How Constraints Make You a Better Coach
Coaching is easy when everything is on a roll. You just get in a groove and click it off. It’s magical and easy.
However, when things are going well, we always fall trap to what I call default mode thinking. We do what we have always done and continue to do so. In our minds eye, there’s no reason to change, everything is going well, so why not keep riding the wave. We fall into this never ending pattern of assigning the same styles of workout, in the same way, without considering any other option.
But where innovation truly happens is when we are faced with an issue that
pushes us far outside this comfort zone. When athletes or situations put
constraints around us, we are forced to find another path that isn’t the comfortable well-worn one.
While we like to think about how grand life would be if we had it all figured out and had no stress, the reality is that without stress we wouldn’t grow. The same holds true for coaching.
The most difficult athletes and situations offer the best opportunity for
Two days a week:
One of my freshman girls at Houston got a stress fracture within the first couple of weeks of practice. She wasn’t running much at all, but the stress fracture bug it. After it had healed, when she came back and got up to 4 days a week of running, the same area started to hurt. With further time off, nothing changed. So, what did we do?
We dropped to two days a week of running throughout the entire track season. That meant deciding what workouts we needed to get all the development in two days that we normally got in 6-7 days of running. What it forced was asking the question, ‘what matters most?’ That question defined what we attacked each week. Some days it was training as a 5k runner, others as middle distance runner. Her workouts modulated between
training with the long distance girls and training with our 800/1500 crew.
For a girl who should have been running the 5k most likely, we focused on the 1500/mile. She ended the season with a 4:38 1,500m PR off no more than two days a week of training for an entire track season. There wasn’t a single long run in there. In an ideal world, I’d never prescribe this training, but given the constraints, we had to get creative.
Aqua jogging and strides:
Drevan Anderson-Kappa was a multi-time conference champ for us at Houston, a couple times in the 800m and once in anchoring our 4×400. He also ran right at 32min for 10k in XC, which shows you his range.
In my first two years at Houston, Drevan suffered from quite a few health problems that limited the amount of training he could do. Everything from your standard injuries, to health issues that limited his sleep and his ability to recover.
At one point, any time we did more than a few miles or a couple workouts, Drevan would be so drained that he could barely function. Here’s a guy who was a 46 split/1:49/25:30 8k guy who could barely workout. It didn’t make any sense and we set about trying to fix the problems, which we eventually did, but for large part of his college career, these constraints on recovery were front and center.
So what did we do with an athlete who would crater if he did too much?
To give you an idea, there was a period of time where Drevan aquajogged 5 days a week and actually ran only 2-3 times a week. We found that aquajogging could keep his general aerobic abilities up, and we’d just hope that the few track workouts give him the race rhythm he needed.
At one point, the only workout we did were 100m repeats back and forth with a turn around rest because turning hurt his knee and any long repeats caused him to feel over fatigued. So sets of 100m reps is what we had to go with. We had to figure out how to modulate the intensity and recovery to get all of the aerobic, anaerobic, and specific training by running 100m in a straight line.
He ran sub 1:50 off this style of training.
Another female athlete I work with was coming off a few seasons of frustration. She had grown frustrated with the type A demands of training at a high level such as obsessing over hitting workout splits or exact mileage on every run. It had become a chore, where the training should have been a challenge.
For the first several months of working together, that meant we made the decision to not use a watch on any run or workout. Note that I didn’t say use a GPS watch, I meant use a watch in general. Given this athlete lived in a different state, this meant there was no feedback from training. No paces, no mileage, no information. It also meant, workouts couldn’t be defined as normal (i.e. do 5x5min or 4×1 mile in 5:00). We couldn’t even define “rest” intervals.
With this constraint in place, it forced creativity between the both of us. It forced ingraining an ability to run by feel for the athlete and me as a coach to describe what I wanted. It led to many conversations of “We need a tempo effort today, so what I want you to do is run at a tempo effort until you feel like your just about to go over the edge, when you feel that, stop and rest until you feel okay, then do that one more time, and call it a day.”
Mono to StateChamp:
When I was first getting into coaching I was fortunate enough to coach Ryan Dohner in HS. His senior year he was 11th at NXN before winning state and running sub 9 in the 2 mile. After cross-country, Ryan came down with mono in February. With the state meet in May, things didn’t look great. Instead of throwing in the towel, we came up with a plan.
We knew that mono severely impacted recovery and we didn’t want to risk his future running career for the sake of trying to eke out a performance as a High School runner.
With the constraints mono put in place (i.e. lack of recovery, inability to work hard or long) we devised a plan to do a lot of easy/moderate workouts. Scrapping the traditional distance workouts, we did a lot of short interval work that was not very fast. Sets of 100s, 150s, 200s at 17-18sec 100m pace (aka slow for Ryan) became the staple. As we were able to lengthen things out, we included ridiculously long rest in between sets. The goal was simply not to ever let Ryan go “over the edge.”
Slowly his fitness came around and by the state meet, he closed in a sub 4:20 mile to take the crown, just a few months after being
diagnosed with mono.
Taking Advantage of Constraints:
The point of these short stories isn’t to celebrate what these athletes did, but instead to show you what being forced into a corner can do. When we have no other options because of injury, illness, or another constraint, the boxes we put ourselves in are broken down. We can’t rely on the traditional methods of training. We are forced to reach beyond our comfort zone.
Perhaps in the most famed example, Sir Roger Bannister had a limited amount of time to train while he was pursuing his degree and training for a sub 4 mile. Bannister performed a series of interval workouts during his lunch break, as it was the only period of time he had to train. Time was his constraint and he had to figure out how to maximize his bang for his buck.
Constraints allow for this to happen. If the restrictions weren’t present, then there is no reason to get out of our “default mode thinking” and do what we’ve always done.
Next time you see a difficult situation with an athlete, don’t run away scared or fall back on your default thinking. Instead, see it as an opportunity to experiment and innovate. And you don’t have to wait until you see a “problem” athlete to adopt this mindset.
To keep myself fresh, I’ve taken to artificially assigning constraints to myself to keep fresh thinking front and center. By assigning constraints, we force ourselves to analyze the problem from a different angle.
For example, when creating workouts, ask yourself what you would do if you couldn’t use traditional reps (i.e. mile repeats or k’s) or how would you design a session if your athletes had no watches or had no measured course? What would you create if you needed a tempo effort but had to do it interval style on the track? What if you couldn’t use a track but were restricted to a soccer field only? What would your warm-up be if you were restricted to a 100m straightaway and nowhere to warm-up?
By placing artificial constraints on ourselves, we force innovation. We realize that there are more ways to attack our desired adaptation than the traditional methods that we utilize.
That’s a great post about getting creative with training. It helps to push your mind outside of the box sometimes. Thank you for sharing!
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