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The best running coaches understand the demands of running. They intuit what each athlete can handle physically, mentally, and emotionally. They hold us accountable but also support us. All this makes the work of training and racing easier and helps us discover the best version of ourselves.
I’ve been lucky to work with top-notch coaches throughout my running journey. Each one has offered essential insights for different phases of my career—and life. Here are four tips that are helpful reminders for every runner, young or experienced alike.
Look at the Big Picture
In high school, I was intense and perfectionistic. This exacting nature helped me become the fastest high school distance runner in the nation, but gone unchecked, it was debilitating. My coach recognized this and would repeat often, “Remember the big picture.” In particular, he referred to my dream of running professionally after college. He wanted me to realize that a running career can last a lifetime. I felt only as good as my last race or interval session, but he knew that gracefully accepting the ups and downs of training was necessary for longevity.
The “big picture” expression gained new meaning during a life-changing event outside of running. My mother had cancer throughout high school, and she died two weeks after graduation. I started to realize coaches need to address their runners’ mental and emotional experiences, not just the physical.
Let Injuries Heal
In my first year running collegiately at the University of Oregon, I started off with a psoas injury. I was eager to get back and prove myself, and kept hammering—but to no avail, as I was injured throughout the year. Coach Tom Heinonen would say, “Don’t pull up your carrots before they’re ready. You can’t put them back!” He knew injuries required time to heal. He didn’t want me testing my ability to run while I was still in pain—good advice!
Focus Your Mind
As a pro runner after college, I struggled with depression and negative thoughts. Yes, I believed I could fly to new PRs. But there were days when I could hardly spread my wings to get off the ground. In my hometown of Boulder, Colorado, I went searching for a sign and literally bumped into Steve Jones, former world record holder in the marathon, next to a clothing rack in the Boulder Running Company. He ended up helping me reach my goal of making the U.S. team headed to the World Championships in the 5K.
“You’ve got to learn to compartmentalize,” he’d say. Ahead of my qualifying race at the U.S. Track and Field Championships, he said, “At some point before the race, you’ve got to decide you will make the team.” In the holding area 20 minutes before the start, I repeated the mantra, “I am top 3,” and I didn’t stop saying it to myself until I crossed the line in third place.
Celebrate Your Wins
As I neared 40—the age runners qualify as masters—I kept competing, but sought more balance. I wanted to honor my whole self, not just the athlete in me, and sought the guidance of Margo Jennings, who coached Olympians Maria Mutola and Dame Kelly Holmes, with a keen approach of training the mind, body, and emotions. Her coaching made me realize what coaching truly is: the sacred honor of helping an individual realize their full potential as a human.
“The most valuable thing a coach can give an athlete is helping to shape their character by keeping them grounded in the present and focused on the experiences, lessons and reflections of each day—what they learned, what they are grateful for, and what they have given back to others. [And] always reminding the athlete that their daily journey, rather than the final outcome of the future, is most important,” she says. Her methods helped me realize that not once during my thirty years of running had I ever really celebrated a victory. The next time I raced and won, I threw my hands into the air, with a smile. It felt really good.
Celebrating myself was a powerful gesture that signaled a shift toward embracing the joy of every step—a message I have embraced as I have the honor of coaching many youth and adults alike.
Melody Fairchild is a running coach, director of Boulder Mountain Warriors Youth Run Club, founder of The Melody Fairchild Girls Running Camp, and masters athlete in Boulder, Colorado. Her first book, GIRLS RUNNING, co-authored with Elizabeth Carey, is forthcoming. Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington.