The Steve Magness Interview with tips4running.com
tips4running.com is extremely pleased to present the Steve Magness Interview. Steve Magness is a distance runner and also coaches cross country and track at the high school level. He writes about how to improve at running at his excellent running site The Science of Running. Steve is currently working on his Masters Degree in Exercise Science.
David Tiefenthaler – Is anyone else in your family a runner?
Steve Magness – My dad ran track in High School but that’s about it. My Grandfather also ran track in High School way back in the 1930’s and was actually an excellent runner, finishing 2nd in the TX state meet in the mile. He ran in the high 4:20’s for a mile I think, which for that time period was very good.
DT – You have run some very fast times including nearly running under four minutes for the mile. When did you realize you could become a good runner in high school and college?
SM – I was always pretty good at running in school whenever we had to do P.E. Physical fitness tests and the like, but I wasn’t amazing by any means. It wasn’t until my freshman year in High School when I started to really progress that my coach pulled me aside and said that one day I could run under 4 minutes for the mile. At the time I was naive and not fully aware of what that meant.
DT – You are working towards your Masters in Exercise Science. Do you view your website Science of Running as a hobby or as an extension of your studies?
SM – It’s a little of both. It’s an extension of my love for running and a result of all of the things I’ve seen and witnessed while competing in our great sport. The website developed from what I saw as a lack of good reputable information on both training and the science related to running. I wanted a place where I could help share some of the knowledge I was accumulating with others.
DT – At tips4running.com, I want to help new runners no matter the age or fitness level. How should a runner who is 30 years old or more who is out of shape and has no experience with this activity start running regularly.
SM – I think the most important part is trying to convert that non-exerciser into a runner. You’ve got to get them hooked into running because they enjoy it, not because it’s exercise. In my mind that means get them away from the treadmill or the track and have them start by running in an enjoyable place. Start with making running an extension of a walk in the park. Simply throw in some short segments of running in the middle of the walk. Then slowly progress so that there is an ever increasing amount of running compared to walking. I think many people try and start out too ambitious, get discouraged and quit. You’ve got to take it slow and make running a good experience, not a chore. You’ve got to finish the run feeling invigorated to come back the next time and do it again.
DT – Do you use yourself as a test subject for some of your training philosophies?
SM – Absolutely. One of my rules in training is never to give anyone I’m coaching something that I haven’t tried on myself. That’s a major problem in coaching. Coaches will just assign some crazy workout without ever having attempted that workout or a similar workout themselves. I need to know what the athletes are going to go through before assigning that workout.
DT – What do you enjoy more – Focusing on your running or being a running coach?
SM – They are both rewarding in their own ways. It’s tough to compare, but the feeling you get when helping out someone else who has put in so much work, is like nothing else. When watching some of my athletes race, I think I get more nervous and excited then when I’m racing myself!
DT – You have been coaching high school runners for the past four years. Are some of your runners going to run collegiately? Do you fear for them because of how different some collegiate coaches and their training philosophies are compared to high school?
SM – I have two runners who currently run in college, and a couple more who are graduating this year who will run in college. I had a very up and down college experience myself and my first stud HS runner had a shaky college experience. Based on those experiences, I’m very wary of the collegiate system.. Just like every profession, there are some very good coaches doing great work, and some not so good coaches. The problem is that it is difficult to tell how good a coach is until you’re actually there. One of my pet peeves is college coaches who never look at what that athlete did in HS. They just take the kid and plug them into their system without considering what has worked or not worked for that runner. As an athlete or even a HS coach, if that college coach isn’t asking you about what you have done or asking for a log, be very careful. It’s fine if their program is different, their just needs to be a transition to the new program, not a sudden abrupt change. Training doesn’t happen in isolation, and college coaches need to consider what the HS runner has done.
From a career development standpoint, I don’t like the fact that for our best runners, every 4 years they are having a complete and abrupt change in coaching/training. This usually happens from HS to college and then college to Pro. I can’t help but look at Galen Rupp, Seb Coe, and many of the top british runners in the 80’s who basically have had the same coach their entire development. There is no simple answer to the problem.
DT – There is a lot of conflicting information out there about running shoes. What is your stance on this issue?
SM – My stance is that running shoes are not evil, but they don’t do much either. It’s not that shoes are bad, it’s just that they are based on a bunch of wrong assumptions, namely pronation and cushioning. If running shoes were instead made as a simple protective covering for the foot, such as a glove for the hand, that still allowed full functionability, then they would be fine. But instead, we have an entire industry based on concepts like pronation that just don’t hold up.
DT – Running shoes gets all the hype, but I think it boils down to running form. Are running shoes and running form connected? Can you run correctly without having to go barefoot?
SM – You hit the nail on the head. The key is running form. Certain shoes simply impede the process of running right. It doesn’t matter if you wear the most minimal shoe or even no shoes if you still run wrong.
You can absolutely run correctly without having to go barefoot. You can run correctly in the heaviest of trainers. It will be much harder to do because you are not getting the concsious or subconscious feedback that occurs barefoot or in a minimalist shoe, but it can be done.
The bottom line is that barefoot running should be a tool to improve running form.
DT – How can a runner with no coach work on improving their form?
SM – That’s a tough one because there are so many misconceptions about what good running form is. There’s Chi, Pose, evolution running, the BK method, and a myriad of others. And they ALL have something that is incorrect about them biomechanically. My best advice is to watch the best in the world run. Go watch Hicham El Guerrouk or Kenenisa Bekele run. Watch a lot of elites run, and you’ll get a sense of what correct running form should look like. Their will be some outliers who don’t run with good mechanics, but if you watch enough of the world’s best you’ll get a good idea of what proper running form is. Then try and emulate it. What really helps is if you video tape yourself running. Then compare how you run to the elites, and try and make changes to emulate the elites. Attempt to change only one thing at a time. Do 100m strides focused on changing that one thing, and video tape it to see if what you are doing works.
DT – I hate stretching. I always have. I remember at some track meets when my coach couldn’t keep an eye on me the whole time, I wouldn’t stretch, but I would still run just as good or better in the race. I know that getting ready to run by doing a warm up is vital, but is stretching necessary?Should more runners look at dynamic stretching movements?
SM – With my athletes, they probably get tired of my “stretching is useless” statement. To be fair, it’s not useless, but the point is we greatly overemphasize it’s importance. I would say that static stretching pre-race or warm-up is not necessary and can be detrimental. Instead runners should focus on warming up by……running. An easy jog and most importantly some short strides will do the job. If you want to get slightly more complicated some dynamic work like leg swings won’t hurt.
DT – I love reading about your training programs for your high school runners. Do some coaches emulate your training program
SM – I hope so, that’s why I put it out there. My goal is to improve the state of training in America and beyond. I do get frequent emails from coaches who say they’ve adopted “my” programs and it’s always nice to hear, so I think the message is spreading.
DT – One intangible about being a running coach is motivating the runners to “buy what you are selling.” I bet if a coach used the exact same workouts as you do for their team, they probably wouldn’t be as successful. How much of being a coach has to do with personality and likeability compared to the workout regime?
SM – With younger athletes, you have to show that you care. If they see how much you care about them improving, they will reciprocate with a belief in you as a coach. You have to get your athletes to buy into the program. They have to have 100% belief in you as a coach. I’ve tried to develop this confidence by showing them that I’ll do everything it takes to figure out how to get them fast. Additionally, I’m honest with them. I can remember during my first year of coaching, I had my top runner have a really off day. After the race, I told him it was my fault that he ran bad and that I’d figure it out, and sure enough we did figure it out. The point is, there has to be a bond of trust in the athlete-coach relationship.
DT – One of the most enjoyable things about reading your articles is you seem to constantly be looking for conventional beliefs about running and then challenge these beliefs. Do you purposely try to contradict traditionalrunning beliefs?
SM – Roger Bannister put it best when he said “The human body is centuries ahead of the Physiologists.” The point is that we often think we know more than we actually do. I try and give a different perspective to remind people that just because some expert says this or that’s the way it has always been done, doesn’t mean it’s correct. Think it through logically and try it on yourself if it’s a training thing, such as stretching. My favorite example is that of lactic acid. For almost a century the majority of people thought it caused fatigue, they were positive. Of course now, we know that isn’t the case, but the story on how we came to blame lactic acid is interesting. Initially, some scientists noticed that when fatigue happened, lactate was increasing. Based on this observation, they took the next logical step of injecting lactate to see if it caused muscle fatigue. The problem is, they used another acid of the same pH, but it wasn’t lactic acid. It caused fatigue. So, almost a centuries worth of belief was built on the foundation of guys who assumed that if a similar substance that isn’t in the body causes fatigue, then lactic will.
DT – I’m a parent of three young children. You mentioned that a fit lifestyle can have lasting effects on a future runner. Do you mean kids should be in organized endurance based activities, or just that kids need to get outsideand play more?
SM – Just get outside and play. We try to organize everything and there is no longer play or unorganized sport going on. One of my favorite movies is The Sandlot because that’s how I grew up, playing sports in the street/parks all day/every day. With each passing year, you get less of that in Western countries. The African’s on the other hand spend an entire childhood of mostly unorganized activity, whether that’s field work, or walking/running to school. We need to get our kids more active to help general health and combat obesity. A nice secondary benefit, is that it will help sports performance. That huge childhood base of activity is one reason why the African runner’s are so good.
DT – What are your goals for your running career in the future? What about coaching? Do you want to eventually coach collegiately or coach professional runners?
SM – My running goals have and always will be to test the limits of my potential. I don’t really care where I end up time wise, as long as I can look back and say I gave it my all. As far as coaching, I want to coach both collegiately and professionally. My real goal is to set up a professional group.
DT – Sometimes I wonder if when it comes down to one race if it all has to do with the training. Take for instance Chris Solinsky setting the new American record in the 10k. I bet if they ran that race on a different day, Galen Rupp could have won. They probably have the exact level of fitness.Can it be sometimes that it just is your day?
SM – Absolutely. Getting someone in shape or fit isn’t incredibly difficult. Getting someone in peak shape on the right day at the right time is the hard part.
DT – Thank you very much Steve for putting up with my convoluted questioning. I really love reading your articles. Please keep publishing unique, informative, and entertaining articles about running.