More on racing in workouts…


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After that last post, I was thinking more about the racing-in-workouts thing, and it reminded me of a great article about Matt Centrowitz, the coach at American University in Washington, D.C., from the Washington City Paper back in 2006. It’s a very long article with a lot of great stuff in it — a portrait of (as you’ll see if you read it) a very colourful guy. The reason I thought of it is because of this passage:

The next group heads off with a target of 67-second laps. Led by Brian McCabe, a junior with an itchy trigger finger, they immediately string out.

“Look at that, they’re already not together,” Centrowitz mutters.

“Hey!” he shouts. “McCabe! Drop back!”

What cross-country coach in his right mind scolds a runner for going too fast? Each workout is designed for a specific purpose—race simulation, speed building, maintenance, or recovery, for example—and Centrowitz adjusts the lap times according to the purpose. They’re also designed to hone a runner’s internal speedometer; it’s imperative that runners be able to tell the difference between even one-second increments of pace. Exercising temperance during a workout teaches the runner not only when to step on the gas but also increases the number of gears available to him.

“Relax, guys,” Centrowitz yells. “I want you to win the race, not the time trial.”

Centrowitz, 51, has been holding back since his college days at the University of Oregon. He was the steadying upperclassman for future Hall of Famer Alberto Salazar and other freshmen ponies who would gallop to the front of the pack and set a pace faster than their coach, Bill Dellinger, had prescribed. Even on the hardest workouts, Salazar would push the pace faster and faster until a voice from the pack, Centrowitz’s, barked for them to slow down. Practice often became a tug of war between the brash, young Salazar’s desire to cut loose and Centrowitz’s compulsion to follow the guidelines. “We wouldn’t listen to too many guys, but when Matt scolded you, you listened,” says former teammate Steve McChesney. “I think Matt saw the reasoning, the big picture. The rest of us just saw an opportunity to run fast, which is a lot of fun. At times, I think my career would have been better if I’d been as disciplined as Matt.”

Centrowitz’s second group of runners comes through the first 400-meter lap in 63 seconds. Those four seconds might not seem like a big deal, but in track, four seconds per lap is a huge difference in both time and level of exertion. Over a mile, four seconds per 400 meters separates a very good high school runner (4:15) from a world-class one (3:59). Extrapolated over a 6.2-mile cross-country race, four seconds per 400 meters adds up to nearly a minute and a half, which is roughly the difference between finishing in 100th place and 5th at nationals.

They slow down marginally but still run the second lap in 66 seconds. Centrowitz again shouts for McCabe to slow down. McCabe doesn’t alter his pace, so Centrowitz folds in his bottom lip and emits a piercing whistle that gets his attention. “Stop!” he bellows.

McCabe grudgingly steps out of line, followed by the other runners.

“McCabe, what’s the matter with you?” Centrowitz demands. “I told you 67 or 68. What didn’t you understand about that?”

McCabe glowers.

“Answer me!”

“I don’t know!” McCabe shouts back.

“Well, go figure it out. Maybe you should go to the trainer and get a Q-tip. Clean out your ears.”

Centrowitz sends a steaming McCabe off for a jog. When he returns, still staring daggers, Centrowitz calls him over and puts a meaty hand on his shoulder. “OK, I’m sorry, but this is called coaching, or else you’re the coach,” he says in a softer voice. “It’s called discipline. Get used to it.”

Great article, and very much worth a read. I trained with Centro for three years, and have many fond memories of, say, him forcing me to take my watch off halfway through an interval because I was checking it too frequently. Sometimes his workouts were easier than you thought they should be; other times they were harder that you believed you were capable of. Either way, he told you the pace, and you hit it, no questions asked.