A few years back, I signed up for a Road Runners Club of America coaching clinic over in Michigan. I hosted an art exhibition of my own work the Friday night before leaving for the clinic. Gathering up my stuff at 8:00 p.m., I prepared for the trip only to be hit immersed immediately in a driving rainstorm.
There was thunder, lightning and the path of the storm on the Weather Channel app showed that it would follow the exact path I was taking from northern Indian up through the southern part of Michigan. I tried driving in that mess for twenty minutes, then turned around. The conditions were life-threatening.
But I was told, “Sorry, no refunds. And no, you can’t apply your fees to a future clinic.”
I was angry but decided to let it go. Then an invitation to host a clinic appeared in my email feed. So I set all that up and hosted a clinic at our fitness center. I purchased all the food and drinks, organized the space and made sure that everyone had what they needed during the two days were sat in the classrooms.
Between those duties, I listened carefully to the lead speaker and participated in group activities. The range of experience among people participating in the clinic was a bit startling to me. Some of them appeared to have little knowledge of what it took to become a better runner, much less how to coach others.
One exercise involved writing workouts for a fictitious runner whose relative attributes and lifestyle issues we were supposed to accommodate in prescribing workouts. I’ve written enough fiction to know that developing a character is not a straight-line process. They come to life through experiment and imagination.
Later on the exam required for “graduation” from the class, we were allowed to use the book, which implied that the desired answer to the exercise was some sort of rote conclusion.
I missed passing the exam by four percentage points. They don’t initially tell you what you missed, but are ‘willing’ to let you take the exam over again for a fee of $50.
Having already spent at least $300 on the initial registration, my appetite for more investment was about exhausted. Plus there was a matter of inherent insight to consider. The RRCA course teaches and tests to its exclusive claims to knowledge about running and coaching. If you don’t pass the exam that tells exactly you how to think, you don’t get the honor of being called an RRCA coach. Okay, that’s their right I guess. If I didn’t like the idea of absorbing their ideology, why try to get certified at all?
Well, that’s why I’m writing this article. I think the RRCA is full of shit when it comes to how they teach coaching and what factors are taken into consideration to designate someone a certified coach.
Any runner or coach in America can tell you that there are as many coaching philosophies and applied methods as there are coaches and athletes in America. That’s why even world-class athletes sometimes move around during their careers. What worked for a while may not last a whole career.
The renowned Oregon coach Bill Bowerman did not even give the same workouts to athletes within his own team. If he had not “broken the mold” by experimenting with new shoe designs, the Nike brand would never have invented ‘waffle souls’ and “Just Do It” might have an entirely different, much more pedantic meaning.
The point being, that on a typical basis, neither coaches or athletes succeed with cookie-cutter methods. It is those who invent new methods and break the mold that often drive athletes to great success.
There have always been many theories at work in distance running. Going all the way back to the 70s when I started running, there was the Lydiard method of Long Slow Distance. It worked for many runners. But as it turned out, it wasn’t the ‘be all-end all’ when it came to training. There were coaches who shunted slow running for constant speed work and low mileage. Hall of Famer Brooks Johnson was one of these coaches.
As the running boom expanded, runners clawed their way through interviews with world class competitors to discern secrets about how the likes of Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers or Derek Clayton got faster and went longer than anyone else. The great Marty Liquori published a coaching book titled Guide to the Elite Runner that contains advice that is still valid today. Yet many things have changed as well.
When the Kenyan revolution came along, many distance runners cried “foul!” because these were athletes that grew up running miles a day back and forth to school. How does anyone compete with that? There were also murmurings about legendary Central American athletes capable of running hundreds of miles in just sandals.
The bulk of us Old Schoolers in the 70s and 80s decided to do most of our mileage hard to put our bodies in what we called a constant “tired state” in order to get the most from our training. We raced frequently and hard. Even high school cross country schedules in Illinois featured 15-18 dual or triangular meets per season. On weekends we ran invitationals. Between those races, speed workouts were thrown in for good measure. We even ran hard workouts after races.
In college the schedule still featured 13 meets, half dual meets and half invites.
After college, most of us raced 15-20 times a year at distances from 5K through the half marathon. Very few runners concentrated strictly on the marathon or half-marathon. These we raced instead as dessert on top of the main menu of hard efforts at shorter distances. As a result, the winning times for most 5K events were below 15:00 and the 10ks were contested at 31:00 or under. Many weekend races featured results in which the Top Ten were all finishing under 32:00.
In sum, that age of distance runners was doing some things right…if the quantification of results was based on fast times and plenty of them. In truth, what else matters if racing is your goal? There was some risk of burnout, and some runners did. But many raced consistently from the age of 13 through the age of 35 before time and attention demanded other paths.
Granted, the goal of becoming a ‘lifelong runner’ wasn’t on the minds of most Golden Age competitors. A few still made the transition. Others gave up the sport out of exhaustion or injury. So there were problems with some of the intensity levels.
But people learned from that
Many of the people who came through the gauntlet of 70s and 80s running went on to become coaches. Their programs typically involved quality training with a mix of speed, fartlek, long runs and hill training mixed in. That mix has always worked and always will. All it takes beyond those basic methods is to ascertain the ability of a given runner to sustain a certain volume and the prescription almost writes itself. They pulled back a bit on the number of races, volume and intensity of training, and took a longer view of running as a whole.
The RRCA Coaching Certification Course covers all that to some degree. They handed us a big fat book with a deck of running types and graphs to help coaches remember what to do if they ever got the chance to coach other runners.
But to me, their process was more like handing a prospective chef a book of recipes, talking about why people like good-tasting food, then giving everyone a quiz on how to cook. Those who pass earn a certificate that says, “Congrats, You’re Now a Chef.” (Or a coach).
There was also a big section covering the “Business Of Coaching.” A chunk about Sports Psychology. Some case studies.
Here were the instructions for taking the test: (italics mine)
“Choose the single best answer to each question based on our course materials.”
“As you prepare, feel free to contact your instructor with questions.”
“After the exam, the RRCA will reveal correct answers if you ask after the 30-day window.”
“Once you take the exam, if you have questions about the exam, feel free to contact your instructor.”
After failing the exam by 4%, I did contact them with concerns about the nature of the test. Basically they send you back to their email which is detailed below.
Hello Chris — We have received your RRCA test score of 81. Although the score may be disappointing, there are ways to continue the process and complete the exam with a passing score. To continue the certification process and receive certification, the RRCA requests that you follow a few steps to take the exam one more time:
1) Please submit a $50 re-take payment to the RRCA paypal account here: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=NE6W9LHWRJF62
2) Once you submit the fee, then you can go to this URL to take the exam: http://www.classmarker.com/online-test/start/?quiz=tdc534e749e9a708
3) Your password for this exam is this: 2015takeagain
You will have 30 days from today to complete the exam again. Unfortunately, the RRCA cannot send you your previous exam details, so please take time to review the course materials and be prepared for the online exam.
In the unhappy event that your second score is also lower than 85%, the RRCA requires that you take the full course a second time, then take and pass the exam. If you need to take the course a second time, the fee will be $325, but we will make every effort to ensure that you can take the course in the city of your choice.
Please take the time needed to prepare for the exam, drawing on the coursebook materials and lessons referenced in the RRCA course.
Best wishes on the retake,
There are quite a few ironies in this email, beginning with the stated commitment to “make every effort to ensure that you can take the course in the city of your choice.”
I spent $325 for the course in Michigan, was stopped in place by a violent weather event, and told “tough luck” by the RRCA. Why a quiet accommodation could not have been arranged in the first place is a valid question.
Secondly, if the test was an open book event, why not reveal what areas the tester failed during the process? Wouldn’t it be an efficient and effective learning process, if one seeks to help people become better coaches in the long run, to tell them where they failed? Gee, what a concept.
And finally, the idea that a person’s ability to become a coach is dependent on a test taken on a weekend of dispensational information is absurd.
So, I failed. As a person with tendencies toward ADHD and a creative mind, it’s not the first test of this nature that I’ve failed. Perhaps I’m just not prone to provide pat answers to rigidly asked questions. I want to know the “why” as well as the what. And if the “why” seems questionable in theory or in practice, I’ll answer differently along the lines of what experience and past results have told me.
That’s why I’m not a RRCA Certified Coach. I’m a round peg in a square hold. But I ask you a simple question: Who would you most trust for advice your running career, someone who’s “been there and done that,” and a person that coached athletes beginning at the age of sixteen years old, continued throughout his career across a range of sports, and continues competing with age group wins into this sixties, or someone who answers questions correctly by copying them out of a book?
I know what I would prefer.