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Juli Benson is a 1996 US Olympian in the 1500 m turned elite running coach, with among other accomplishments coaching Jenny Simpson to her 1500m World Championship victory. In this episode she describes her coaching philosophy, and also discusses the lack of female endurance coaches, in particular at the highest level.
In this Episode you'll learn about:
- Juli's coaching philosophy and influences
- The balance of volume and intensity
- Strength and conditioning
- Nutrition, and navigating disordered eating
- The lack of female endurance coaches, in particular at the elite level, and what to do about it
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- I started competing at a very young age, first mainly as a sprinter (100m, 200m and 400m).
By age 16, my coach recognized that I would probably be more successful at slightly longer distances and hence, I transitioned to focus primarily on the 1500m.
Already during University, I showed a great interest for coaching and knew that one day I would find myself as a coach, however, I continued competing professionally for another 8 years after collage came to represent the U.S. in the 1996 Olympics in the 1500m.
My personal best time at the 1500m is 4:06.
After my career, I gradually transitioned into coaching and I have been coaching since the age of 29 and this is where my true passion is!
- I started off by coaching at collage level and then gradually started to coach post collegial professional athletes.
I found myself to enjoy coaching at the post collegial level the most since I could help these athletes to avoid some of the mistakes that I did during my professional career.
- The most serious mistake that I did was over training, especially in terms of intensity and not allow my body to recovery fully from the hard sessions.
I also lacked confidence to really take it easy on the easy days/sessions, which also put too much stress on my body and led to injury.
- To avoid that the athletes that I now coach do the same mistake as I did I think the education aspect of coaching is essential and I try to educate my athletes to the best of my ability in why I prescribe a certain session or pace on a certain day, then the likelihood for that athlete to stick with the plan is much greater.
However, the origin to why I deviated from my training plan during my time as an athlete was not a lack of understanding but instead a lack of confidence, so I try and incorporate confidence in my athletes as well so that they not end up doing the same mistakes as I did.
- Nowadays, I exclusively coaches privately, from world class athletes to beginner runners with the ambition of running a 1500m without stopping, and I really enjoy coaching at all different levels.
- One of the most recognizable athletes that I have had a long time coach-athlete relationship with was Canadian Kevin Sullivan who placed 5th in 2000 Olympics.
Female coaches in endurance sports
- I think that the main reason for why there are so few women coaches at the absolute top level is that it is such a demanding and time consuming job that also implies plenty of travels and at least in athletics in the U.S., the seasons overlap each other so there are basically no ”off season”, where you can relax for a bit, and all this makes it really hard to combine with a regular family life.
- I also often felt a little lonely as I for most of the time was the only woman amongst all the other coaches, even though all the men always have been really friendly and helpful it has been a bit of ”boys club” and as a woman you never really feel at home in that situation.
- In order to get more women involved in coaching I believe that women mentoring other women can be a good way to go.
I also think having a discussion about it is really important.
Also, in fact there are a bunch of top level female coaches out there, but unfortunately they are quite silent and maybe if they were to be more recognized other women would see that this is in fact a possible path in life.
- I think that my main mission as a coach is to find out what works individually for each athlete that I coach, both physiologically and mentally, that is the foundation of what I believe in
One needs to work with every athletes individual strengths and weaknesses.
Fort instance, at one time I worked with two athletes at the same time who ran pretty much equally fast over the 1500m difference but their training was extremely different from one another.
Moreover, I also believe it is really important to work hard but none of that matters if the athlete does not stay healthy, so that is also a main concern for me.
- In order to learn what really works for each specific athlete, I think that it is very important to closely observe the athlete while training at the same time as you’re having a close communication about how the athlete feels, experience, think is hard, etc.
I then look at movement patterns, how the athlete responds to certain training, recovery status and much more to really try and get to know the athlete extremely well.
It is also very important to get to know you’re athlete mentally, especially in terms of what type of sessions the athlete enjoy and doesn’t enjoy as much so that can be adressed properly
- In terms of what I consider to be hard training it is both a question about volume and intensity.
- I think that it is extremely critical to get my athlete to a point of where they can run a lot simultaneously as they are staying healthy and have progress in their training.
If one look at the collegial circle for instance, which is four years, then I try to get my athletes to steadily increase their training volume and adapt the body to a certain level of volume and run milage at the same time as they are staying healthy motivated and focused to really nail the important sessions.
This process is taking place parallell to a strength, mobility and plyometric development, which are also very important foundations for performance in my opinion.
- I also believe that progress of some kind shall be seen every week all year around but this doesn’t have to be a new personal best but at least something shall improve all the time.
- When it come to really hard sessions that is really challenging both physically and mentally, I do believe it is critical to perform these but only during certain times of the year, which normally are in close proximity the the A-races.
When it is time for these workouts, then general overall volume is reduced both before and after the sessions so that the quality can be really high.
How many times these really hard anaerobic sessions are performed during a lead up to an important race depends on the distance, for longer distances like the 10 000m anaerobic workouts don’t necessarily need to be performed although I think it is important that the athlete get familiar with how it feels to have to run really fast or even sprint on very tired legs, and for middle distances a few more aerobic workouts need to be performed, but over a season maybe 3-4 such sessions will be done spread out over 5-6 weeks.
- If this would have been an Olympic year as it was originally intended to, then I would have planned the training from the Olympic trials, which in the U.S. are very competitive and if you want to be able to make the Olympic team, you must be able to perform in the trials.
I think that speed, threshold, VO2max, strength, and aerobic endurance work all have their place all year around but with different emphasize.
For instance, starting 10 months out from the trials, the emphasize would be on building an aerobic base even though we do a little bit of everything during the period as well.
Then we gradually transition into threshold and even later on VO2max training.
When we get into spring, more and more focus will be on race specificity.
Sometimes I also use the indoor race season as good training sessions for some of my athletes that mainly focus on the outdoor season.
- Looking at the weekly micro cycle, almost every Monday all year around is what I call ”athletics day”, which starts with an easy recovery run between 8-15 km depending on the athlete followed by some proper form, plyometrics and/or drills and finally putting all together with some speed work where you try and incorporate the good form an posture into some fast running.
Tuesdays is typically ”threshold day”, and then my athletes do anything from 4 km up to 15 km (for 10 000m runners), sometimes we finish off the threshold series with some fast 200-300m intervals to get the legs accustomed to run at race pace while fatigued.
I normally base my athletes threshold on races, laboratory testing and effort but for most of the time effort is the predominating determinant of pacing since the threshold can vary rather much due to level of fatigue, total volume etc.
Over months to years I would like to see the threshold pace rise but I do not get too hung up on what the paces are from a week to week basis, since it’s not realistic to anticipate an improvement in threshold pace every week.
Wednesdays are typically a recovery day, which for some means no running at all and for other two easier and shorter runs.
Thursdays are also typically a recovery day but we might also take the opportunity to do some drills and form works and finish off with some relaxed strides.
Fridays are typically a really tough day, plenty of VO2max and maybe even some anaerobic work, anywhere between 3 up to 8 km of total work, which for a 10 000m runner for instance can be split up into 8x1000m with a descending rest, meaning that the rest increases as the set progresses (and hence the intensity goes up as well, on the given set the rest is typically 90s to start with and goes up to 2.5-3min towards the end).
Another key aspect of the Friday’s workout is that during the last km I always introduce some pace changes and really let my athletes loose for the final hundreds of meters, again to get the legs accustomed to run really fast at fatigued legs.
Saturdays are typically another recovery day, which can be one easier run and one cross-training session.
Sundays are for long runs, which over the years have received more and more emphasize and I have realized how important the long runs really are.
The longer the race distances, the longer does the long runs also get, for marathoners and half marathoners up to 22-23 miles and the effort is most of the time during the year steady and with plenty of hills (but this vary, however, depending on time of the year).
- The knowledge on how nutrition can affect performance is constantly evolving and have increased enormously much over the years.
Obviously, nutrition is an extremely important aspect for keeping the body healthy.
One thing that I think is specifically important is how often you eat, rather often and little instead of plenty of food on only a few occasions.
I am also really diligent about my athletes getting something (typically carbs and protein) straight after a quality session to really jump start the recovering process.
- Unfortunately, eating disorders are rather common in many sports, and running is especially exposed because weight is such an important determining factor (women are affected to a larger degree but men are by all means not spared as well).
I also think that eating disorders affect amateur athletes to a significant extent, it tends to affect those with type A-personality, which many age groupers have.
The problem is that many recreational athletes do not have coaches or other people who can recognize this.
I am really passionate about this subject and I think education is an extremely integral part in order to deal with it, however, I have come to realize that there are other people than coaches that are better at handling this issue.
Strength and conditioning
- I am very passionate about getting my athletes as strong as possible, however, I once again try to stay within my area as much as possible and there are people who are better at this subject than me.
Therefore I have come to work with a strength coach who designs the strength training plan for my athletes.
I think it is very important that the strength training is very specific to the activity and also has a strong injury prevention purpose, and these two points mark the foundation in the type of strength training my athletes do.
- Probably any kind of core work are among the most important exercises, as well as single leg exercises and balance work.
Rapid fire questions
- What is your favorite book, blog or resource related to triathlon or endurance sports? Better training for distance runners by Peter Coe and David Martin.
- What is a personal habit that has helped you achieve success? Being committed to every single athlete and their individual strength and weaknesses and refusing to having one general training plan for the whole group.
- What do you wish you had known or done differently at some point in your career? I wish I would have started to work earlier with a sports psychologist.