure of coaching and while my favorite two weeks of the year are the two week of the Boulder Running Camps, I’ve never coached anyone younger than 18. I share this so that every coach, parent and young athlete who reads this interview understands that you can’t take what I’m going to say about training and transpose it onto a middle school or high school system. That said, I think all training discussion is good for coaches as it likely reinforces your fundamental coaching beliefs while simultaneously sparking a new idea or reviving an old, dusty idea you have about training. I’m honored that Mick asked me to be a part of this special series of interviews – thanks Mick!
Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org if I can be of assistance.
Mick: Please tell me about your coaching career so far.
-Ran at CU for 5 years; BA in Kinesiology and an MS in Kinesiology and Applied Physiology
-Coached at Pratt Community College for 2 years; head Track and Cross Country coach
-Coached at CU for 6 years as the Middle Distance coach; assistant cross country coach the first 5 of those 6 years.
-Currently coaching two post-collegians and may work with 1-2 more next fall
-I work with a small number of adult clients through RunnersCoach.com
-I have no plans to coach collegiately in the next 3-4 years as my family and I want to continue living in Denver.
Mick: Is it fair to say you were mentored by Mark Wetmore? I had the great pleasure to interview him not too long ago.
Jay: That statement actually is unfair…it’s unfair to Mark. Only a handful of people have had a greater impact on my life than Mark…and I’m related to or married to those people. It’s unreasonable (unfair?) to think that all college track coaches will have a meaningful impact on the athletes they work with, yet I am blessed that my college track coach thought himself as an educator first and a coach second. (see Mark Wetmore interview)
Mick: How did Coach Wetmore’s training program change from Running with the Buffaloes over the years?
Jay: I’ve had the opportunity to speak at a number clinics and one thing I’m very sensitive to is sharing information about Mark’s training, making sure I don’t answer any question that I feel Mark might not answer if he were speaking to the same audience…and since I lack the requisite intelligence to respond to a question without answering the question, this means I end up saying, “Sorry, I can’t answer that” every time.
I do not hesitate to share insights into the training outlined in the Lear book, i.e. the training my buddies and I engaged in during our collegiate careers…but lets be honest, “Running With The Buffaloes” is a book that lays out every day of training for an entire cross country season, so if you’ve read the book recently you probably know more about the training than I do as my memory is colored by my own genetic limitations (i.e. I was running as hard as I could on days named Sunday, Tuesday, Friday…and sometimes Wednesday, depending my courage that day).
One change in the program – and one that is obvious to anyone who goes to the CU website to do their homework – is the number of Footlocker Finalists on the team now, compared to 1994-99, at least on the men’s side. I remember Mark, after being congratulated by an esteemed coach at the NCAA Cross Country Championship, said the same thing. Conversely, when Ron Roybal chose CU (1995) there were several of us that said, “Wow – he made Footlocker nationals – he must be good.” This is not to say there are not some significant changes in the program – in my humble opinion, Mark does a great job tweaking one or two variables each year – but obviously it would inappropriate for me to comment on those changes, especially since I’ve now been away for so long.
Mick: How does your training philosophy differ from his?
Jay: Well, I hope it isn’t too different from his since Mark’s training program is the most efficacious of any collegiate distance coach, as Jenny Barringer’s tear through collegiate records (Mile, 3k and 5k in one season!) to prove it. “Develop the Aerobic Metabolism” is his maxim and I would challenge any distance coach to come up with another primary aim of training.
That said, I also believe that the average American kid at age 16, 18 or 24 is lacking the background of physical activity – not just running, but any activity, even things as mundane as mowing the grass for 90 minutes or throwing hay bales on a flatbed – that American kids had 20 or 30 years ago. My friend Mike Smith, MD and LD coach at Kansas State University, detailed this hypothesis to me seven or eight years ago and I believe more today than when I first heard it.
So, my thesis at this point in my career is: “Distance Runners will run faster if they run a lot of miles and if they run a significant percentage of those miles hard, yet most athletes must devote a significant amount of time to non-running activities to support their running training.”
This acknowledges one huge limitation to my coaching; I’m 33 years old; I’ve only coached in the U.S.; until recently I’ve only coached college athletes; I’ve not coached any athletes from countries other than the U.S. I bring this up because every time I read Renato Canova’s training I think, “most Americans can’t handle the threshold pace he’s referring to for the duration he’s referring too.” But the very next thought in my head is usually, “yet Ryan Hall seems to be able to run threshold pace for a long time.” These are simplistic, water-down, general concepts, but it’s important for me to acknowledge how little I know about training and that my small parcel of knowledge is confined to one nationality, in one country.
Mick: It seems you have a lot of emphasis on auxiliary/supplemental training in the basic aerobic base building. Is that perception correct? Does it interfere with building mileage?
Jay: Yes…that’s a fair perception but remember…things take time. What do I mean?
I work Sara Vaughn; she ran a nice collegiate PR (4:19.7 – 1,500m) two years ago at the Payton Jordan meet in Palo Alto; she will likely run faster tomorrow (She ran 4:15.6, a PR; third at USATF Road Mile on May 7th). What follows is a stepwise description of her training as we’ve been working together for three years now.
She ran only 40-50 miles a week when she set the 4:19.7 PR, though she likely experienced a performance boost from having a child 7 months prior. In the first year we worked together we viewed the weight room as a place to get better, mostly because she liked to lift and was good at it. She now runs between 55 and 70 miles a week, but usually it’s just 60, even with a double now and then. However, she will often run 10 miles and then do 30 minutes of GS exercises immediately following the run. While that stimulus is not the same as an 1:40 long run, I do think it is as challenging and as beneficial as a 12 mile* run. And I think most people misunderstand how hard she works when they ask her, “How many miles a week do you run?” and she says, “60, sometimes a little more, but usually about 60.” If you just look at the amount of running in any given week you’ll only see about 60%-70% of the work is running and the rest if non-running; that may seem incorrect at first, but what if the athlete is training 20 hours a week? Put another way, how man hours a week do most runners run? The percentage can be low but if you’re running 500 minutes a week and then doing 250 min of other work to support that running training then you’re training your butt off.
Back to Sara, if post-collegiate running continues to make sense for her (and her family) she will likely train in the 70’s and 80’s (miles per week…though we go by minutes, not miles), yet I don’t ever see her training more than that, though I do see her training 10-12 sessions a week. Finally, I was EXTREMELY cautious this fall with both her volume and intensity as she and her family moved from Boulder’s 5,200 feet of elevation to a home located at 9,000 feet. I was worried that if we did the normal fall training – long run, threshold run and a workout (likely a fartleck if you’re a Lydiard purist) – that she’d be over-trained and have poor blood chemistries (i.e. she wouldn’t be getting the bump in red blood cell production even though she lives at 9,000 ft.). So we did lots of 90 min workouts, but she’d run easy for 60 and then have a killer 30 min of GS immediately – and it has to be immediately – after the run, giving us not only a longish stimulus but a stimulus that ends with a signal to the body that anabolic, not catabolic.
General Strength (GS) work has a great impact for the female athlete as it up-regulates hormones that they will allow them to train at higher volumes and higher intensities. I bring this up because most males will likely be better off with the longer run, yet I believe most women, until they’ve trained for a number of years, are well served by doing great volumes of GS work.
Since that is no doubt the longest answer to a simple question Mick has ever had to wade through, let me finish with this thought.
John Coltrane is one of my heroes. John Coltrane died at a young age. He played on many Jazz albums, but one of his first as a front man is an album called Giant Steps. If you came over to my house and asked, “What does John Coltrane sounds like?” I’d play that album because it’s really good, but also because it’s accessible…and accessible is not a word that applies to all of his albums. Coltrane made a lot of music and released a lot of albums after Giant Steps, each one getting more and more experimental; personally, there are 4-5 albums in the Coltrane catalog that I simply can’t listen to, yet I adore Coltrane. Before he died Coltrane confided to a friend (I’m paraphrasing here), “At the end of this I’ll probably go back to the stuff from Giant Steps.”
My answer above is circa Spring ’09 – it’s my best guess as to the most efficacious means to run faster, yet it’s a) just a guess and b) something that I HOPE to outgrow if I can become a better coach.
Mick: How do you balance time constraints for athletes pressed with time with the auxiliary/supplemental training without taking away from the basic aerobic base building?
Jay: Simple. Value the non-running work as much as you value the running. Or to put in terms that will appeal to the most serious runners, “Will you race faster if you can train harder or train more?” If they answer in the affirmative then I explain to them how GS work – done daily – will allow them to train hard and train more miles, though, like all training, it takes time to see the results of the hard work. And it is WORK…and since most athletes have preconceived notions about not only the amount of work they can handle (rare is the athlete who over-estimates this) but also acceptable work part of your job as a coach is to change their worldview – and in this case that means expanding their worldview – they can handle more work then they think, but some of that work’s value will not be intuitively obvious because it’s not the thing they want to improve – it’s not running!
You can’t find much of the GS work I assign in Runner’s World magazine and you can’t find much more in Running Times (though I working with them on a series of videos for their website – a progression of GS training for the summer base phase) which means that even the serious athletes in any given program have misconceptions about “core strength” and “flexibility” and “this yoga pose my mom says I should be doing for my low back.” Kids in Canada and in most European counties do not have this problem as their club coaches ask the distance runners to go through 10-20 minutes of the same work the sprinters, jumpers and throwers are assigned. Don’t forget, it’s GENERAL Strength – not specific strength – and if you buy into that concept then two things happen. The coach has to explain to the American kid why he’s doing some of the same stuff as the Pole Vaulters and Hurdlers, yet the great news for the coach is that you now have a team building activity that all the athletes can participate in…and now one or two coaches can work with the whole team for the first 10-15 minutes of practice, giving your volunteer event area coaches that much more time to get away from their desk job and get to practice.
Finally, in regards to base building, there is no doubt in my mind that a 30 minute run followed by 10-15 minutes of General Strength will be as challenging as a 40 minute run for most kids. You can download a 4-week progression of exercises at this link
In my humble opinion, coaches and athletes at the collegiate and high school levels should refer to all of these non-running activities as General Strength. Obviously “ancillary” and “supplemental” are both appropriate terms, yet body squats and push-ups, iron cross and scorpion, lunges and shuffles are all examples of the type of work that most distance runners will benefit from, especially at the HS and collegiate levels. Then, if you want to be the next Brian Sell or Magdalena Lewy-Boulet you should go out and run a ton, yet the years of GS lays a solid foundation to support greater volumes and intensities of running.
Mick: Please discuss the concept of prehab. I love this word!
Jay: I’m fortunate to have small group of friends who are all tremendous HS coaches and earlier this fall of them said, “You’ve got to start using the term “prehab” when you discuss the preventive exercises – it makes more sense for HS athletes – they get the concept the first time the hear it.” He’s right – people get the concept the moment they hear the term, yet I’m going to stick with the semantics of “preventive work” because I need all of the athletes I work with to be buy into the concept that the preventive work – though sometimes boring and often repetitive – is a great insurance policy against injury. But either way, the idea is as follows:
Most running injuries differ from other sports injuries in that there is no “split second moment” that the athlete and coach can point to where the injury occurred; in basketball a common injury is an ankle sprain that occurs as a player lands on another player’s foot after grabbing a rebound and the coach, athlete and trainer can all point to that moment. The reason this is important is two fold. In the basketball analogy the trainer can figure out what specific ligaments were injured, making the path to recovery more linear. Second, the overuse running injury is often difficult to acknowledge for the runner because, as Brad Hudson said after his first marathon, “something hurts every day.”
Lets be honest. We live in a society where a fast food company can be sued by a patron for “making them fat.” American kids are not taught to look long term and to take time out of their lives to prepare for the future. Stated another way, no one thinks they need to do prehab until they’ve been injured and done hours of rehab.
A good HS coach can sneak prehab into the warm-up. Prehab lends is a great team bonding opportunity; athletes pair up and spend 5-10 minutes rehashing their day (gossiping?), which I believe is important and I believe that because my college coach taught me that the point of the stretching circle as the first thing during a daily practice session is more social than physiological.
While I don’t assign much “pre-hab” prior to the workout, you could argue that we spend 15-20 minutes 3-4 times a week doing exercises that are preventive in nature…but if I’m honest, I call most of this work General Strength (GS) and I firmly believe that if a distance coach embraces both the term GS, as well all the rationale, the athletes they coach will incur fewer injuries and will have a higher tolerance for work (i.e. quality running).