Lessons Learned: Selwyn

I met Selwyn while working on my graduate degree in Exercise Physiology. We ran for the same running group and as he approached the Masters division (runners 40 years of age and older), he asked me to help him with his training.

You probably know a runner like Selwyn. He didn’t run in high school. He didn’t in college and he certainly didn’t start running to be a competitive athlete. He started running to reduce stress from work but soon enough was running times most of us can only dream of.

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

Lesson #1: The World’s Best 10K Workout Sequence

If you’ve done my 10K training plan, then you have completed my World’s Best 10K Workout sequence. Well, you can thank Selwyn for that one. He was getting ready for the Cooper River Bridge Run (a road 10K) and that workout sequence is what I had him do.  It made sense in my mind, but it was Selwyn’s execution of it and then his breakthrough race at the Bridge Run that sealed it as my go to workout sequence for 10K runners.

That goal pace workout sequence is not for the faint of heart, but Selwyn really took to it. He seemed to have a big capacity to handle work that was just slightly slower than his VO2max yet faster than his lactate threshold (kind of like Cruise interval pace work).  And sure enough, once he could hit the final goal pace workout in the sequence, it perfectly predicted his 10K time.

The Bride Run was a breakthrough day for him (and me as a budding young coach). At the age of 39, he ran 29:46 for 10K on the roads! It was a big PR, and he was even the top US runner in the race. I was so excited for him and my confidence in coaching really fast runners like Selwyn was growing.


(Selwyn and me back in the day)

Lesson #2: Train Around Your Injuries

The body is amazing, but it does have a few flaws in its design. A big one for runners is that all three hamstring muscles share the same attachment on the pelvis (the ischial tuberosity).   That’s why it’s not uncommon for runners to develop high hamstring issues and Selwyn was no different. It was his “Achilles heel.”

Now, if Selwyn was a pro runner and had ample time to work on hamstring mobility and eccentric strengthening of the hamstrings, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been an issue. But Selwyn was a computer programmer. He spent his days sitting in an office chair working on the computer. His main training was often at lunch where he’d squeeze in his workout then back to the chair for the day. Sound familiar?

Because his hamstring would become an issue every now and then, the second lesson I learned while working with Selwyn was to “train around the injury.” What that means is that the limiting factor in the training determines how much and what training you can do. Period. For Selwyn, nothing could be done that would flare up the hamstring. Training would be throttled back if there was ever any chance of the hamstring getting injured.

The beauty of the lesson was that while I couldn’t prescribe exactly the training I wanted, I learned that if you can just keep an athlete healthy and he can do a reasonable amount of race-specific training, he can still kick butt.

That why my Run Team runners love having the flexibility and empowerment to adjust their plans based on how they are feeling. Running your best is about the “body of work” across your training plan and like Selwyn, you will likely need to adjust as you go. And if you’re frequently injured, then be mentally prepared to do different training than you might want to do. But also, like Selwyn, if you minimize your injuries and can just keep training, you can race really, really fast. Train around your injuries. It’s a good method to use.

Lesson #3: The Optimal Performance Attitude

The running team met at the running store early. It was race day. We piled into cars and drove a couple of hours to the race site, arriving a little over an hour before the start. While I milled around awaiting the time when we’d begin our warm-up, Selwyn slept. Sound asleep in the car as the time ticked by. I was nervous for the race. Selwyn was calm. I was anxious. Selwyn was not.

This was another lesson I learned from Selwyn – relax and win. Selwyn was an intense competitor, but you wouldn’t know it to see him before or after a race. So relaxed. So calm. So friendly, even to his rivals. He showed that a calm mind allows you to reduce stress so you can unleash your full mental energy during the race.  While I’m still not calm enough to be asleep right up until warm-up time, I have noticed that when I, or an athlete I’m coaching, has a calm, relaxed mind, the race results are typically much better.

It harkens back to the great sprint coach Bud Winter and his famous book, Relax and Win. Winter preached that relaxation allowed the body to fully perform. Tense up and the body can’t perform its best.  Selwyn had a great attitude for racing (and life) and to this day, I try to emulate his attitude. You should too.

If I could go back….

Looking back now, nearly 20 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 Selwyn.

Active Isolated Mobility

There’s a reason you see the pros doing the “rope stretching.” It works. Not for stretching per se but for mobility. As I discuss in my article, Mobility Nirvana, the action of contracting the opposing muscle relaxes the muscle we’re trying to mobilize. Done regularly, active isolated flexibility (AIF) keeps the muscles relaxed and moving through their normal range of motion.

Had I known of AIF at the time, I would have had Selwyn doing hamstring AIF before and after each and every run. I think it would have minimized the hamstring issues.

Eccentric Hamstring Loading

Likewise, if I had known about eccentric hamstring loading, I would have encouraged Selwyn to do that regularly as well. Eccentric loading is training that focuses on the part of the strength training movement where the muscle is lengthening while contracting. For the hamstring, you focus less on the flexing of the knee and more on the return to the starting position. Thus, the “lowering” of the weight becomes the focus. It works wonders for many soft tissue injuries like Achilles tendon issues and hamstring issues. A quick Google search will reveal many different eccentric loading exercises and if I was savvier back when I coached Selwyn, I would have gradually introduced eccentric loading and I suspect his hamstring issues would have disappeared.

Race Nationally

Selwyn mostly race locally. If I could go back, I would have pushed him more to race nationally. He was that good, even running 14:39 for 5K when he turned 40 when he did venture out to bigger national races. He would easily have been competitive on the masters circuit and with more competition, I suspect he would have run even faster.

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 Selwyn and can’t thank him enough for his trust in me. (And if you’ve run your fastest 10K using the World’s Best 10K Workout, then you can thank him too!)

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


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