Joe Uhan Launches Stay The Course Column

Stay the CourseGreetings, 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.

Joe UhanA 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.

Joe UhanI 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
  • Coach
  • Runner

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?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.