Coaching Education: the quality question

Over the last month I’ve been fortunate to attend a few courses offered by Quebec’s National Coaching Institute. This program, which will continue in the fall with weekly classes, is designed to train coaches at a high level, and help NSOs identify level 4 coaches. As with most of these things, it has been hit and miss.

Opinions vary on coaching education. There are some who suggest that the NCCP “levels” program is unnecessary hoop jumping, and that there are some great coaches who are not certified, and other, poor coaches, who are. This may be true. But I think, as a coach, if you ever reach the point where you think you can’t learn something, you should probably stop because you aren’t doing the athletes any good with that attitude. I will admit that a lot of what I’ve learned in the NCCP program has been obvious, repetitive, and at times inapplicable. That said, even when I come across something I’ve already seen before, it has been an opportunity to refresh and remind myself of the best coaching practices.

Coaching education, in addition to keeping up with the latest scientific findings, is all about staying engaged. One way this is achieved is through the multi-sport model, where coaches of different disciplines talk shop, and share ideas. I have found working with coaches in other sports has given me some insights into why we do things the way we do in athletics and endurance sport. In fact, one thing it has driven home for me is how advanced we are in terms of things like training the brain, recovery, and the interaction between coaching and science. Still, we do have a lot to learn, as what is our strength (a strong sense of tradition) can also be a weakness, as our doctrinal adhesions get in the way of moving on to better methods.

The first session focused on ways of learning. This sounds like jargon, and it is, but it is also quite literal. How do we best learn complex tasks like sport skills? The obvious answer, and the method of learning that you’re likely most familiar with, is that we learn by breaking complex movements into simple ones, and building them up back to the full movement. Apparently this is wrong!

Perhaps it is an exaggeration to say it is wrong. Simplification and segmentation have their uses. But they are not the most efficient ways to teach a skill for long-term retention. The learning curve for a skill taught in this way is steep at first, but then flattens out, and in some cases can trend down (if you don’t keep up practice). On the otherhand, if you teach a complex skill in its entirety, from the get-go, the learning curve is less steep (it takes longer to gain a higher level of skill), but a higher level of skill is ultimately achieved, and retained.

What does this mean for running? After all, what skills are we teaching anyway? It’s just left-right, left-right, right? This is a good example of how running is ahead of the curve. The “skill drills” we do that are most familiar for distance runners are As and Bs. This represents simplification and segmentation of the running motion. The running motion itself is the complex movement that we’d like to practice and get good at. So, already, we can see that most runners do a little bit of the traditional skill-acquisition model, and a lot (every step a runner takes) of the more advanced, complex model.

When we talk about running form, one of the solutions to potential form problems is often that if you increase your mileage, your form will become more efficient because of the greater demand on your body. Essentially an increase in mileage is an increase is complex skill practice.

To make it even more specific, though, you’d want to do more running at your race pace. So here we come up against the question of how fast should you do mileage, and how much quality running should you do, vs. easy or recovery running? Running at race pace is more specific, complex practice, but we also know that if we do too much of it without a proper recovery, then we can break down. So the balance, as usual, is up to the individual athlete and coach.

As I said above, often, these coaching education seminars end up rehashing the same old theories. In this case, it’s also true: we’ve ended up with the question of how much mileage should a runner do and how fast. We are no closer to a definitive answer, but I think the lesson to be learned is that our answer to the question should depend on our knowledge of complex skill acquisition.

What are the benefits of a) more mileage and b) more quality running? If you listen carefully to the top Canadian runners these days, Simon Bairu and Cameron Levins, for example, you will hear references to quality when they talk about training. Levins’ coach won’t say what he’s doing because he says it’s a little crazy. He’s probably doing sprint training, and a lot more of it than just strides on easy days. He’s probably also doing a large percentage his mileage fairly quickly. I remember hearing a quote from Bairu who said something like “Jerry wants us to do a bit of quality every day.”

So, how much? This is the question people want answered. The traditional answer has been that you can do between 20-30% of your weekly mileage at “quality.” This range will probably depend on how you define quality, what your event is, what phase you are in, and how much total mileage you are doing (the last two may be connected).

For example, if you have a marathoner doing 100 miles per week, for that person to do 30 miles of quality, you’d certainly have to include as quality any running done at marathon pace, since that pace is race pace. So if there’s a 20mile long run with the last 10miles at race pace, you’ve got 10miles of quality to start. If you do a second threshold workout of around 8miles you are up to 18miles. If you do an interval workout that could be around 4miles, you’ve hit 22miles. After that, you might hit around 1mile total of strides in a week if you are consistent and do strides every day. You might get up to 2miles for “strides” if you include something like 6-8×200 fast after a long run. Most would consider this a pretty packed program. So we’re up to 22miles, or 22%.

If you take a 1500m runner who is maybe only doing 60miles per week, the quality ratio would be 12-18miles. A high-end threshold run would be 4-8miles (8miles is kind of high for a 1500m runner, but it depends on the type of runner), and you might have two other workouts, once at 1500 pace where you might hit 2miles of quality, and another interval workout with 4-6miles of fast aerobic work (3k-10k pace). A 1500m runner would definitely be on the high-end of strides, so that’s about 2miles. The total then would be about 12-18miles.

These two examples don’t represent anything earth-shattering or new. This is where we are. So we can say either that athletics knows what it is doing, even if we don’t necessarily know why, or we can say, how do we go after even more quality running. One possibility is to add bouts of steady state (around marathon pace or slightly faster, but not as fast as tempo) to easy runs, or in between intervals as recovery, instead of the usual jog recovery. The good thing about steady state running is that it is not too taxing on the body, but it does have a positive effect on aerobic development.

Another way to add an extra mile or so of quality is to do a “cruise test” before each workout, where the athlete runs 800m at cruise pace without a watch. If you do this regularly, you will get an idea of where the athlete stands in terms of fitness for the day. If he normally runs this cruise test around 2:30 for the 800 and he starts rolling in 2:27 with no more effort, you can see he’s moved up a bit in fitness. If he drops to 2:35 on a day, you can tell that conditions aren’t great, either internally or externally, and adjust your workout accordingly. And you’ve added some quality to the week.

So there you go. Maybe this isn’t new. Maybe the debate has not been resolved. But I think we have come at it from a different perspective: the goal of doing more fast running. And while I still believe there are no “secret” workouts, I do think that some people are doing more efficient work than others, and it shows. The caveat is that it is risky, too. You are more likely to get injured if you try to run more quality than by doing more easy miles. However you decide to train, make sure it’s the right method for you to get the most out of your fitness. But don’t be afraid to take a chance.