In last weeks interview with C2K 2011 Winner Ewan Horsburgh, he made reference to his support team and a specific mention of advice coming from coach Sean Williams that really enabled him to unlock his potential.
So, on my usual early morning recovery run I swung by Sean Williams SWEAT Training Squad session in Sydney’s Centennial Park to quiz him on a few of those nuggets of advice and to get a better understanding of the role of a coach.
I have known Sean for a number of years and have been on the recieving end of his expert tuition, easy going nature and also his unwavering passion for all things running. I for one know he has made me a better runner. In addition, if you hang around the stadiums and tracks of Australia long enough his name would come up frequently as one of Australia’s leading distance coaches. Athletes such as Ben St Lawrence, Lara Tamsett, Keith Bateman have all starred on the global stage with success for them coming in droves during the 2010-11 season.
Do you think ultrarunners can benefit from a coach ? If yes why ?
Yes. A coach can help in the planning process and help ensure the runner get to the finish line of the ultra at their fastest possible speed and in their best shape. Top ultra performances are generally accomplished through a carefully devised program. It requires ongoing adjustments as ultra runners are only human and they are endeavoring almost super-human feats- plenty can go wrong in a build up! A coach is a sounding board for the runner. Ultra runners are strong willed and single minded, with many being stubborn to their own detriment. A coach can see the mistakes the ultra runner makes when often the runner themselves have no idea about their wrong doings until it is far too late. Ultra runners are extremely determined people and usually very self motivated, however even these men and women of steel go through periods of anxiety and low motivation. A coach is always there to get their motivation back on track and to try and keep the excitement levels high.
What sort of coach would be useful ? Motivational/Performance/Strength/Speed/Nutritional etc ?
It really depends on the needs of individual ultra runner. A guy like Blue Dog (Wayne Gregory) needed very little help on nutrition and technical aspects of ultras. However he benefitted greatly from speed work, strength and to a lesser degree motivation.
A guy like Ewan benefitted hugely from his background of speed with my squad and learnt how to perform as a semi elite runner over a period of time. Just a few simple words like “You can beat this guy as you are a better performed runner than him on pure running courses” sink in with Ewan and he really takes it to heart and develops a deep self belief. After 5 years of rigid programs Ewan was able to take everything he learnt on board and craft some of his own sessions and timed long runs geared specifically for C2K.
Guys like Ewan and Wayne (Blue Dog) Gregory were smart enough to learn a lot from other ultra runners, with Ewan recently learning a lot from Ultra168 athlete and GNW100 Course Record holder Andrew Vize on nutrition and a few other aspects of ultras. By talking and training with a wide range of ultra runners you become a student of the sport. However, it is wise to have a coach to oversee what you are doing.
Someone like Martin Matthews (England- 6.10 at Comrades, 7.03 over 100km) needs the whole package. He had little knowledge on nutrition for ultras, and everything about ultras was a new world to him. He had come from a 5km-marathon background and was used to running 160km a week at an average pace of 4.10 per km, but broken up into much shorter runs. He needed to learn patience and timing specific to ultras. He needed to learn to slow down his overall pace a bit and focus on ultra specific training.
What role can a coach play, before, during and after an ultra ?
I formulate a program from as far out as two years before an ultra for some runners. For some runners it may only be from a few months out. It starts with a broad plan then goes into finer detail with monthly programs which include specific runs and sessions. These often (but not always) include cross training, long runs, lead up races (including other ultras), strength work, nutrition plans, equipment/apparel and footwear experimentation and training camps. The runner will be guided to gradually improve in various tiers of running performance- pure endurance, speed endurance, uphill running, downhill running, threshold running and pure speed. During an ultra race a coach’s role can vary. It is important for the coach to ensure that the runner is in the hands of a good crew and when relevant, a good pacer. It is nice for a coach to be a member of their runner’s crew or even be their pacer, but not really necessary. I really enjoyed pacing Carol Lapsys when she broke the 100mile record at GNW a few years ago, but she could have done just as well with someone else pacing her. Once the runners are out there in the race, it is up to them to implement everything they have trained for. My only involement with Ewan during the C2K was talking to and texting his crew every couple of hours and asking them to suggest certain paces and efforts. Wise programming will ensure a runner recovers sufficiently after an ultra, ready to start training again for their next endeavor as soon as possible.
What is the main area of focus for you as a coach to an ultrarunner such as Ewan ? Is it strength ? Speed ? Mindset ?
It was predominantly helping Ewan with self belief and pace judgment at Coast to Kozzie. Coast to Kozzie was in the pipeline for Ewan for a long time. Ewan turned himself into a top ultra runner over the final 12-18 months before the big race by moving to the mountains and doing plenty of long runs up and down long, steep hills. No rocket science there.
How much focus would you put on speed v distance work for a 100 miler ?
This varies for each individual. The key session in a build up for a 100 miler is obviously a regular ultra training run. Something in the range of 45km-90km every 2-3 weeks. When these occur in the buildup will depend on each runner. Some shorter ultra races can be used as training runs in the buildup. Overall weekly mileage is crucial. It is best to be built up gradually, but needs to be at least 80km per week; some runners will log over 200km per week. Regular speed work is essential. For an ultra runner speedwork can be in the form of hill reps (both uphill, downhill and a combo of the two) and flat reps of various distances and time cycles. most ultra runners are best to aim for fast jog or even “float” recoveries in between hard efforts. Speedwork can also be in the form of time trials over distances between 4km and 10km. It can also include tempo or threshold runs up to 14km in length. Most importantly speed work should include pure sprinting, usually done at the end of recovery runs. Technique must be addressed in the form of drills and exercises. Ewan was able to blitz the field at C2K because his technique has really improved over the years. He has far more lift than the majority of ultra runners, which results in a longer stride and faster cadence.
Would you coach someone differently for a road/trail/track ultra ?
The basis of the training is very similar across all three type of ultras. However, specificity comes into play for some runs and sessions. I am sure that Andrew Vize will tell you that the countless hours he has spent on the GNW trails gave him a familiarity to the course like no one else’s, giving him a huge advantage over his opponents. His regular hill sessions around Mosman also would prepare him for the monsters on the GNW course, both physically and mentally. Some runners can adapt to varying race terrain without the specificity. Even though not an ultra example, Lara Tamsett won the world mountain running championships on incredible long climbs and descents off a training program with absolutely no hill work, just flat running around Centennial Park. What works for one does not work for all.
Is ultrarunning coaching as far advanced as say middle distance track ?
No. The sport of ultra running at the elite, high performance level is still in its infancy, thus coaching is still in its infancy. Ultra coaches can learn from middle distance and long distance coaches and apply what they learn to the ultra coaching. Middle distance running (800m-5km) and long distance running (10km-marathon) has only been at a truly international level over the last couple of decades. Every nation is into it in a big way and a world champion can come from any of the 200+ countries in the world in any distance. This includes those runners from the very poorest Asian, African and South American nations. In fact the very best runners have come from these nations in recent times. The depth of competition in every event is amazing, with literally hundreds of runners in each event coming within 3% of the top performers and thousands coming within 10%. Thousands of top runners in the world are full time athletes/professional. Ultra running stars still only come from wealthy countries and most of the competitors juggle their sport with full time work. Just a few are professional. I can see the sport of ultra running becoming more professional and once more prize money and endorsement money comes into the picture, you will get those 200+ countries far more involved. Think Kenya, Ethiopia, Brazil, Japan, etc and think lots of them; young, fit, fast and hungry for success.
Does an ultrarunning coach need to be a good ultrarunner?
Were Peter Coe, Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerrutty good runners? No they were all average, but they were passionate about their sport and very willing to learn and help others improve. Having said that, I feel ultrarunning coaches are best off having some experience as competitors in the sport.
As a coach, what do you look for in terms of who would make a world class ultra runner ? Is it marathon time or mental/motivation etc?
I believe someone can only be tagged “world class” if the whole world are participating in that sport. At this point in history, there are only two sports in the world which are truly international- i.e. every country on the planet does it; they are soccer and running. But by “running” I mean 100m up to the marathon. Ultra running is still very much in the developing stages. If the current crop of 2.03 marathoners took on 100km or 100 mile ultras, they would tear the top ultra performers to shreds. They would literally take hours off race records at events like Western States 100. Show them around $1 million (as that is what the top marathoners attract with appearance money, sponsors money, and prize money combined for one marathon effort) and watch a migration of some amazing pedigree into ultras. So what will it take to make a world class ultra runner? A distance/marathon runner’s build (men usually only weigh between 47kg and 60kg; women lighter), sound biomechanics, an ability to utilize both glucose and fat stores efficiently, a certain top end speed (the ability to sprint 100m in at least 12 seconds), be professional and have an very tough mindset.
So for those of you setting out your 2012 racing and running goals and have an ultra in mind and you feel you need some expert tuition, coaches like Sean can certainly take you up a notch or two.