Sitting Down with Running Coach Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS
By Alix J. Shutello
I sat in a non-descript classroom in a hospital just outside of Annapolis, Maryland and listened intently to Janet Hamilton lecture on human physiology. This lecture, part of the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) professional coaches training course, was as important as it was interesting; but it was merely one of many given during the two-day course I sat through this past April.
The course takes you through a series of lessons on everything from the scientific principles behind becoming more fit to the psychological aspects of coaching which are taught by Mike Broderick, a professional running coach out of Bethesda, Maryland. It was the lessons on training methodology and injury prevention that Janet taught that made me want to interview her. As someone with nagging injuries and a propensity to over train, I figured I had a lot to learn from the accredited sports physiologist with over 20 years of experience.
Janet is a certified running coach who is also a Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist and accomplished author with her book “Running Strong & Injury-Free” with a long list of clients she has trained in distances ranging from 5K to marathon distance. Her athlete clients are from four continents as far away as Australia and as close as her home state of Georgia. She splits her time between teaching training courses and clinics and training runners for endurance races.
Janet’s methodology of training for any race regardless of distance includes the concept of progressive overload which couples the practice of adaptation and recovery – two very important principles to increasing fitness in runners. The idea is to run a series of long and short runs in succession – using the long distances runs to build endurance and the shorter distances as recovery runs. While her philosophy of training is the same for each runner in that running behavior must mimic progressive overload, each person she coaches as a specific plan designed to obtain certain training goals. Therefore, no training plan is the same – the cookie cutter approach is not something you’ll get if Janet takes you under her wing.
When I asked Janet for an interview for Running Illustrated she said “yes” by Blackberry as she flew out of the country for a volunteer event. It did not take me long to learn as she responded to my questions from the various locations she emailed me from, that Janet probably never stops moving. A runner herself, she trains five days a week and works a 10- to 15-hour day. She is no slacker, and because she is a runner, she understands runners and their personalities.
Janet was kind enough to respond to my questions while flying off to the American College of Sports Medicine Annual conference. She told me she coaches a cadre of runners ages 13 to 76 over the internet, by phone, and through Blackberry communication. Her runners, each one of them interviewed and screened through a specific process, gives Janet an indication of the mental and physical well-being of each of her potential clients. She takes care to ensure that she is a match for everyone who seeks her out – Janet does no marketing for her business. Her referrals come from word of mouth.
Janet’s experience working with injured runners was a great building block to officially becoming a running coach. But it wasn’t until Janet burst into the running scene herself in the 1980’s where she got her real experience. She has completed a multitude of races of varying distances; bringing that experience to her coaching philosophy as well.
Getting On Board – Janet’s Screen Process
Before Janet takes on a client she goes through a screening process consisting of a questionnaire and an interview. But the coach-training evaluation is really a two way process.
I asked Janet, what do people generally look for in their coach?
“I’m not sure there’s just one characteristic,” she told me.
Janet speculates that most runners are just looking for someone “who can guide them along a path, whether that’s a path back from an injury or a path to a PR race.”
What process do you go through to see if you and the person who contacted you can work well together? I asked.
Janet recommends people evaluate potential coaches in light of their own unique needs and a lot is determined from the interview process between the trainer and athlete.
“The interview process usually takes place by phone unless I have the luxury of seeing the athlete face to face. Usually before that interview we’ve had a few e-mail exchanges and they’ve filled out a coaching questionnaire to give me some background info. During the interview process we discuss things and decide if we’re a good fit for each other.”
“For example” she explained, “Are you injured or coming back from one? Then a coach with a bit of expertise working with injuries and rehab would be good. Are you racing shorter or longer distances? Ask your coach about their experience with coaching those distances. Are you getting started? Look for a coach who is experienced in working with novice runners. Are you the type of person who will communicate well on-line or do you need to see your coach every week?”
Most of Janet’s clients are virtual, who she communicates with a couple of times during the week or as necessary through the training cycle.
Training with Progressive Overload
Progressive overload is the process of slowly training the body to adapt to running longer distances through three phases. The base building phase, a timeframe that varies for each runner, is to be done running at a pace much slower than that athlete’s particular race pace. Longer runs, meant to stress the body, are accompanied by short recovery runs. Slowing down and building endurance through time has been Janet’s recipe for success. Most runners, Janet will tell you, often run at race pace for every training run. Through time, runners who are already injured will never heal doing this. Runners who are not injured will fatigue, will not realize their potential on race day, and may also eventually become injured.
The base-building phase varies from runner to runner. Once a runner’s building phase is complete, depending on an athlete’s training plan, Janet’s clients will move to a strength-building phase that incorporates race-specific speed work. Then there a tapering phase which occurs before race day. Again, each of these phases varies from runner to runner, depending on their fitness at the time of training, the runner’s goals, and the time to train before race day.
Slowing Down to Train, Are You Crazy? Train Me Then!
Not everyone who takes Janet’s course buys what she’s selling, however. One of Janet’s students, Jennifer Wilford, was not sold on the concept of slowing down. When I interviewed her, Jennifer told me, that in her running group she was expected to run fast on each distance run. Her idea of training was to run up tempo all the time and just lengthen distance. The thought of slowing down sounded counterintuitive. “Running slower to get faster made no sense to me,” Jennifer said via phone interview. In fact, she told me, people in her running group gave her a hard time when she started working with Janet and told her she was crazy.
But Jennifer, who ran the Boston Marathon in 2008 and felt fatigue and soreness after the race, realized that whatever she was doing was not working; but Janet’s training method seemed wrong. “I almost didn’t return to the second day of the course,” she said “but then I saw some of the case studies regarding the success of Janet’s method of training and decided to return [to class.] I also asked Janet to train me before the 2009 Boston Marathon.”
Janet had Jennifer go through her process of interviewing and asking questions. Janet noticed a pattern of training that was all too familiar. Jennifer was clearly in shape but in Janet’s assessment, she “ran at a pace that is inappropriately fast and she did things like trying to sprint-finish the last 2-5 miles of a long run, do all runs at/near race pace or faster, poor race strategy, no strength training, multiple speed work sessions each week, etc.”
Janet told Jennifer to slow down and gave her pace to train at that was almost two minutes slower than what she had been previously training at. Jennifer resisted at first, but decidedly listened to her coach and trusted her.
To start, Jennifer ran with a slower running group on her Saturday distance runs. People who she ran but the pressure on and thought she was crazy but Jennifer listened to her coach, and soon, adapted to the slower pace and a new running regime.
“It actually took a lot of pressure off me knowing I did not need to do my long runs at my “regular” training pace.” Jennifer said. But in fact, getting used to not speeding up and just accepting the fact that the run would take longer was tough at first.
Put her pay day came when she ran a ½ marathon as a precursor race to her upcoming marathon. Jennifer’s blasted out a new personal record. She was stunned at the progress.
Not surprisingly, Jennifer finished the Boston marathon 10 minutes faster than last year and felt tremendous afterward. Her post race log is impressive. As she neared the end of the race her pace dropped and she was running faster at the end of the race than at the beginning. Her training with Janet’s concept of slowing down and just running at a slower pace to build endurance worked. Jennifer also reported feeling better at the end of the race. She was able to start running again a couple of days later. In essence, her training experience was well worth it.
Injury – Part of Training Runners
Janet mentioned our RRCA training course that injury is basically a given. It will happen especially if runners continue to run at race pace or faster for every workout. Without progressive overload, the body never actually adapts. It gets beat up time and time again, and soon, injury ensues.
“For most of us, getting injured is easy.” Janet quipped.
An injury, when not nurtured can have devastating effects. I asked Janet if there were any runners she worked with where her training program did not work. Unfortunately, one of her runners who continued to cut calories and over train continued to injure herself.
Janet recounted the story via email.
“On very rare occasions, injuries are too devastating to overcome,” Janet wrote. “One young lady with a stellar record of running came to me with the sad story of having run through pain for two marathons (back to back, close together). We worked to get her healthy again, and gradually attempted to build her mileage up with first walking and then a walk/run transition. She had sustained a lisfranc’s dislocation in one foot and biomechanically was very challenged with completely flattened arches, severe knee misalignments (“knock-knees”) and on top of that had issues with disordered eating. Any time I asked her to ramp back her workout intensity to allow her body to heal she resisted. She’d add in extra workouts, and she’d restrict calories too. Eventually she sustained another stress fracture in her tibia and I told her I didn’t think she’d be able to get her gift of running back again.”
Eating Disorders and Other Issues
If in the interview process Janet senses there is something amiss, like an eating disorder or an injury she feels needs to be attended to, Janet will recommend that the runner talk to a specialist in that disorder or injury.
Because many runners, both men and women can have eating disorders, I was curious about her experience in this area.
So I asked, have you ever had to train someone who was clearly anorexic? Or would you train someone who was clearly anorexic?
“I have and I do,” Janet told me. “It is phenomenally challenging.”
How can you train them if they are clearly sick?
“Very carefully. Most people with eating disorders and disordered eating have had these multifactorial and complex conditions for a long time and have been running and training at inappropriate distances and paces… by simply putting a big dose of common sense into the mix you might be able to reduce their risk of injury. I most certainly refer people with disordered eating or eating disorders to their physician, Registered Dietitian and a counselor who is well experienced with this complex of disorders.”
But Janet noted that generally people with eating disorders are defensive and resistant to change but mentioned that “if you can tap into their areas of strength you can have some pretty encouraging results.”
Janet will tell you that despite any potential breakthroughs it’s an uphill battle the whole way. Societal pressures and other factors make coaching a person with eating disorders difficult.
“It is important to realize that anorexia as well as other eating disorders and sub clinical disordered eating patterns come with a whole host of complex emotional issues that are well beyond my area of expertise. I counsel them to get help and discuss with them the reasons that their lack of adequate body fat is holding back their performance as an athlete and their emotional growth as a human being. We discuss their athletic goals (races) and this often opens the door for them to consider making the very difficult changes needed to fully address an eating disorder.”
It is a coaches responsibility, Janet will tell you, to know your own limitations. We were taught in the RRCA training course that it’s not a coach’s job to heal injury, be a therapist or pretend to see past the problem.
A coach’s job is to evaluate someone’s fitness and to help them set realistic goals based on their experience and general health. Beyond that, it is up to an athlete to follow their coach’s training plan.
For Jennifer Wilford, the experience was both positive and rewarding. Now other runners she trains with a following her footsteps, humbled by Jennifer’s marathon results.
For Janet, it’s just another day on the job, but what she’s doing is spreading a message of encouragement through her clients’ success stories.
Slowing down is key.
Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS, is a Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist with over twenty years of clinical experience treating athletes of all ages and abilities. Her specialty is biomechanics and injury prevention for runners and walkers. Her book, “Running Strong & Injury-Free” published in 2000 is now in its third printing. She has published articles on training and injury prevention in various running magazines and lectures on the topic to running groups and clubs. She is an instructor for the RRCA coaching certification and travels the country teaching the course to aspiring coaches. She has coached runners and walkers with the Portland Marathon Training Clinic, Team Oregon, the Leukemia Society’s Team In Training Program, and the American Heart Association’s Train to End Stroke program. She currently coaches runners and walkers through her business, Running Strong. Her focus is on treating the underlying cause of injuries in order to prevent future ones. “An educated athlete is more likely to be successful over the long haul.” Having completed marathons herself, she understands the training process from the viewpoint of the athlete as well as the clinician. This makes her an ideal partner in the training process.
To contact Janet
Janet Hamilton, MA, RCEP, CSCS
Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist
Janet is a member of the American Physical Therapy Association, among others.