Not long ago I was posed with an interesting dilemma by a new young coach. Her situation is this. She is still a competitive age group runner and coaches for a local high school. While coaching for the high school team each cross-country and track season she finds it difficult to maintain her own workouts and level of racing. So, two big questions actually derive from this scenario. I’ll give you my view but I welcome your input as I know several readers are also high school coaches.
1. Is it advisable for coaches to run with their runners?
This is a philosophical question – it would be hard to fall definitively on any side of this. My belief is that if you can run with your team – do so. I have found several key benefits. First, I can much better gauge how runners are coping with the current workout. I can much more easily tune in to breathing patterns, running rhythm and effort exerted while running next to my runners. I can be more intuitive and adjust paces or distances in workouts. I believe in tailoring workouts to my athletes and this allows me to do that most effectively. Second, running seems to free the mind (well documented in psychology literature). As a result, runners loosen up and talk more freely. You will learn valuable insights into what makes each runner tick if you listen closely to conversations and random comments. Third, the camaraderie gained by being there is invaluable. Sometimes, it’s just one of those “beat the coach” days. Other times it’s keep that pack together. You’re there to make it happen – to reinforce team tactics and more.
Certainly, most coaches cannot run as fast as the runners they coach. That is not a requirement of being an effective coach. If it were, every All-American, All-Pro and MVP in each sport would also make the best coaches. They don’t. Coaching is far more than being good at your sport. Too many times I see “good runners” hired instead of “good coaches.” Coaching requires a whole other skill and knowledge set. You must be a good communicator, motivator, tactician, problem solver, along with having a strong grounding in the science and psychology of exercise. Some good runners may have those things, some do not. So, the point is that we should not confuse being able to run with your runners with being a good runner.
Age (ok, I’m admitting it, we slow down as we age) and injuries or disabilities may not allow us to run with our athletes. I never ran for a coach who ran with me. Yet, I have always held them in the highest esteem. I was very fortunate.
2. If I do run with my athletes how do I get my workouts in?
This of course is the rub for her. First, as a coach your priority – while coaching – is their workout not yours.
If you have designed a workout schedule for yourself, then I would recommend first seeing which of your critical workouts mesh with what you would have your team do. Then, dovetail them. Perhaps it’s a time trial, speed workout, track workout, hill repeats, goal race pace run or long run. I have found it motivational for my runners to see me huff-and-puff right along side of them and knowing I was giving it my all – just like them. Beating the coach becomes a sort of badge of courage. And from my perspective, if this is an important workout, I’ll be testing myself against them.
Use the team workouts as your warm-up easy run or cool-down run. An easy day for your team can become a launching pad for your full workout or time to cool down. It’s a nice way to add some easy miles to your schedule. This becomes a benefit by adding training to your schedule while not beating yourself up with too many fast or long runs.
Run with different members at different paces of the team. You may need a hard workout today so you may have a goal of staying with runners a step better than you. Or, you may need an easy day on a day that your team is scheduled to run hard. In which case, you run with some slower runners on the team.
Run a Fartlek (speedplay) session. Perhaps your team is running an easy 5 miles but you are schedule for some interval type work. You can run hard up with leaders then jog back to other groups and charge up and catch the next group and jog back repeatedly. You might even charge all out for a short ways and stop and rest until a group catches up to you. You get to check on all your runners while having a great quality workout.
Don’t run with the team. If you are concerned about your running you have to do the right training. You can coach without running – you can’t race without running. Take a day off and “just” coach. Get a different perspective. This is good to do when you need a total rest day; if you are preparing for a race in a couple days; or you are resting up for a key long run on the weekend.
Finally, if workouts don’t mesh and none of these approaches appeal to you then you will need to get your workouts in before you meet your team each day. Since typically practice for high school teams is after school, you will most likely have to rise early and get your workout in. You will have to listen closely to your body so you don’t overdo it and maintain your own energy to get your training in.
For me: I get used to being tired a lot of the time. I tend not to race much during the team’s seasons. I may run more miles than I care to during their seasons and far less of my own quality runs. I do take pride in my own running. I continue to run with my runners. I continue to coach. I continue to think – I can be better at both my running and coaching.