There is an order I try to view everyone I coach from……person first, athlete second, runner third, specific event focus (miler, steeplechaser, marathoner, etc.) fourth. The same approach works for any sport really: person, athlete, basketball player, guard for example. It even works for non-athletic endeavors: person, artist, musician, guitar player. I also think of this like a pyramid, working up from the bottom the foundation is always person, then athlete, then runner, then whatever specific focus at the top. Why is this important? Why is it effective?
First, I just think as a coach there is a moral obligation here. I’m obligated to put the health of the person first. Are there short-term competitive gains to be made by focusing on the runner first? Absolutely, but in my experience such gains usually stay in the short term. More critically, regardless of competitive success, such an approach often ends up being detrimental to the health of the person. If we really boil it down there are three quick methods people employ to get faster quickly: chop weight, drastically increase volume or intensity of training, or alter the body’s chemistry. Our sport is wrought with eating disorders, chronic overuse injuries, and doping. Not surprisingly we end up with a lot of very unhealthy people when we prioritize the athlete ahead of the person. It should be pointed out that often this obligation as a coach needs to extend to keeping the athlete from going down these roads. A coach might be doing all the right things, but other pressures and voices in a young athlete’s life still might lead them into disordered eating for example. Whether the coach was the source of this or not, he or she has an obligation to step in and put the person first. Coaches are certainly in the position to enable an array of damaging habits if they fail to intervene.
Secondly, this approach works competitively! It might not be the fastest and easiest approach, but it does yield strong results and more importantly sustained performance. Let’s start with the base of the pyramid, the person. Here I am talking about the health of the person. What do I mean by health? From my coach’s view a basically healthy person is one who eats well, sleeps well, is in good medical condition, has balance in their life, is confident enough to go their own way, and shows appreciation for others. If a person checks all those boxes, I feel good about guiding them into serious athletic training and competition without too much risk of developing detrimental behaviors. They also then have an adequate foundation to handle the stress and pressure that comes with high level training and competing.
Why is the next level athlete and not runner or basketball player? Well, to use an old adage, because I don’t want to get the cart in front of the horse. As mentioned above, one of the quickest ways to improve as a runner is simply to drastically increase either running volume or running intensity in training. This will work in the short term, for some a few weeks, for others maybe a year or two. However, this approach will almost always lead to chronic injury. Nobody should be running really hard or running a lot if they lack sound basic core strength, stability strength, coordination, mobility, etc. All these things should be established at least at a basic level before volume or intensity is allowed to get too high. Even if an athlete doesn’t get hurt with the simple prescription of lots of volume or lots of intensity, they will likely still lack the tools to really reach their potential. Closing speed, the ability to adjust to different terrains, the ability to change speeds within an effort are all highly dependent on sound athletic principles. Again, this translates to other sports. A basketball player can do ball handling or shooting drills all day every day but if she fails to address basic strength, agility, and conditioning all that specific skill is going to end up pretty useless.
Runner Third, Then Finally the Focus Event/Position
There is a lot of talk about overspecialization with young athletes today. I agree this is a huge problem, but it is typically in reference to kids not playing a variety of sports growing up and getting tracked into one sport too early. I’d like to discuss overspecialization on the next level, within that primary sport once an athlete is there. This is where we get to the importance of focusing on the runner before the 800m runner or steeplechaser or marathoner. Are there very specific energy systems and skills to focus training on within each of those events? Certainly, and that must be done. However, when that is done before focus on an array of energy systems and skills, or at the expense of them, the athlete is headed for a ceiling short of their potential.
I’ll reference a couple significant improvements I was able to guide athletes through. Hillary Holt had a 1600m PB of 5:09 in high school. Three years later she ran 4:11 for 1500m which equals 4:29 for 1600m, a :40 drop over roughly the mile distance. Almost all the questions I got from other coaches and athletes regarding Hill’s improvement were about just what the ‘secret’ mile workouts were? There was this thinking that I must have just cooked up the most mile specific sessions ever created for Hill and that is how she made this improvement. Did we do some really mile specific work? Of course we did. However, the bigger part of her improvement was from balanced general work. In high school Hill barely split under 60 seconds a couple times on her 4x400m team. By her junior year in college she was routinely splitting 56 low. She was an also ran in high school cross country. By her junior year she was a national champion in cross country. She was a massively improved runner overall, above and below her focus event. That is why she excelled so much in the mile.
I remember a similar reaction the first year I coached Sadi Henderson at Boise State. Sadi went from 2:09 to 2:02 low in one season. Again, the questions from outside our staff were….what kind of 800m workouts are you doing? Do you do this predictor test, right? You must being doing a lot of work at 800m pace? No. Truth is again, we focused more on general work, developing her as an athlete, then a runner, then an 800m runner to see that improvement. She ran a big lifetime 400m best indoors in January. She ran 4:23 for a 1500m opener outdoors in a crappy heat where I didn’t let her do anything until the last 300m. Again, she was improving her capacity above and below. She was a better athlete, then a better runner, and hence a lot better 800m runner.
If you want to excel at your specific focus. Back up and take the macro view first. Start with a foundation as a healthy person. Next become a sound athlete or scholar, then a balanced runner or basketball player or writer. Then you will be able to put the high-quality specific work in to specialize as a steeplechaser or point guard or poet. This is the approach I will always take with my athletes, and that I ask of them, because it is what is best for their health and their performance.