I have this theory that having a great coach is the most important important factor for running well and being happy running. A great coach isn’t necessarily someone that knows 100% of the science behind training or has a PhD in exercise physiology. A great coach is someone that cares about you as a human being, understands that you’re not a robot and will ALWAYS have some sort of emotional attachment to your running, and is willing to be flexible with your training and racing because you are a human being with a life outside of running.
I’ve been following the success of trail runners and ultra-runners more in the last couple of years and many times when I see a breakout performance, the trail leads back to David Roche.
David is a running coach (primarily trail running and ultra running), multiple time national champion trail runner, contributing editor at Trail Runner Magazine, and until recently was practicing as a public interest lawyer until he made the shift to coaching full time on Some Work, All Play.
I wanted to gain his insight on preventing injuries in people that run races that are 100 miles long (since my longest race ever is less than 4 miles and it usually takes me two weeks to run 100 miles), AND learn the philosophy behind “Some Work, All Play”. It doesn’t seem to have a typical “data-centric” training approach, and the athletes appear to all have fun. He shared his coaching philosophies, beliefs about gaining the best “runner body” and advice for loving running in the long term.
How did your coaching career at Some Work, All Play get started?
A few years ago, at 7 PM on a random Saturday in January, my wife Megan and I sat down to type away at the kitchen table (which also was our bathroom and bedroom table in our mini-studio apartment). I could tell Megan felt guilty. She had been studying since 6 AM that morning, with breaks just to run and eat, and there were a couple hours to go. Medical school is hard.
I was working a great job as a public interest lawyer, but there were only so many hours of work to be done, and only so many hours that could be billed. Megan knew I was sitting there, trying to look busy, while actually watching a puppy video for the umpteenth time. Twiddling my thumbs at the table, I felt like I should be the guilty one, getting in the way of her studying.
Suddenly, a lightning bolt seemed to strike my head and my hair stood up in excitement. I opened up a browser window, created a 1996-style amateur webpage (http://someworkallplay.blogspot.com/), and put up a shingle as a running coach. Coaching had been my passion since I was a little kid, but I never considered coaching professionally. And I didn’t consider it a profession at first either.
The coaching was called “Some Work, All Play.” A few intrepid souls joined on for free, then a few for $30 a month, then a few more at $50. After six months, we had proof of concept, with SWAP athletes starting to have breakthroughs at little races all over the world. It all started with a simple premise, that SWAP could learn to live like puppies and run like rockstars while giving as few f#cks as possible about things that don’t matter. I didn’t have much to offer early on, but I could offer one thing: unconditional support and love no matter what.
Do you feel like you have a unique coaching style that makes your athletes so successful?
In our intro email to new athletes (Megan is the SWAP co-coach), we tell them that we don’t give a single sh*t about results. Our hope is to set a tone focused on process and long-term fulfillment, rather than outcomes. To that end, we put every athlete on a 3-year plan, where each decision is focused on the question: “Will this decision help me in three years?” That question brings lots of things into clarity–you probably shouldn’t run on that achy shin, for example. But also bigger things, like you don’t need to race that 100 miler before you are ready. Or dagummit rest if you don’t feel like running to keep the love for the sport and embrace the belly roll to keep your love for yourself.
So I think there’s nothing unique about us, but we just try to straddle the line between being a running coach and a close friend or even a family member. SWAP is our family, basically. Any success the athletes have from there is due to their talent and hard work.
My main goal for athletes: don’t use training & racing to ask question “Am I enough?”
Instead, run knowing “I am enough, no matter what.”
— David Roche (@MountainRoche) July 15, 2017
How do you help your athletes to prevent injuries? Do you prescribe weight training or other activity outside of running?
Every athlete is different in what they can handle, so our very first question is “What is your injury history?” If a person has never had a stress fracture, it’s different than someone who has been in a boot for half their running life. The other important question is the last one: “Is there anything else a coach/friend should know? Nothing is off limits. Any demons?” So many injury woes come from stress outside of running, and by starting the relationship with intimate conversations, we hope to support the whole person.
From a practical point of view, there are three main philosophical points. First, almost everyone on the team only has one workout each week. Those workouts are usually only 10-30 minutes of focused work, rather than grinding epics that can lead to breakdown. Second, most running is aggressively easy, usually controlled be heart rate. While it’s often impossible to isolate the variables that cause injuries, one thing that many injury-prone runners share is going too hard on easy days. The heart rate monitor lets us keep a leash on them, and we’ve been lucky with injuries using that approach. Third, everyone on the team (even the men and women doing 100+ mpw) all have a full rest day every week. Prophylactic rest can prevent injuries that you never even knew were brewing.
Dropping comparison in training and racing can help some runners find unconditional self-acceptance. New article! https://t.co/9gbRGHXhpT
— David Roche (@MountainRoche) July 18, 2017
How do you help athletes find what type of training works for them as individuals? (as in mileage, rest needed between workouts, etc.)
The primary practical philosophy behind our coaching is the value of constant communication. We set up a collaborative training log and check in almost every day year round (no vacations from coaching, ever, because family members come on vacation too). So the goal is to establish an intimate relationship where nothing is off limits. Earlier this year, I got some online heat for talking about the importance of libido as a proxy for overtraining, but that’s the type of topic that we want athletes to be comfortable bringing up.
The goal is to never be tired in training for more than a day. Training through fatigue is always bad–we think athletes to be at their best to train to be better than their best. So we pay close attention to how everyone is feeling and adjust down at the first sign of fatigue.
How do you think mindset around training helps or hinders an athlete’s ability to perform? How does affect injury prevention?
The brain-body connection is clearly a big part of the whole equation. What we tell our athletes is that the goal is to live like a puppy, with that boundless enthusiasm. However, if they ever feel anything–including lack of motivation–they need to tell us immediately. A rule is that NOTHING is to be considered “in their head” or “no big deal.” Usually, the brain sends signals on behalf of the body before something might start hurting. So we demand accountability to and respect for feelings, even ones that seem irrational.
Do you have tricks for keeping running fun even when it’s at a highly competitive level?
We try to encourage SWAP athletes to opt out of the comparison game, both with others and with themselves. Essentially, the goal is to reframe their running journey. Instead of using training and racing to ask the question “Am I enough?”, we try to set up a framework for them to run joyfully knowing “I am enough, no matter what.”
To that end, nothing is done by pace, all is about effort. Races are all just stepping stones, and we never let anyone race unless they give us a process-based justification. And we only take on athletes who say they want to run for life (or as long as possible). When it becomes about long-term process and not short-term evaluation, everything becomes a bit more relaxed and carefree. Then, we remind them that trail running especially is basically adult recess. Everyone loves life-long recess!
What is your advice to the athletes hoping to attain the perfect “runner body”?
Self-acceptance and love of one’s body is perhaps the most important part of being a fulfilled runner. We mainly try to de-stigmatize food completely. The team has “Burger Sunday,” where everyone is required to eat some fun food that may have been off-limits earlier in their life (often, they will send us photos with fun captions). In line with that approach, we ask all athletes to discard their scale and love their bodies unconditionally. Running requires strength, and short-term gains from weight loss are almost always paid back forty-fold in injuries and overtraining. So we’d rather our athletes 25 pounds heavier than even 0.0000001 pound underweight. No food is bad food for a runner, and hard training should feel like competitive eating with a side of jogging.
Mostly though, we just make it clear that we’re here to listen. It’s easy to reduce these issues into simple things like tossing the scale and eating burgers, but in reality it’s far more complicated than that. And we are here for each athlete unconditionally through everything, especially the really tough shit.
What is your best advice to athletes trying to juggle full-time work or school with training and competing?
Compartmentalizing life can make a massive difference for happiness. My wife Megan trained professionally through medical school by setting aside a certain amount of time each day to be a runner. Usually, she’d block off 90 minutes in the morning to run, stretch, do some strength, and shower. The rest of the day, she was a medical student and wife and daughter and all the other things in life. Almost everyone can block off an hour or 90 minutes, and that’s all it takes!
Do you have any tips for beginner runners that feel like they aren’t “real runners” or don’t deserve to be spending time training and racing?
If you run, even a step, you are a runner and you have a runner’s body no matter what your distance or pace. You are a runner when you are injured, you are a runner forever thereafter if you want to be. So make the decision that it’s a part of your identity, and it doesn’t matter how far or fast you go. You’re a part of the community, with no one inherently “better” or more worthy than anyone else. Part of our hope is to help facillitate the culture of unconditional acceptance and love that Hoka and Oiselle and Lane 9 Project and others are promoting in the running community.
And any advice to runners who are struggling to figure out what running means to them post-collegiately?
Oh man, that’s such a great question. So many elite college runners come to us with an existential crisis unfolding about the place of running in their lives. The unfortunate nature of collegiate running is that it’s a meat grinder that can rip people up emotionally as much as physically. I always ask them to go back to the first principles: Do they love the act of running? It doesn’t need to be all the time, but do they enjoy the process of being a runner over time? It’s surprising how many people say no at that stage, in which case I ask them to rest completely until the fire returns. If it doesn’t, that’s great too–there is no inherent worth in being a runner versus being anything else, so it’s important to have that moment of introspection.
If they do love running and being a runner, or they re-found their love after a break, the key is to expand the time horizon from 4 years in college to 60 years post-collegiately. That takes some of the pressure off–this is now a life-long passion based on love and not a 4-year focus based on competition. From there, it’s all about finding a sustainable approach to the sport, which varies based on the person. My biggest piece of advice is a simple one: only race when motivated by the process, not the results.
If there’s anything coaching has taught me, it’s that results-based justifications for running can be dangerous and often result in existential crises. If your goals have a finish line (like senior year of college, for example), what happens when you get there? For some, that’s totally sustainable. For others, it results in post-race blues with both bad and good races. Reframe races (and training) as steps along a journey as opposed to a destination, and the pressure lifts. Comparison to others in the race matters less. Perhaps most importantly, you remove an emphasis on objective metrics of evaluation that will almost always result in losing, eventually, if not now, then when you slow down with age.
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