Lessons Learned: Mary Ellen

The first elite runner I coached was Mary Ellen. Her goal was to qualify for and run in the Olympic Marathon Trials.

I was in graduate school studying exercise physiology at the time and I don’t remember exactly how it came about or why she decided to ask me to coach her, but she did.

Coaching Mary Ellen was a fun and rewarding experience and really cemented my love of coaching runners. Helping an elite runner like her also built my confidence that I could not only help “regular” runners like you and me but could help the faster folks as well.

From Mary Ellen, I learned 3 key lessons that continue to inform my coaching today.

Lesson #1: Runner types

Mary Ellen was a prototypical shuffler – a fast cadence with a low back kick.  She was fast relative to the rest of us but her performances in longer races and workouts far exceeded her performances shorter races and speed work.

You may know someone like this. She could handle long runs and big mileage with no problem, but speed work was a challenge simply because she could not move her legs any faster nor could she produce any more power from her body. It seemed like she could nearly run the same pace in a half-marathon as she could in a 10K.

It was with Mary Ellen that I saw first-hand the impact of different runner types. She was an Endurance Monster and while it would be several years before I wrote about the three different running types in my column in Running Times magazine, I learned that while on the surface, her running form and lack of speed seemed to be all “bad things” that a coach should try to correct, that is not always the case.

I learned to respect an individual athlete’s unique traits, work with them and if they are on the extreme end (like the Endurance Monster that Mary Ellen was), realize that other traits may be your ace in the hole that can lead to big success.

For example, Mary Ellen was extremely durable and had a mental drive that could tolerate high mileage and the “grind” for getting out the door twice per day week after week after week.  With Mary Ellen, I learned that durability and drive beat convention (perfect running form, excellent short distance speed, etc.) many times over if done right.

So, I leaned on her durability, her ability to run miles and miles with very little lasting fatigue. I learned that for endurance monsters, speed can come from strength.  We ran big miles and didn’t worry so much about her lack for speed. The training better matched her physiology and psychology and she got stronger and stronger.

Lesson #2: Long run double day pays dividends

One of the things Mary Ellen suggested was doing a short double run on the day of her long runs. I had never heard of that. Certainly, pro runners often run twice per day, but the long run day is the one day when they only run once.

One of my early qualities as a coach (and maybe this came from my researcher’s mindset) was that I was open to experimentation.  She started doing 20-30 minutes on the afternoons of her long runs. She’d run long in the morning then later in the day, go out for a very slow run.

While that double run was nothing to write home about – it was very slow, and she felt terrible for the first few minutes – what did happen is that she was more prepared for the next few runs. In other words, the quality of her upcoming training went way up because that long run day double run helped her recover.

I’ve continued to use this for experienced runners, and you can read more about it here.

Lesson #3: Match mentality

I mentioned before that Mary Ellen presented as an unconventional runner and many coaches might have struggled to work with her. She didn’t respond to speed work even though intuitively any coach would say that’s what she should work on.  Changing her running form would seem like low hanging fruit but sometimes that leads to injury and/or reduced running economy (an important trait) in Endurance Monsters.

While I’ve not always followed my own advice, the one thing Mary Ellen taught me was that the coach should mold to the athlete not the other way around.  I was open to capitalizing on her unique traits. I think I was also good at reading her mental state and working with it. I think I conveyed my excitement about what she was doing – chasing this big goal – and could work with her Endurance Monster’s mentality to really get her to be her best.

And she ran great in the Trials. It was run in her hometown so there was a lot of pressure on her, but I was so excited to see her achieving her big goal and was so honored to have been part of it.

If I could go back….

Looking back now, nearly 25 years later, I always go through what I would do differently. I think all good coaches review training in this way and think about what they would have changed knowing what they know now. Here’s what I would do differently with Mary Ellen.

1- Fast running within long runs

For Mary Ellen, I would have done more fast running within her long runs. Having coached several other elite Endurance Monsters since Mary Ellen (some that would become National Champions and World Championship athletes), I now know that Endurance Monsters can run a bit quicker in most long runs and they can tolerate miles at marathon pace and fast finish long runs better than the rest of us.

2- Strides = Speed work

While Mary Ellen didn’t respond well to speed, I would have addressed speed by adding more strides to her program. Endurance Monsters can reach their maximum speed ability simply through regular strides.

Strides avoids the stress (both mental and physical) of traditional speed work (VO2max training) and that is always a good thing for runners. I would include some speed workouts like we did, but I’d build her plan more like the Endurance Monster plans I now provide.

3- More mobility

Lastly, I would focus more on mobility with her. For big mileage runners, it’s often that they are efficient in their mechanics, thus their ability to handle the big miles.  But because they run so much, they are very susceptible to repetitive stress issues that most of us face at much lower mileage.

If I could go back, I’d have her doing more active isolated mobility (aka rope stretching or Wharton AIF). This type of mobility helps the nervous system calm down (something that is a challenge with big miles) and reinforces proper movement patterns.

Final Thoughts

It’s fun to think back through previous athletes and reflect on what I learned and how these “guinea pigs” helped me develop the full McMillan Training System. It was a thrill and honor to coach Mary Ellen and can’t thank her enough for her trust in me as we worked toward her big goal.

As always, let me know if I can be of any help.


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