A Love Triangle, of Sorts

I was doing a consultation with a high school coach last week when I found myself saying something realized I repeat often, ‘I love pyramids, I use them for everything.’  The topic was programming training for a track season and I was sharing with her how I organize my training components into a pyramid that provides the basic structure for subsequent programming.  Training components, coaching philosophy, racing strategy, political philosophy, scheduling priorities, culinary techniques….I have a pyramid for each.  Organizing my thoughts this way just comes very naturally to me and has worked well over time.  Professing my love for pyramids out loud though pinged some questions.  Why do I love pyramids?  Why am I so drawn to this model when I want to organize my thinking on seemingly any given topic?

The process of creating a visual model is of immense value, and revisiting it routinely offers structure for both consistency of application and further examination.

Laying out one’s thoughts in a visual format is far from revolutionary.  It is a widely practiced and well proven method for critical thinking and greater articulation.  The process of creating a visual model is of immense value, and revisiting it routinely offers structure for both consistency of application and further examination.  There are many such visuals from various disciplines: flow charts, Venn diagrams, story boards, mind maps, the classic bar graph, etc.  Why do I dock my intellectual ship at the pyramid over these others?  I like to keep things simple, hard to get much simpler than a pyramid.  I have great reverence for sturdiness, tough to tip a pyramid over.  I love progression, and the lines of a pyramid gradually moving toward one another calls this to mind.  All true but none of those jumped out to me as THE reason pyramids have taken up permanent residency in my brain.  Then it occurred to me.  What is the real value of the pyramid?  Why does it work?  Why is it so sturdy?  Because in construction they didn’t build up until they had sufficiently built out.  Because of its broad foundation!  My mind was blown, my life long intellectual romance has actually not been with pyramids, but with foundations.  I am still working through the complicated emotions of all this, currently in the sweatpants stage as I reconcile loss and true love.

Maybe foundations and I have a lot in common and that is the basis of my attraction?  Worth some quick examination.  Foundations are short and wide.  I am short, but not wide.  Foundations are not sexy, while I literally have living proof at least one person has found me to be sexy.  Foundations are cold and rigid and have hard edges, I get choked up at least once a week watching college basketball and have one foot firmly into dad bod life.  Ok, we are clearly not one in the same.  Alas it is not my commonality with foundations that draws me to them, but rather the harmony of my philosophy of preparation and the concept of foundation.

Early in my career I had a strong middle-distance group in my program at The College of Idaho.  Mostly made up of Idaho kids we recruited that were high on ability and work ethic and a bit low on training development.  In other words, they were perfect.  These kids improved a bunch and performed well.  The 1500m/mile distance became an easy measuring stick for folks.  Hillary Holt shaved nearly forty seconds off her high school 1600m best and Dominic Bolin about thirty for example.  This drew attention, and it was well deserved as these kids and multiple others in our program made the full commitment in training and competed with tremendous ferocity.  I was not surprised at their improvements, we recruited them for a reason.  Others were surprised though and I started to get a lot of inquiries from other coaches.  I remember a discussion with one coach in particular.  After pointing out to me how much these athletes had improved (maybe he thought I didn’t know their previous marks?), he quickly asked for my top three ‘mile workouts’ and was ready to take notes.  I scrambled mentally trying to figure out how to tell him I did not know what a ‘mile workout’ was.  I took a breath and just explained our training, how it looked on both macro and micro levels, how we tried to hit a lot of different types of work routinely and gave him specific examples.  He looked at me like a journalist disgusted with a politician dodging their question and that was the end of that chat.  I could tell he thought I was trying to keep something from him.  Certainly, there had to be secret workouts that you could throw at athletes and BOOM, it would just start raining thirty second mile PBs.  Hell, maybe those workouts are out there but I certainly don’t have them.

This dynamic has played routinely over my career across various events.  When I was at Boise State it was the 800m because we had some tremendous 800m women.  Same conversation, what were my ‘800m workouts’?  When I started coaching Megan Rolland after she graduated from college the conversation shifted to the steeplechase and has continued since.  This fall I started getting questions about marathon training thanks to our Idaho Afoot fall marathoners all running lifetime bests.  I am not smart enough to know the secret workouts for one event let alone multiple.  So, I find myself giving the same answers, regardless of the event of focus.  Do we do event specific work?  Yes, of course there are sessions in the rotation that are more specific to the mile or the marathon and we are going to make sure we hit those as we move the athlete toward those targeted competitions.  But as a coach, I know that these more event specific workouts are NOT the reason any given athlete shows significant improvement.  Those sessions are the glitz, not the grit and we spend a miniscule amount of time on them in comparison to the time we spend on foundational work.

Nobody wants to hear the real answer.  Because it isn’t sexy at all, as it is always in the foundation.  Sure, I can tell you about Amy Pfaff running a lifetime 400m best at the end of a workout once, but I will NOT in good faith tell you that session was crucial to her development.  It was important to sharpening her abilities toward some focus races a few weeks off at that point, but not vital to the tremendous improvement curve she showed over her career.  Nobody wants to hear about Amy running three-mile cutdown runs from 6:05-5:45 pace on the track, doing a set of impeccably executed drills, and then some quick 60m accelerations focusing on mechanics.  I will add here that pretty much every athlete I have ever coached from the 800m to the marathon has done some version of that session.  That work is not shiny, it is not glitzy, it does not stand out.  It is, however, foundational and her development was heavily correlated to such work.  I am not certain Dominic Bolin ever ran a stand-alone workout that overly impressed me (no offense Dom).  However, he did not miss long runs in season or out, he executed strength training with great attention to detail, and he always kept rest intervals exact on rep work.  He built a hell of a foundation and reaped the benefits.  I can show you splits from a few runs I would call ‘marathon specific’ that Liz Lagoy did leading up to her thirteen-minute PB this fall.  They were impressive runs, and important to getting her dialed in to perform at the targeted pace range over the targeted distance on the targeted date.  Those runs sat near the top of her pyramid.  We did very few of them in comparison to the two-hour relaxed runs over varied terrain, the high volume 200m rep sessions, and the pace change runs that built her foundation months ahead. 

Those sessions are the glitz, not the grit and we spend a miniscule amount of time on them in comparison to the time we spend on foundational work.

Amy Pfaff at the top of the pyramid. Not pictured – 3 years of quality foundational work.

Foundations buy us consistency, longevity, and performance in varied competitive situations. 

I guess if we look at a pyramid, our eyes are typically drawn upward.  We look to that peak.  We want to see what is there because it is what we perceive is mostly closely related to the competitive performance.  Well, nothing is there without the foundation.  Look down, look way down, down in the dirt.  Look at all the less shiny work that athlete did when nobody was looking.  What is at the foundation of their success?  Everything was built on that, so maybe it makes sense to start there and focus most your time and energy on those elements?  This can be applied across different disciplines, sports, endeavors of all sorts.  Basketball coaches get the same type of questions.  ‘Why is your defense so effective?’  That coach can say it is in the particular Xs and Os but they know full well those do not matter if your players can’t execute a trap, close out on a shooter, or deny a post entry pass.  Foundational work that they spend the bulk of their preparation time on.  Foundations buy us consistency, longevity, and performance in varied competitive situations.  Focus too much at the top and you get top heavy.  You will be prone to tipping over often, early, and whenever unforeseen circumstances arise.  Is your foundation adequate?  Could it be better?  Is it comprised of the right materials?  Does it have cracks that need repair?  Could it be expanded?

I am still in here in sweatpants, trying to wrap my head around my true love being the foundation and not the full pyramid.  I mean, I love building the pyramid but it is just nothing without that strong, sturdy, time tested, unassuming, reliable, selfless foundation.  I am glad to be in a romantic relationship with all that allows one to explore their potential.  I LOVE foundations and I am not afraid to say it.  Soon I’ll even be able to say it in regular clothes.