Working With a Running Coach: Why I Started, Why I Stopped

Posted on by

In February 2019, I had one of the best racing performances of my life. My finishing time was just shy of the personal record that I set 12 years earlier, and had I better understood the course, I think I could have beaten it. Despite my age and three surgeries in the preceding five years, I was still running close to my best. Then, for reasons that I still cannot completely identify, my running ability abruptly fell off a cliff.

Sometimes I have dreams in which I struggle to run, like I am knee-deep in molasses, and this struggle became real in the summer of 2019. My legs were not tired, nor were they sore, but they just would not go. It was the oddest feeling, and the best way I can describe it is to compare it to having a limb that has fallen asleep: There is nothing structurally wrong with it, but it just does not work as it should. One morning, Joanne watched from the front door as I slowly jogged down to the end of the block, stopped, threw my hands up in exasperation and frustration, and walked back home.

From the summer of 2019 to early 2023, my running rebounded to a small extent. My endurance returned but my speed did not when I ran another marathon in 2022. In fact, my speed continued to worsen over those years at a pace that getting older alone does not explain. Each time I had an inexplicably slow run, each one seemingly slower than the preceding outing, my confusion and frustration grew and began to morph into disgust. In the midst of these runs, sometimes I thought about stopping – not just that day’s workout, but giving up running entirely.

After hearing of my frustration, a generous friend gifted me three months with a running coach who works remotely with distance runners all around the world. During our first conversation, the coach offered his opinion that I was running too fast during most of my training runs. Running slower in order to run faster sounded counterintuitive, but I was willing to try his approach for a few reasons. One, the training approach I had been taking clearly was no longer working for me. Two, he had helped numerous runners – including my friend – dramatically improve their running, which gave me hope that he could do the same with me. Three, in my line of work, I am used to offering suggestions that seem counterproductive at first glance, such as stocking, so I know to keep an open mind.

The coach used the workout pattern that I was already following as a starting point, but he made some significant changes. He added an additional day of running per week, increased my mileage, and significantly slowed my pace. Even during my interval workouts, he wanted me to refrain from running as hard as I could.

He gave me a training plan to follow, and while the specifics varied from week to week, the overall pattern was the same. Tuesdays were interval workouts at the track, Thursdays were recovery runs, and Saturdays were long and slow jogs. At first, the workout’s distances and paces were easy for me to achieve, which gave me confidence that I would be able to keep up with the coach’s training plan, and I felt optimistic.

Then problems arose. While I never got injured under the coach’s watch, I began getting sick more often than I ever had in adulthood. The frequent illnesses were more correlation than causation, as I suspect they were mostly due to exposure to the germs that our daughter brings home from kindergarten. However, I was pushing myself too hard. Sure, my speeds were slower than what I would have run on my own, but I also pushed myself to achieve the workout goals even when I was overtired or otherwise not feeling up to it because skipping or modifying a prescribed workout felt like failure. Instead of sleeping relatively late on Saturday mornings, I was waking up and starting my runs in the dark in order to fit in the mileage before beginning daddy duty. Between the decreased sleep and pushing myself too hard in my training, I was wearing myself out.

Still, I kept going, as I was clinging to the hope that following the coach’s training plan would make me a better runner, just like he had done for others. A few months into our training plan, coach began to prescribe faster workouts. After running so slowly for so long though, the goal paces felt lightning quick, and I failed to achieve them. At the beginning of our work, I routinely returned home from my training runs feeling optimistic, happy, and proud that I was able to achieve the goals that coach set out for me, but soon failure became the norm. Before leaving my house for a training run, I looked at the prescribed workout knowing I would need a miracle to achieve the day’s goals. Instead of feeling positive, I felt guilty and ashamed, and I wondered what was wrong with me.

Coach and I ended up working together for somewhere around six or seven months before I called it quits. He is a super nice guy, an elite runner himself, and he has vast coaching experience, loads of knowledge, and a long list of runners he had helped, but I seemed to be some sort of outlier in that my body was not responding positively to his training plan. We seemed to be bumping up against whatever mysterious factors had eroded my running abilities in the first place.

As you have read through my story, I wonder if you have picked up on the common themes between my work with the running coach and diet culture: turning to someone who “looks the part” for guidance, optimism based on testimonials that may or may not be indicative of typical results, reliance on external prescriptions rather than internal cues, and self-blame in the face of failure. Ultimately, realizing these commonalities is why I stopped.

Now I take a similar approach to running that diet survivors do to eating. My body’s internal cues are the primary factors in the decisions I make regarding when, how far, and how fast to run. Instead of focusing on my slow speed and feeling frustrated about it, I am working on accepting that all bodies change over time and the amount of control that I have over mine is limited. These days, I try to approach my running with a spirit of enjoyment and adventure, a fun and relaxing way to be outside, and feeling proud about covering ground on my own two feet – even if they do move much slower than they once did.

Day 305: Calories In, Calories Out

Posted on by

One of my patients and I continually have discussions regarding the myth of weight control boiling down to calories in versus calories out. In other words, expend more calories than you take in and you lose weight. Consume more calories than you burn and you gain weight. Because he has heard this presented as fact for so long from a wide variety of sources, accepting this as a fallacy is difficult for him.

My lifestyle changed dramatically with last March’s surgery. No racing up mountains during my recovery. No running at all, actually. No swimming either. No weight lifting for several months. Certainly no tennis, not even at a recreational level. My high volume of intense exercise was initially replaced with walking, months and months of just walking. Due to a lack of vigorous exercise, my cardiovascular fitness is deplorable compared to what it was not too long ago.

My eating has changed as well. Since I could tolerate more food in my stomach during a walk than, say, a run, the size of my breakfasts increased. While my food choices are almost exclusively vegetarian for ethical reasons, I reincorporated chicken and beef during the first few months of my recovery to ensure that I provided my healing body with the protein that it needed. Since my surgeon reminded me of the importance of calcium in promoting fusion in the bone grafts, I significantly increased my dairy intake, mainly in the form of ice cream.

What I did not do is weigh myself, track my weight, monitor my calories, attempt to quantify my caloric expenditure, or buy into any sort of nonsense about my weight or fitness level saying anything about my value as a person or my competence as a dietitian.

With all of the radical changes in my lifestyle, do you know how much my weight changed from before the surgery until now? Exactly zero pounds. According to the weights that my doctors recorded at my appointments, I am the same weight now as I was before the operation 10 months ago.

If one pound of body fat is worth 3,500 calories (I am not saying this assertion is accurate, but it represents another myth that continues to float around.) and the calories-in-calories-out theory is true, I would have had to have balanced my energy intake and expenditure within less than 12 calories per day on average for the last 305 days. That, ladies and gentlemen, is impossible.

Yet the calories-in-calories-out ridiculousness is not widely recognized for what it is. Recently, someone posted on Facebook a printout that her doctor gave her containing weight loss advice. “Change your diet,” it says. “Eat 500 fewer calories a day. This can lead to weight loss of one pound per week.”

PrintoutIn nutrition, sometimes a little bit of knowledge is worse than no knowledge at all. The notion that calories in versus calories out dictates weight is nutrition 101, but what they tell you in nutrition 102 is that it is not really true. It has some merit as a general concept, but it should never be taken literally, as weight regulation is vastly more complex than that.

During my recovery, I have moved my body in the ways that have felt most comfortable at the various stages of my healing and consumed the foods that my body seems to be asking for in the quantities that are satisfying. When I have missed the mark by overeating, for example, I do not feel guilty or beat myself up; rather, I look at the episodes as learning experiences to figure out what happened and what I can do differently in the future.

Because of these behaviors, plus genetics and other factors that are out of my hands, my weight has happened to stay the same. If it had changed, would I have cared? Sorry, I know this might be hard to believe in the context of our weight-obsessed culture, but my interest is elsewhere.

My plan is to make my comeback to competitive racing at this June’s Mount Washington road race. This is where my attention is focused. I have five months to ramp up from virtually no running to racing 7.6 miles up the highest mountain in the northeast. Can I do it? We’ll see. But I can tell you this: I am excited and looking forward to the challenge.