When I first met Bob WIlliams in the late Oregon summer of 1985 I was the mother of a 1 year old, and missing the training and competition that had defined my life for so long. Sitting in a coffee shop near Lincoln HS in Portland, OR, Bob asked questions and wrote notes about my running career and my present goals. Finally, after closing his notebook, he looked at me and asked, “How many days do you want to take off?” I was surprised, as days off had not been a part of my running history, and I wasn’t sure why he was asking this. But as I got to know Bob, I grew to understand more of him and his philosophy of coaching and running. Meeting him on Tuesdays and Thursdays for intervals, I would first be asked how I felt. There were times as a mother of a toddler that I had been up all night, or had a sick child. He would very gently say, “Go for an easy run.” I began to understand that each of his athletes were coached very differently and a planned workout was never final until the minute it started. Bob understood runners and the lives that surrounded their running. No workout was unchangeable. He worked with what he had, and his athletes got better and better.
Bob Williams is a coaching icon in Oregon, and arguably the US. His speciality is middle distance, but he has successfully coached the 400m to the marathon. His familiar presence on tracks across the city of Portland is legendary. Often traveling past Duniway or Lincoln or Wilson HS tracks, we see him in deep conversation with athletes of all ages. All are serious conversations and you can imagine him asking, “How do you feel today?”
Bob is not flashy, and if you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t realize you are watching a unique master coach at work. Looking at his resume, his life really, you realize he has done everything as a runner/coach. Graduating from the University of Oregon in 1967, he was coached and mentored by the great Bill Bowerman. His own running vita is exceptional. As a freshman at the U of O, he led the nation in the 3K Steeplechase. In 1965, at the NCAA Championships at Berkeley he placed 9th. In 1967 he won the Pac 8 Championships with a time of 8:51.1. The U of O Team won the meet that year. Later that same season, Bob became an All American at the NCAA Championship in Provo, Utah. As a post collegiate steeplechaser he qualified for the US Olympic Trials in 1968 and 1972. His PRs are a 4:07.6 Mile, an 8:41.2 Steeple, and 14.17.3 for 3 Miles.
His coaching has spanned decades beginning in 1965 to the present. He began as a jogging leader for Bill Bowerman in his new jogging program for Eugene. From there he branched out to start and manage several running groups in Eugene. He assisted Bill Bowerman in piecing waffle shoes together for an experiment for Phil Knight. Over the years he has coached club, college and high school teams, as well as hundreds of individual athletes.
He helped co-found and direct the Portland Marathon Training Clinics.
Probably one of his best known contributions to the sport is his Williams Pace Calculator. (www.WilliamsPaceCalculator.com) This amazing coaching tool saves all of us hours of calculations for workouts and races. It is a metric slide chart that gives coaches and runners instant splits from track to road racing distances.
The athletes Bob has coached and brought success to are legendary. From the Oregon and Washington HS greats Mike McGrath, Marie Davis, Elijah Greer, Christy Lacey-Kreitz, and Scott Daggatt to post collegiate athletes Lisa Karnopp-Nye and John Dimoff.
He has worked and profoundly influenced many of the finest HS programs in Oregon; Lincoln, Gatlin Gable, Central Catholic, Westview, and Lake Oswego.
He developed programs and coached athletes at Nike, as well as being a fitness consultant at Good Samaritan Hospital, St. Vincent’s, and Portland Adventist Medical Center in Portland, Oregon.
He is currently coaching XC and Track and Field at Wilson HS in Portland, Oregon. He continues his Personal Coaching Services, www.coachbobwilliams.com.
It is 2010 at the Oregon State Championships at Hayward Field. An athlete I had been working with, Erin McLaughlin of Milwaukie HS, had qualified in the 3000m. A week earlier at the District Championships, the 1500m had been rough for Erin, and she had not qualified for the state meet in that event. I knew as a coach you needed to inspire and support an athlete in a championship meet, but I couldn’t find the right words to help Erin lift her disappointment and focus positively on the 3,000m. I was desperate to figure out how to help her. Sitting in the warm sunshine at Hayward Field in the early morning, I decided to call Bob. My connection with Bob had stayed close, both as a coach and an athlete, and I had this sudden urge to call for advice. He answered immediately with his classic greeting, “Char, how are you?” I felt sudden relief and optimism that Bob could help my athlete. I told him the story, and my hopes and goals for Erin. After listening carefully, he simply said, “What does Erin want to do?” Suddenly the darkness I felt as a coach lifted and my job became clear. Talk with Erin. Find out what she wanted to accomplish and plan from there. She ran beautifully, setting a PR of 10:12.0. If I had let my own fears and goals take over, I am sure she would not have been so successful. Bob cut through all of my coaching ego and found a way to clearly see the problem.
Please read the following interview. I know you will find all of it interesting, useful and inspiring. Bob Williams is both a treasure and a blessing to the running world.
I know you were an All-American in the steeplechase when you were at the U of O. What was it like to be coached by the great Bill Bowerman?
First, I was the PAC 8 Steeplechase Champion my senior year, 1967. I was 4th in the NCAA Championships at Provo Utah that same year, and became an All-American.
Being coached by Bill Bowerman was very special because he coached us as individuals. He wrote “group” plans in the Fall and Winter but by Spring when racing began, he gave each of us a plan that was taped to our “stall” that had specific individual times and intervals based on what we were training for that week. He was incredibly meticulous and watched us as we trained, and made mental notes as to our progress that were reflected in our training plan.
As a group of runners we all enjoyed the training with Bill. He was fair and tried to maintain an equality to a relationship with each of us. If you strayed from his training plan you would know it. There were runners who tried to do more but learned quickly that if you did not take your easy days easy, you would be flat on time trial days. He would question you and get pretty upset if you tried running more miles than what your body was capable of doing, and especially expressing that on Time Trial days.
Bill was very interested in making sure we understood what we were doing and why. It really made it more purposeful and fun. He was a teacher first and coach second. Getting that kind of understanding and purpose is the basis for my current coaching style and training philosophy.
What have you brought into your coaching that was part of your U of O experience?
I determined early on with Bill’s coaching that when an athlete has recovered from a vigorous session they are pretty excited to have more fun training. Bill was way ahead of the training curve, nationally speaking, with his training methods based on the hard-easy system. I learned pretty quickly that his training methods got very good results. It takes time to get to know each athlete and to build trust, but once that is developed you get better feedback from how the runner felt/feels, physically and psychologically/emotionally.
Another coaching philosophy I learned from Bill was how much work/training can an athlete manage in one session or, for a week. To start, I learned that with a new athlete, a minimum amount of intensity and volume work will do. As Bill explained it, see how the athlete feels in two days. Then you will know how to further the athlete’s training, allowing the body’s gradual adaptation to take hold. He always said, “When in doubt, be conservative.” I had to read the athlete’s responses (with open ended questions) to the training session. As an individual boy/girl, each will have a distinct response to the training session.
When did you start coaching and why?
I started coaching a middle school kid who lived down the street. I watched him run by my house a few times and he asked me one day to coach him. He ran very well at Marist High and later ran at Georgetown University. I gave him workouts and he would call me and tell me the results. I watched him get better as he developed. I think he won the regional AAU 800m Championships that year. I simply followed what Bill was providing us and fit the training for him.
In 1971 as a graduate student at the U of O, I coached Carolyn Walker to the World XC Championships. That helped me determine that what I had learned from Bill really worked.
What was it like as a rookie coach?
I always felt pretty confident with my coaching skills. In 1969 while living in Seattle, I watched a high school kid, Scott Daggatt, run himself into the ground at the University of Washington Hec Edmunsen Basketball building indoor track that winter. After introducing myself, I asked him if he would like to get some coaching. He was pretty excited to get some “professional” advice. He won the State of Washington Track and Field 4-A Mile Champs, ran an 8:45 2-mile, and went to the U of O on a partial Scholarship. He later ran 3:58.6 and went to the Pan Am Games. His very good friend and training partner Steve Prefontaine once told him that he, Scott, was the one runner who he feared most.
Who were your mentors and experts?
Until about 1995, Bill was the only coaching mentor I had. I had absolutely no interest in listening to any other coach. Bill had set the standard for middle distance coaching in the U.S. In addition, I was pretty set on how I had attained my success while a student and post college athlete. I’d go see him at his house over the years and we’d talk training and I’d quiz him, take notes, and leave being better informed. But really all he did was confirm what we did during my years being coached by him. His principles were so simple and made so much sense.
Now, over the past 20-30 years, I do rely on other coaches around the Country. Richard Brown (now deceased) was instrumental. Mike Caldwell, Asics Greenville Track Club Elite (gtc-elite.org), Master Coach Peter Thompson of Eugene (www.newintervaltraining.com), Kelly Sullivan, Seattle University, Pete Julian, NOP, and my high school peers at Wilson High School in Portland.
In particular I have found success with Peter Thompson's New Interval training called lactate shuttle training. When done correctly it is a very powerful training type.
(New Interval Training is a type of interval/fartlek training developed by Peter Thompson that includes a “roll on” run of 100-200m or 300m following the repetition. This “roll on” is continuous running at a slower speed than the repetition to allow the body to “shuttle” the lactate throughout the muscle and internally such as the heart, liver and kidneys. This “shuttling” of lactate actually provides another energy source for the body. It also provides the opportunity for the runner to become more impervious to the lactate build up thus enhancing his/her ability to keep running at faster speeds with less effort. I recommend a New Interval session 1 x every 7-10 days. A typical session would look like: 2-3 x [3 x 300 @ 5k, 3k, 1500m paces] with 100m roll on and a 4-minute recovery period after each set. The roll on would be between 28-30 seconds for new runners and 20-21 for fit runners.)
Do you coach men and women differently?
No. It’s about developing the relationship with each athlete. I use the same principles for both men and women and boys and girls. Some athletes need less work for success. Some more. It’s all about the individual.
What advice would you give to a coach just starting out? Resources, classes, books? Where should they start?
I’d recommend a new coach start by getting the Level 1 USATF Coaching Certification. Start coaching with middle school kids, work up to high school. If they really want to become a distance coach, then get Level 2 Certification, read The Lore of Running by Tim Noakes, visit the online coaching/runner learning material on the PACE website (portlandpacenetwork.com).
In coaching Mike McGrath, one of the greatest Oregon HS runners of all time, how did you approach his training? What kind of athlete was he and what was your approach to coaching him?
The elements that both Mike McGrath (1:48.5) and Elijah Greer (1:47.6) had were the love of competing, the exceptional drive to master all supplemental gym activity, and their individual focus when training and racing. Being able to concentrate on your inner objective while training and racing is critical for anyone who wishes to get better.
I approached each one’s training knowing that their primary racing distance, 800m, requires different types of work. They need to be able to manage high levels of discomfort, oxygen debt, and carry this feeling longer from 500m to 800m, as the race progressed. So we started in November, after a 600m time trial, to build into their training, speed development, and speed endurance. I trained them as milers and much of the work they did was focused on mile and some 3k training. But I would gradually--1 x every 8-10 days--throw in some speed endurance like a 500m plus a few 300’s at their DATE pace for 600m. This small amount of this type of work really became the “secret sauce” of their racing success.
I now use more lactate shuttle work to further enhance the capability to manage higher levels of lactate with the specific date paces.
There have been many changes in running from the AAU to USATF, and from amateur to professional athletes over the past 35-40 years. How has that changed your approach to coaching?
The main things (nothing from AAU and USATF) that have changed in my coaching approach starting back in 1995 is indoor gym work to develop the strength in feet/ankles, overall body strength, use of balance on uneven surfaces (pillows/blow up rubber discs), movement drills, and med ball and individual weight work with free weights.
You are such a student of the sport of running. What scientific research has changed our sport for the better, and how have you used this research?
Oh, my gosh, great question, difficult to answer. I get the IAAF yearly booklet plus read everything in research that comes my way from other coaches around the US. It’s really how you add new training specifics to the mix you already do. There is only so much time you have with an athlete on a day to day basis. You have to put a lot of thought and planning into the runner and just see what happens. You have to avoid any interruptions in their training--injury/illness/“crap happens” stuff--and stay true to your beliefs and philosophy. Not easy to do all of the time, of course. We as coaches are NOT PERFECT. We make mistakes and hopefully we learn from them.
For a HS Coach in Track and XC, what is the most important advice you can give a coach?
XC and track require different types of training routines. Around November you can begin to fold indoor track needs that eventually become outdoor goals. This requires some advance planning, of course. I use 2-week training blocks that end with a timed trial. For example, I start with 3 km training for a miler, and do a time trial at the end of that 2 weeks. That new time becomes the date pace that is used the next 3k training block. I make sure that there is intense focus on the last 300m of that timed effort. That fast 300m teaches aggressive behavior and adrenaline response. The fast last 300m drops the Date Pace for a new level of fitness and subsequent training. Ditto for the Mile training.
How do you approach and coach the different levels of abilities of HS athletes?
I typically have each runner learn to understand and focus on their breathing since it is critical for their development but also the fun factor. Who likes to run with intense breathing challenge? Not many. I will have the unfit walk and jog specific amounts on the track, and at the end of a week, they all do a “long” run--see how much further they can jog keeping their Breathing Challenge on a scale of 1-10 to around a 5-6. If they are breathing harder they will be limited to the amount of running they can do that day. So, to enjoy the training, keep the breathing challenge low and get the athlete to do more walking and jogging starting with 15-20 minutes total time the first day. They can manage that and will want to master this sport with more enthusiasm and physical vigor. If they are breathing too hard this also raises the potential of muscle straining and calf tightness, potential stress fractures of the tibia, and plantar fasciitis.
(Breathing Challenge can best be described as determining the rating of perceived breathing effort on a scale of 1-10. A “1” is like walking--very calm breathing--and a “10" is at the end of a very hard race--almost unable to breathe. So, when you are doing “light running” your Rating of Perceived Effort (RPE) might be best described as a 3-4; you run up a moderate hill, your breathing goes to a 5-6; doing a “lactate” threshold distance might be between a 5-7; at the end of a set of 4 x 1200 might get up to a 7-8. Using the RPE will give the coach a good idea as to the difficulty of a particular distance or training run. This way you can help the runner to figure out whether the run was too hard or too easy)
Name a few athletes that you have coached that have left an indelible mark on you?
OOh. Very simple! Charlotte Richardson and Lisa Karnopp Nye!
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