Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan's coach, Jerry Schumacher, gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the intense world of Olympic training.
Coach Jerry Schumacher is a distance running coach for the Nike Oregon Track Club Elite program in Beaverton, Ore. Former head coach for University of Wisconsin-Madison’s track and field team, Schumacher currently coaches Olympians and world-class runners, including Shalane Flanagan, Kara Goucher and Lisa Uhl. We sat down with Schumacher to get his perspective on all things running.
Women’s Running: What’s the difference between training Olympic athletes and everyday runners?
Coach Jerry Schumacher: The biggest difference is the lifestyle. For Olympic athletes, running is their job. They commit their entire day to training and performance. An elite runner’s day might look like this: breakfast, a 10-mile run in the morning, a strength workout at the gym, lunch, a short nap, another 10-mile run, a massage for recovery, flexibility training and dinner, all followed by an early bedtime so she can repeat the cycle the next day. It’s a 24/7, 365 day-per-year undertaking.
Most other runners—myself included—work all day then go for a run, so we can’t have the same full-blown commitment. Running is a part of what we do, but it’s not the whole story. For that reason, motivation can be a struggle where it wouldn’t be for elites. At the same time, the workouts elites and “everyday runners” perform can be fairly similar, just kept relative to their ability level and the time they have available.
WR: How would you describe your coaching style?
JS: You might get different answers depending on who you ask! In all seriousness, I would say I’m both laid back and very fundamentals-oriented. I’m firm and disciplined when it comes to training, but I try to bring as much fun and excitement to practice and the team as I can.
WR: When it comes to the marathon, what are your go-to workouts to ensure the athletes you train are in top shape?
JS: The two workouts that are crucial to improving performance in the marathon are long runs and tempo runs. Weekly long runs are something I really believe in. They help increase overall volume [weekly mileage], which is important for marathon training. Our marathon tempo runs are generally between 8 and 17 miles and range anywhere from half-marathon pace to goal-marathon pace.
It’s also important to stress the body in different ways throughout the season. Sometimes, I’ll have my athletes train at altitude [where the low air pressure makes running more taxing]. Just when the body starts to get used to the altitude, we’ll come back down to sea level and throw some really hard workouts into the mix. Changing up the type of stress helps us get the improvements we’re after.
WR: How do you ensure your athletes are training at their full potential without risking injury?
JS: At the highest level, risks are necessary. If you don’t take chances, you’ll never find out how good you can be. There are going to be some injuries along the way. If you are riding that line, sometimes you’re going to cross over it. To be able to ride the line successfully, we have to pay really close attention to the body while being diligent about recovery—massages, physical therapy, icing, etc. If you can pull it off, that’s when you get major breakthroughs and big results. From a coach’s perspective, I don’t like to concentrate on the negative possibilities. Instead, I try to stay in tune with how my athletes are feeling to make sure they’re working hard but not heading toward injury.
WR: What are the traits an elite runner must possess in order to achieve Olympic success?
JS: To start with, elite athletes all have a special genetic capability that allows them to have that kind of talent. After that, number one is to be super- competitive. I think it’s impossible to be successful in this sport if you’re not. Two, you have to really love what you do. There’s nothing easy about it, so you have to be passionate. Three is discipline. If all of those things are in line, the sky’s the limit.
WR: What can average runners learn from elites?
JS: If you look at elite athletes, it’s not like they’re running a personal record or having a major success in every single race. There are a lot of steps backward and what you might call “failures” along the way. The lesson here is to enjoy what you’re doing and not to fixate too much on the outcome.
It’s easy to be so focused on one goal or race that you miss the process. Racing is not about individual results, but all the steps you put together that will eventually get you where you want to be. If you stick with it, good things will happen.