Monday, April 4, 2016

The Difference a Coach Makes (or, How to Run Fast)

As the girls of the Lady Tigers softball team shared in the video I posted a few weeks ago, a coach can be so much more than a coach, so much more than a teacher and trainer in the nuances of sport.  A coach can be a mentor, advisor, counselor, friend, encourager, and - as the Lady Tigers say - "like a Father." Clearly, coaches are a big part of why Dream Big!'s efforts to empower girls through sports can be so impactful.  A good coach can change the way we see ourselves, how we understand our capabilities, our strengths, and what kind of goals we set for ourselves.

When I signed on to run Boston and fundraise for Dream Big!, I had never heard of the Marathon Coalition. I had no idea I would become part of a community of hundreds of charity runners training together, encouraging one another, and working together towards our fundraising and race-day goals. I also had no idea we would be supported by a team of talented coaches or that, after all the years I've been a runner, one coach would completely change the way I run.

When I wrote about Dream Big!'s annual banquet last November, I focused on the cause, and what I learned there about this little charity doing big things for girls, and how much it depends on its Marathon team to fuel its work.

The story I neglected to tell was of meeting Rick Muhr, head coach for the Marathon Coalition, and sitting with him at dinner.

"So, what do you tell your runners?" I asked - maybe more than halfway expecting I'd have heard it all before.

But I hadn't.

"Cadence," said Coach Rick. "The most efficient way to run is 180 strides-per-minute." (and later, he added the image I wrote about, of picturing ourselves as an "old lady on a frozen lake.")

I had no idea what my typical cadence was. Can't hurt to try, I thought.

On my next run - a speed workout - I did. On a first fast interval, I ran as I always do, and counted for 30 seconds. I discovered that my natural cadence was about 140.  And I noticed that, as Rick had pointed out, the way I went for speed was by trying to muscle my way forward, with a longer, surging stride - instead of, as he advised, sending your speed "out the back."

As I jogged out the break before the next round of fast, I shortened my stride, consciously increased my cadence. And even though that day I don't think I ever cracked 170, the impact blew my mind.  It felt easier, lighter, smoother. And my splits dropped. Even on what were meant to be easy jogs between fast miles.

What was going on here?

It called to mind a frequent experience in college when our lightweight crew team raced practice pieces against the heavyweight squad.  Even though they were, on average 5-10% taller (with more length for each stroke) and 30-50% bigger (more raw power), the days we rowed cleaner, more in sync with each other, and more efficiently, we beat them every time.

Over the weeks and months of training since then, I have been obsessed with cadence.  And as I have calibrated closer and closer to 180, my race-day goals have also risen. I started out aiming just to run and finish strong, maybe to beat the Boston Qualifying time one bracket older and slower than where I am now (as my current target time is one I already missed five and a half years ago - and then the BAA made all the times five minutes faster).  Yet, now I'm aiming at my own personal best, which I ran years ago, at 27.  I am doing my best to hold lightly to that goal - knowing that race-day weather, or health, or starting-line traffic way back in the charity wave may all work against me.  But now I know it's possible. A reach. But possible.

What a difference a coach can make.

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