Allie Ostrander never wanted 2020 to be a lost year. Despite the disruption of the pandemic and the setback of an injury, the three-time NCAA champion and pro runner for the Brooks Beasts has remained determined for her life to move forward in meaningful ways.
At the beginning of the year, Ostrander, who trains in Seattle and represented the U.S. at the 2019 world championships in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, considered going for a master’s degree. But when she contemplated what she’d like to study, she kept coming back to coaching. As the months unfolded in a way nobody anticipated, she wondered if she should try coaching instead of merely studying it.
She contacted Chris Reed, a cross-country and track and field coach at nearby Seattle Pacific University, and asked if she could volunteer to help him this fall.
“I decided to get some experience in the field first,” Ostrander said. “My interest in coaching is definitely confirmed. I mean, part of that is also knowing that there is a need for more female coaches and female voices in the NCAA.”
According to the latest research by the Tucker Center for Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota, NCAA track and field and cross country received an “F” on the 2019-20 report card for the number of women in head coaching positions, with 18.6 percent of Division I track and field teams coached by women and 17.5 percent of cross-country teams.
At 23 years old, Ostrander is just getting started as a professional athlete, but she knows it’s never too soon to explore what might come after she’s done competing. As a volunteer assistant coach at SPU, she goes to one or two of the team’s three or four practices per day (due to COVID-19 safety policies, the group is split into pods, necessitating more daily sessions than usual). Ostrander helps with drills, leads core workouts, takes splits, and serves as a sounding board for Reed. Sometimes she also pitches in with recruiting efforts, too.
All of Ostrander’s coaching duties fall between her own obligations as a professional athlete. She’s spent the better part of the last few months nursing a sacral stress reaction, which has required dedication to cross-training as she’s eased back into more mileage. Now that she’s starting to run more, she also wants to maintain a presence in her coaching.
“I think it’s valuable for me and the athletes to have some consistency happening there. And I also really enjoy it,” she said. “I really want to be supportive of the athletes, in and out of running—just showing that I really care about their success not just on the track, but in life.”
Ostrander’s coach, Danny Mackey, is supportive of her pursuits. In his time as a professional coach, he’s seen some runners who are better when entirely focused on their training and others who thrive in their careers when they have extracurricular activities. Young pros like Ostrander, who graduated from Boise State University with a degree in exercise science and a 4.0 GPA, often have a hard time adjusting to a lifestyle with more free time after training at high levels in college while also maintaining their academic schedules, he said.
“You still need to recover and pay attention or you will pay the piper at the end of the day with injuries, sickness, or whatever it is—you won’t be the best version of yourself,” Mackey said. “But one of our team’s maxims is to have a positive impact on our community. When Allie asked me what I thought of her coaching…I love the idea of one of our professional athletes going to a college team and putting something good into that system.”
For her part, Ostrander says that she performs better when she is not singularly focused. And although she has yet to race in 2020, her mental health has improved as she’s joined the SPU program.
“It makes me super happy—like, I’m noticeably happier all the time,” Ostrander said. “And I truly believe that a happy runner is a successful runner. I think that if an athlete is doing everything they can to train well and they’re also happy, you’re going to be at your best.”
The experience has already been eye-opening, too. Athletes often don’t have a full grasp of the time that their coaches put into their runners’ training. Just last week, the SPU men’s team had a hard workout on the schedule and the coaches were nervous because it had to come directly after a strength session. It wasn’t ideal, but necessary due to COVID-19 facility restrictions, so they went ahead with the plan. Reed confided in Ostrander that he couldn’t sleep because of it.
“And I could totally see that if I did pursue coaching in the future, getting nervous for their hard workout or not being able to sleep before their races,” Ostrander said. “I’ve been super impressed by the amount of time and effort and detail that goes into all the training. It’s not even the workouts, but how long each run will be and what drills we do on which day. It’s meticulous. As an athlete, you don’t always realize everything that’s going into every step you’re taking.”
As a young, female coach Ostrander also brings a needed perspective and expertise to the profession, and empathy for what runners go through during the span of an NCAA career. She’s been through her share of injuries and has also been outspoken about body image, eating disorders, and how inappropriate analysis of female athletes’ bodies can be detrimental to all runners, but especially to girls growing up in the sport.
“My point isn’t that we can’t deal with the chastising, it’s that we shouldn’t have to,” Ostrander recently wrote on an Instagram post. “Young (or any age) minds shouldn’t be infiltrated with thoughts that their size is the reason for success or that their hunger cues can’t be trusted.”
And if she had to do it over, she would have preferred more weight training and heavier lifting as a college athlete.
“I would have had more focus on building power and explosiveness,” she said.
Not all pro runners are cut out to coach, but Mackey has a suspicion that Ostrander will prove valuable at SPU and beyond. And she might just learn a few lessons that will improve her own running, too.
“Some coaches just kind of land jobs or they’re doing it for ego or whatever it is. She’s doing it because she wants to—she already has a full-time job,” Mackey said. “She’s somebody who really thinks things through. She asks a lot of questions…and if we’re putting good out into the world, it comes back to us, so it’s a win-win.”