For the past several months I’ve been writing a book that will serve as the official study guide for the 80/20 Endurance coach certification program. As you might expect, working on this project has afforded me the opportunity to reflect deeply on my philosophy of coaching. It’s impossible to summarize this philosophy in a pithy epigram, but I can’t resist trying. Are you ready? Here it is:
The job of the coach is to never let an athlete take two steps in the wrong direction.
Now, if these eighteen words truly encapsulated the essence of good coaching, I wouldn’t have to devote another 800 words to explaining them, but they don’t, so I will.
From a remote perspective, the entire history of endurance sports training can be seen as one big trial-and-error learning experiment. In the early days of running, swimming, cycling, and other endurance disciplines, nobody knew what the hell they were doing as far as training was concerned. Athletes tried all kinds of things in search of better performance, learning as they went.
One such athlete was Walter George, an Englishman who is remembered as the greatest amateur runner of the late 1880s and early 1890s. Early in George’s running career, his training regimen consisted almost entirely of 100 daily repetitions of a modified form of running in place that he called 100-Up. On the strength of this goofily minimalist program, George set amateur world records of 4:19.4 for the mile and 14:42.8 for three miles. His success led to widespread adoption of the 100-Up exercise, whose propagation was aided by the enthusiastic evangelism of its inventor. In an article he wrote in 1908, George expressed his “supreme faith” in the exercise, which he labeled “the century’s best.”
As the years went by and improvements became harder to come by, George added more and more actual running to his routine. Here is an example of George’s training in 1882, when he was twenty-six, as originally printed in the 1902 book Training.
Date Morning Afternoon
18 Oct. 1,000 yds and 1 mile slow 880 yds at ¾ speed
19 Oct. 1½ miles slow Very wet. Did not run.
20 Oct. 1,000 yds at ¾ speed 800 yds and 350 yds fast
21 Oct. 1,000 yds and 700 yds —–
22 Oct. 800 yds at ¾ speed 1,000 yds slow
23 Oct. 1,000 yds and 700 yds slow —–
24 Oct. 1¼ miles and 1,000 yds slow —–
The reason today’s elite runners no longer train this way is that the trial-and-error process continued. Athletes kept trying different things, and when a new thing seemed to work better than an old thing, the latter was discarded in favor of the former. In many cases, athletes made their own training methods obsolete through n=1 testing. As I write this article on New Year’s Day 2022, endurance training methods have become highly optimized at a population level. Yet endurance training remains a never-ending experiment for each individual athlete. While today’s proven best practices are broadly optimal for everyone, each moment in each athlete’s journey toward full realization of potential is sufficiently unique that the best way forward is seldom obvious. There’s always a degree of creative problem solving involved.
In endurance training, in other words, you’re not doing things so much as trying things. When you try something that doesn’t work out, that’s like taking a step in the wrong direction, away from full realization of potential. That’s okay. A coach shouldn’t beat himself up for sending an athlete one step in the wrong direction. But if the coach fails to recognize that the athlete has gone off course and to take immediate corrective action, that’s on him. If one step in the wrong direction is only human, two steps is unforgivable. It’s kind of like that old saying, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.”
For example, suppose a coach is working with an athlete who keeps hitting the wall in marathons, and she’s trying to figure out what to do differently in the athlete’s training to break the pattern. Her intuition tells her that overdistance long runs (i.e., runs longer than 26.2 miles) might be the answer, but it turns out this method leaves the runner completely wrecked even when the overdistance runs are planned and executed carefully. That’s one step in the wrong direction. If the coach then insists on continuing with the method, perhaps out some Trumpian inability to acknowledge error, that’s too steps in the wrong direction. A better coach in this situation will acknowledge the error and try something else—perhaps back-to-back long runs, or depletion runs, or extra mileage spread evenly across the week. Any one of these alternative methods might also turn out to be a step in the wrong direction, and that’s okay too. As long as the coach never stops trying and never allows the athlete to take two steps in the wrong direction, it is inevitable that the athlete’s full athletic potential will be realized eventually.
Did you ever play the Hot and Cold game as a kid? As a refresher, one player hides an object and the other player wanders around with their eyes closed, trying to find it. When the second player moves toward the hidden object, the first player lets them know by says “Warmer,” and when the second player moves away from it, the first player says, “Colder.” In this way, despite being blinded, the second player inevitably lays hands on the hidden object.
Endurance training is like that. In this analogy, the second player’s closed eyes represent the coach’s blindness to the best way forward, the hidden object represents full realization of athletic potential, and the first player’s verbal cues represent the results, positive and negative, of the things coaches try with athletes in search of maximum performance. It doesn’t take a genius to guide athletes to the hidden object that is optimal performance in this matter. In fact, it takes a moron to fail!