Greetings, iRunFar readers! Welcome to the introductory post of what may be a new feature on iRF landscape: Stay the Course. In this column, I hope to explore some concepts of sports medicine and science – and how they can keep us on [and sometimes off] the trail. Before delving in, a little background on your author:
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I got into running for the same reason most boys do any sport: to impress a girl. I’d tried (and failed at) most sports in high school, until I tried running. Our high school squad wasn’t very strong, so I made varsity from the get-go. Although I never parlayed that varsity success into dates, I was in love with all the sport had to offer – freedom to roam, camaraderie of a team, and the battles on track and trail.
One of my best friends was a year younger than me, so after graduation, I found myself returning to his track meets to become his de facto coach: devising race strategy, cheering on every corner, and even developing elaborate race-day nutritional ploys (anyone ever hear of “bicarbonate loading?”). This experience planted the seed that would later sprout into a real coaching career.
A year later, I matriculated to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a Division-III school in central Wisconsin. There, I had the privilege to be coached by marathon guru, Sean Hartnett. Sean, who would go by nothing else, was the Philosopher Coach. His “Miyagi”-like approach to the sport was reflected even in his attire: subbing the polo shirt, whistle and clipboard for jeans, a plaid blazer, and a plaid hat. His egalitarian philosophy and commitment to team still resonates with his former runners equally strong as his many Sean-isms, such as “Big Mileage pays Big Dividends,” “Race (train, and coach) with The End in mind,” and a single word: “Unus,” meaning one, in Latin. He also taught us more practical lessons, including, “If you raced hard enough, it shouldn’t take more than a couple beers to have fun,” as well as the liberal use of a certain fruit extract as a skin protectant and thermal insulator for the frigid, post-season meets. My time with the Blugolds and Sean – and the collective triumphs and struggles we shared – would prove to be a blueprint for my professional and personal life, and for how I want the running experience to be for others.
After graduating, I was employed as a lab chemist with flexible hours. I took advantage and helped out the track team at my old high school. A low-key, part-time volunteer gig became a true passion. I loved coaching, and threw the bulk of my time, effort and passion into it.
My coaching philosophy was simple: whatever the kids needed, I’d provide it. It didn’t take long to determine their most significant need: quality sports medicine. My personal frustration with conventional treatment for running injuries – rest, pain-meds, or surgery – grew geometrically as a coach. It killed me to see my kids injured, so I found myself poring over the internet looking for the latest, greatest exercise, stretch, tape or brace that would get them running again. Despite my lack of training, I was often successful. As it turned out, getting them better was as rewarding as getting them faster.
I loved coaching enough that I wanted to do it for a living. I got educated; first via USATF Level I and Level II coaching certifications. That was great, but I wanted more. I enrolled at the University of Minnesota, intent on getting a Master’s Degree in Kinesiology. Having a strong technical background, I passed on biomechanics and physiology and went the other way – sport psychology. I loved it! During this time, I would work in the lab in the morning, take classes midday, and coach in the afternoon. I found myself applying the concepts from class to my athletes, sometimes the very same day.
But anyone who’s coached within the construct of a school system knows full-well the politics of athletics: the program, the athletic department, the school, and the parents/boosters. I realized over time that the coaching profession was too political and volatile (and too poorly compensated) to rely on. About this time, I experienced a persistent knee injury, which ultimately wiped out a tremendous marathon build-up. After two months of pain, I saw a Physical Therapist. A minor but important running cue and some patellar taping abolished my knee pain in a single visit. As I ran on the treadmill in the clinic realized, “I wanna do this for a living!” So on the same day I defended my Master’s Thesis (on “Team Cohesiveness in Interscholastic Cross Country”), I was on the phone with a program director of a Physical Therapy program.
So, just about seven years later from that day, and a decade since I stated coaching, here I am. What I like to tell patients on their first day – namely my runners – is that “I wear three hats”:
- Physical Therapist
And while it can be delicate to balance the three, it is when they work together that they are most lethal – for running injuries and on the race course!
What iRunFar and I hope this column to be is a resource not simply for running injuries, but a place to share and discuss important and salient concepts of sports medicine, biomechanics, and general science and how they might apply to us – and how they might ultimately make our time out on the trails and roads more enjoyable.
Call for Comments (from Bryon)
- Do you have any questions for Joe on his background?
- Anything sports science issues you’d be excited to have him write about?