Ten Factors for Success : Lessons From My First 20 Years of Running and Coaching

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Blog #1 – January 27, 2015

Coach Atwood is currently at work on his untitled book on coaching and distance running. Check out CoachAtwood.com for more ideas on distance training. He is the head indoor track and field coach at Middleborough High School, mentors the Wampanoag Road Runners, and has helped many high school runners realize their success with individual coaching.

Yes, it’s my anniversary. I am celebrating my 20th year of coaching this year.

Not bad for a 43-year old.

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I started this odyssey back in the mid-90s at my alma mater, Bishop Feehan in Attleborough, MA, when I received a coaching offer from my own high school track coach and mentor, the now legendary, Mr. Bob L’Homme. I had been out in Boulder, Colorado for a few years after graduating from Boston College and he called and let me know there would be an opening for me. I accepted, packed up my Subaru and headed east.

My first season was a gift. I was in charge of the boys and girls distance crew. My miler, Kevin Myles, who had won the Massachusetts Division 2 X-C Championship, had his eyes on the indoor one-mile record held by none other than: His coach.

That’s right, me.

My 4:21.5 had come in February of 1989 and he was poised to take it down. We plowed through December and January with workouts outdoors, at Wheaton College and B.U. and then Myles smashed it at the MLK Invitational with a 4:18, a top-ten time in the country at that point of the season. The irony was that he did it at a meet at Harvard University, the same place I had set the Feehan record with a runner-up finish in the Massachusetts All-State Meet.

No one – including myself – was surprised.

Following the shattering of the record, I came up with the grand idea that he should try to get into the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden. If I did anything correct that season, beyond coming up with some decent workouts, I advocated for him by harassing the living hell out of the meet director, calling him hourly, until he finally let him in. What an experience that was to be track-side at Millrose!Kevin was my first and only runner in the top 14 runners in the entire country. Amazing.

However, we are not always handed these gems, these athletes with the talent of Kevin Myles. He went onto LaSalle and ran close to 4-minutes. He then took his talent into coaching at Brown then Providence College, helping the Lady Friars win a NCAA X-C title. He was a hard-worker and an even fiercer competitor.

However, let’s face some hard reality.

Most of the kids I’ve coached never broke 4:30 in the mile. In fact, I still can name all the sub-4:30 kids I’ve worked with over the years: Mike Moverman (4:16), Kevin Myles (4:17), Bill Stanley (4:26), Brendan Sullivan (4:26), and Mark McDermott (4:28). All of them ran Div. 1 or 2…Duke, Bentley, Providence, and Providence. All had a certain work ethic.

After studying the habits of kids like these and looking back at my own habits as a successful runner, I’ve realized a few habits and trends I’ve seen along the way.

1) You Don’t Just Improve At Team / Club Practice: Sure, there may be a “break-thru” workout or run but the truth is, all of these runners gradually improved over a four year period by running on the weekends and all summer as well. Many times this is an individual activity because they knew what they had to get done.

2) Improvement Is Gradual: Only one athlete I’ve coached, Mike Moverman, ran a 4:34 as a freshman. He was truly an anomaly. The rest of these athletes were far away from their senior times as freshman. However, Mike also improved 18 seconds! Each year he shaved off more time until he was ready to pop a big race at the All-State Championships. Brendan Sullivan was a cross-country and 2-miler – his mile best came in a relay split his junior year after a blockbuster X-C season.

3) Getting Faster Is Contagious: Each of these athletes were part of a team or had a training partner who pushed them harder as they improved. Maybe the had a competitor on another team who they went head-to-head with. In fact, not only were these kids successful milers, two won state titles, two won league titles, and three were runners-up in X-C / 5000 meter races! In other words, athletes feed off each other as they get better. Don’t downplay the powerful nature of competition in practice and racing.

4) Visualization Is a Necessity: I heard someone speak about this concept one time. The body can be tricked into buying into what the mind believes is true. Ever wake from a vivid dream and believe it actually took place? Same concept with visualizing an athletic performance. When I was training for cross-country in the summer on the trails of my home town, I would visualize race situations that were coming up in the fall. If you start believing what you are dream about, amazing things can happen. I think this is true in life as well.

5) Recovery is as Important as Rest: The five mile shake-runs and rest days are just as important as the hard days. Take them, recover, then come back running faster than ever. This helps all athletes avoid over-training, sickness, and hitting plateaus in training.

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6) The Power of Music: I’ll admit, before high school cross-country races, I cranked two songs: U2’s “Desire” and “Helter Skelter”. I was a child of the 80s so I’ll admit my Sony Walkman was pumping out R.E.M., U2, The Clash, The Alarm, and the Violent Femmes at any given time before a race. Looking back at photos of many of the successful runners I’ve coached AND the members of my running club who run marathons (and big P.R.’s) I’ve decided: Music can dial you into your goals. The earphones…ummm ear buds were in BEFORE race time, blocking out the real world, helping them get pumped up and focused.

7) P.M.A. – Positive Mental Attitude: All of these athletes had this attribute: Always upbeat, always optimistic. I never heard them say “I can’t do it, Coach.” It was more like, “How fast do you want these intervals? And do you want that done with a 30-second rest… or less?” I preached PMA. So did my Dad to me but this is something that is instilled in many successful athletes and people. You would hear them constantly preaching positivity to their teammates, encouraging them on. These are the kids who help build a culture in your program.

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8) Body Weight Exercises: I remember doing some push-ups and crunches as an athlete but today that is just not enough. It started somewhere in the mid-2000’s for me as a coach. In fact, with most of my workouts for sprinters and middle distance runners, this is what we add during indoors to break up the monotony of being in the halls during bad weather. In between intervals, 5-10 exercises help keep the heart rate up. Getting balanced, stronger, and improving your form – these are three keys that I learned from Coach Latif Thomas and as a distance coach I believe it applies to distance runners as well.

9) Diet: I never paid much attention to this but as I get older, it becomes more apparent this is a big factor in staying healthy and competitive. In high school, I was naturally skinny, I ran a lot, I ate what I wanted. However, in watching kids train and succeed, I’ve decided it can make a huge difference. I went through a phase when I was running marathons of feeling wiped out and wasted. I finally figured out my magnesium, potassium, and sodium levels were way off. Vitamin D was extremely low. I fixed my diet with more vegetables and fruits and added some vitamins and supplements to get back on track and my performance went back to normal and beyond. Mega-Mag is a liquid supplement as well as S-Caps were key in getting me balanced. Just drinking water was not enough. Also, adding things like low fat protein like chocolate milk and Greek yogurt resulted in better recovery and a leaner form.

10) Sleep: It can make all the difference. My Dad noticed my improvement on Saturdays when I had an extra hour or two to rest. My weekday races rarely matched what I did after a good 8-10 hours of sleep. I recall hitting the sack at 10 p.m. on school nights my senior year and reaped huge results. In college, the sleep deprivation caused by noise in the dorms as well as the over-sleeping I may have done my senior year also caused an opposite lethargic effect. Aim for 7-8 hours daily.

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