How Prefontaine Trained

Kenny Moore, the outstanding feature writer for Sports Illustrated, was a teammate of Steve Prefontaine’s. (Moore was fourth in the marathon at the 1972 Olym-pics where Frank Shorter won gold.)

Moore’s recent book on their coach, Bill Bowerman, is wonderful. It tells the inside story of how the University of Oregon became the dominant power in U.S. college distance running. It’s full of wonderful stories and insights on training: Bowerman and the Men of Oregon: The Story of Oregon’s Legendary Coach and Nike’s Cofounder. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 2005.

Am I the only runner who’s wondered if the training of extremely talented athletes is relevant for me? Renowned running physiologist David L. Costill observed in a recent Runner’s World Daily News interview that world-class runners and ordinary Joes like me are very, very different specimens, physiologically.

I experienced this firsthand, one day several years ago on the campus of Stanford Univer-sity. Stanford is a wonderful place to run — it’s free of traffic, with over 3000 acres of tree-lined streets and trails, and a lovely four-mile loop through the undeveloped University-owned Stanford hills. I was running two-minute repeats as hard as I could, probably 6:30 pace, when I heard the pitter-patter of runners behind me. It was a group of Stanford’s elite NCAA-champion distance runners Among them were 2000 Olympian Brad Hauser, his twin brother Brent, and 5000-meter NCAA champion Ian Dobson. They passed me effortlessly — they weren’t even breathing hard. At six-minute pace, they were warming up for a track race. Okay, I was in my early 60s — but still, it was humbling.

Even so, while reading Kenny Moore’s book, I was struck by how relevant Bowerman’s coaching methods were to me. It made me suspect that Bowerman was successful be-cause he isolated the core principles of training. According to Moore, Bowerman didn’t get lost in the details — prescribing number-based workouts: 8×800 in 1:30, 12×400 in 64-68, etc. Instead, he studied what each athlete was capable of doing, and assigned workouts accordingly. Steve Prefontaine’s amazing body allowed him to train hard several days in a row, for example, while Moore needed a hard/easy schedule.

Listen to Moore talk about Bowerman’s training. Doesn’t it apply to you?

Bowerman began exhorting Oregon runners to finish their workouts “ex-hilarated, not exhausted.” [Shades of Arthur Lydiard’s admonishment, to finish every run feeling “pleasantly tired.”] As he timed them on interval days, he would scrutinize their form, grabbing a runner’s throat and taking his pulse. He’d check the glint in their eye, sending the tight and dull to the showers, and especially those whose pulses weren’t quick to return to 120 beats per minute. His credo was that it was better to un-derdo than overdo. He was adamant that he trained individuals, not teams, and he came to believe that group workouts could even be counterproductive. “The best man loafs, the worst tears himself down,” he would say. “Maybe only one guy in the middle gets the optimum work.”

All this was the genesis of his annual welcoming line to freshmen. “Stress, re-cover, improve, that’s all training is,” he’d say. “You’d think any damn fool could do it.” In fact, interval training takes such care that to this day few coaches can consistently produce milers.

When Bowerman first articulated the hard-easy method, he was widely despised for it. The anthem of most coaches then was, “the more you put in, the more you get out.” When Bowerman chided them — “Come on, the greatest im-provement is made by the man who works most intelligently” — they were morally affronted. His easy days were derided. The intentional tailoring of stress to the individual was called coddling. Many coaches had their own personal “systems,” to which the runners were expected to adjust. Bowerman had it all backward. (Indeed, his common-sense approach is still resisted by a minority, and probably always will be.)

This, of course, was not a matter of intellect, but of trying to monitor driving hunger, a hunger not confined to coaches. Driven runners really think 200 miles per week is doing them good. But if a coach wishes to rise above damn foolishness, he must celebrate opti-mum rather than maximum. And Bowerman did. He distanced himself from his runners’ crazed yearning to do more. He saw when they needed to be snapped out of it and took royal pleasure in the snapping…. And if a runner couldn’t forsake work for its own sake, that runner would be off his team. As for all the doubting coaches, there was only one way to reach them: Crush their runners with his.

And crush them, he did.

In the last article, I celebrated another successful coach, Bill Walsh, who led the San Francisco 49ers to three Super bowl victories in the 1980s. (See “Bill Walsh’s Lessons for Runners” in “Commentary.”)

Walsh, who died on Monday, July 30, had a lot in common with Bowerman. Both built their success on understanding the individual. Walsh didn’t treat his players as spare parts, to be bought and discarded according to how well they could be welded into the team-machine. He got the best out of each player, because he first took the trouble to understand them. Kenny Moore makes it clear that Bowerman took the same approach.

The title of this article is misleading. I haven’t actually told you how Pre trained — how many miles, how many intervals, what pace, etc. I’m fine with that, because I don’t see how it could possibly do you anyone any good. (For the details, you’ll have to read Bowerman and the Men of Oregon. You won’t have to spend $28.95; many libraries have the book.)

Many runners who read Arthur Lydiard’s books on training express dissatisfaction. They complain, “He doesn’t give the details.” To repeat, how much good would it do anyone, if he did? Optimal training is never a question of deciding to run, say, 8×400, or 20 miles, and sticking to the plan regardless. That’s foolhardy. The best train-ing is where you listen to the body and adjust pace and duration accordingly, moment by moment — and if the body tells you to pack it up and go home, you’re honest and disciplined and mentally tough enough to comply.

I used to think that “feeling-based training” as advocated by Bowerman and Lydiard, and practiced by champions like Frank Shorter, was a copout. “Running how you feel” evoked wishy-washy images of quitters and slobs — “I train how I feel, and if I don’t feel like it, I won’t run.”

I’ve since learned that listening to the body is really, really demanding. It is not easy to run slowly when the body craves rest, but impatient emotions want to go faster. And it’s equally not easy to step out the door when the mind is in a vaporous funk. Bowerman, Lydiard, and Walsh trained thousands of successful athletes, and not one of them ever said that it was easy.

These great coaches gave us the answer: You’ve got to be tough, and you’ve got to be able to listen.