March 6, 2016

Interview with Tom Schwartz - Coach of HS Phenom Drew Hunter

Drew Hunter (left) and Coach Tom Schwartz

What do you get when you mix a young runner that has unusual talent with a patient coach that understands the need for hard work and recovery? Answer: break-through performances and national records.

Young and extremely talented, Drew Hunter seems to be breaking down barriers at every turn. Prior to breaking the high school indoor mile record in 3:58:25, Hunter won the high school cross country championship in run away form in December. Then he shattered high school record for 3,000 meters by running 7:59:33, becoming the first high school runner ever to run under eight minutes. He returned to the indoor track in February to set a new record in the mile running 3:57:81.

Will he continue to perform at this astonishing level when he enters the University of Oregon in the fall? Or will he be beset by injury and burnout like other promising runners before him. If Tom Schwartz has anything to say about it, the former will hold true. That is because Schwartz, Hunter’s coach, has a training philosophy that is unconventional, and deviates from the typical “no pain, no gain” or high mileage approach so many coaches subscribe to.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with Tom Schwartz, otherwise known as the Tinman, about his unique training techniques, including the methods he has used to develop Drew Hunter, one of the best high school runners of all time.

Tell me a little about yourself. Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school?

I grew up in a small town and rural community 100 miles West of Chicago. However, I spend a lot of time in Wisconsin at my extended family’s dairy farms too.

I attended Forreston High School in IL. I attended one year at Southern IL University – Carbondale, where I ran unattached under Coach Bill Cornell, a 4 flat miler and NCAA Division I 880 yard champion in the early 1960s. I spent a lot of time in Coach Cornell’s office asking him to share his story about running with me, which was inspiring. I also asked a lot of questions about his training in the early 1960s, for I believed and still do that running 4-flat in the mile on cinders (a slower track by probably 2-3 seconds vs today’s tracks) was very impressive.

Coach Cornell taught me a lot about his philosophy of training. Essentially, he believed most runners in America run too many miles per week. He said often to me (and the team) that he reached national caliber level on 70 quality miles per week. His one distance run per week was a hard, hilly 10 miler on Sunday mornings. A couple of times he said to me that he could have run faster times had he changed his health habits.

Coach Cornell believed that weight room training was important for a miler, but not all the “garbage” that most athletes do. In his opinion, Dumbbell arm swings that mimic arm action of running and Step-ups with dumbbell weights in each hand were what him go from 4:06 to 4-flat in the mile. Also, he said two other factors made a runner faster: (1) being light weight – not carrying extra body fat, and (2) hard hill running during the Sunday morning 10 miler. For 30 years, now, I’ve continued value Coach Cornell’s words and opinions.

After my freshman year at SIU-Carbondale, I transferred to the University of Wisconsin – La Crosse and stayed there from my sophomore through 2nd year of graduate school.

Following my Bachelor’s studies in Exercise Science, I continued at UWL in Exercise Science, was a graduate assistant, working in the Human Performance Lab and also teaching some courses. I was fortunate to outstanding mentorship at UWL, including Dr. Phil Esten, or cross-country coach, Dr. William Floyd, our exercise physiology expert, and other professors who were also welcoming of students who had questions. At UWL, I was a volunteer assistant cross-country and track & field coach, which was a valuable learning experience.

At UWL, I learned a lot from Dr. Phil Esten, who I considered a second-father due to his fine example of caring about runners and students and mentoring me.  His philosophy about the importance of running as a lifetime activity to the athletes he coached was a key factor in my continued love for the sport.

Phil used a conservative training approach; instead of hammering us with high mileage and brutal workouts, he assigned training loads that were doable. He believed that his job was to instill a love for the sport that kept us running for many years following college graduation, rather than throw our running shoes in the closet, gain weight, and never run a step again. He taught us that running lessons transferred to life and personal relationships too. Like most runners under Phil’s care, I wish that I could go back again, for it was great time in my life!

Recently, I started doctoral studies through Concordia University – Chicago in Health & Human Performance (a.k.a. Exercise Science). To complete a PhD, the program generally takes 4-5 years to finish: 3-years of heavy-duty academic course work and 1-2 years of research, plus dissertation writing and oral defense. As one might guess, I enjoy learning.

Can you tell me a little about your own experiences as a runner. Did you run competitively? What were your greatest accomplishments? 

I started running in middle school and was greatly inspired by our coach who was a really good runner in the early 1960s. He was a great role model. I ran cross-country and track in high school and college. I ran a lot of road races too, and continued to do so for 15 years after college.

By the way, I was a far better all-around athlete than runner. I excelled in baseball and basketball, and to this day I am confident that I would have been a very solid college baseball player (pitcher). I was a decent runner but not stellar. I struggled with lots of lower leg problems, starting at about age 16. I did not understand at the time why my legs ached and swelled so badly, and that problem greatly limited the amount of training mileage that I could run. It wasn’t until my junior year in college that an orthopedist diagnosed my leg issues as compartment syndrome. He said my condition was really bad!

An operation on both calves released fluid, but I had a lot of nerve damage already that persist for years. I’ve never recovered, to be frank, and my legs still ache badly every day. My training limit was about 35 miles per week in college and afterward. I know that was a big limiter in my running fitness. But, the lesson I learned about preventing injuries and doing a good job of scheduling training that is doable vs brutal has become a theme in my coaching.

As a runner, my times for various distances were moderate. In high school, I ran 4:32 (1600) and 2:01. In the summer after my senior year, I ran in a couple TAC meets and ran 4:26 and 1:59. In a road race the following year, I ran 4:23 for the mile. That was my fastest mile, as my leg problems became intense and my ability to train became more and more limited. In college, I was injured so often that my training logs seemed to be more time empty than full.

In my late 20s, I ran 35 miles per week and did water running and circuit training in the weight room. I ran in the low 15s for 5km and ran 4:01 in an open 1500m in the absence of speed work. Those were my best times. Yes, not super times, but it was what it was, given the limited training volume that I did. In retrospect, I estimate that I needed to run ~80 miles per week to reach top fitness.

How did you get started with coaching distance runners?

I started as a senior in college. I needed two credits extra to graduate, so I signed up for an independent course with my college cross-country coach, Dr. Phil Esten. I coached the steeplechasers during the outdoor season and wrote papers describing my methods, physiology, outcomes, and reflections. My steeplechasers performed well at the conference meet (1st, 3rd, and 8th place) and I was hooked. The next year, as a graduate student, I coached too, and that was the momentum I needed for the next 26 years. I coached a couple of years at Concordia University in River Forest IL and my athletes broke 13 school records (sprints, hurdles, triple jump, and distance events).

I’ve been coaching open runners since the 1990s, and I have written dozens of training schedules for high school, college, and national coaches from the USA and overseas. Most of the coaches never let their athletes or parents know that they aren’t writing the schedules, nor advising on race tactics, etc. A small number of coaches let the public know that I’m the one in the background consulting/coaching. Credit therefore goes to the Hunters of Purcelville, VA who tell the public that I coach their son and have been involved in developing Drew for a lengthy time-period. I adore the Hunters. They are like extended family to me.

How many runners do you coach at any given time? How do you interact with all of these people?

Typically I coach 20-25 runners at time, and for another 5-10 people I write their personalized training plans: they manage the details on their own. At present, I’m considering quitting my teaching job and making coaching my full-time job. If that happens, I’ll expand the numbers substantially. It’s a risky proposition for me to try coaching full time because I won’t have a pension if I give up teaching. And, I have a lot of medical bills and student loans to pay off right now, which is quite stressful on my family.

Many masters runners have credited you with renewing their running careers by reducing injury, minimizing fatigue and avoiding sickness. Can you explain your methods?

Yes, Andrew Duncan, Kevin Miller, Joan Hunter, and Tore Axelsson, to name a few, have credited me with reviving their running to a high level. Andrew and Kevin were not, in their own words, fast runners, in their prime, but became multiple national champions at the master’s level under my coaching. Tore did break 30 minutes, barely, in the early 1970s, but he had been struggling for years to compete a good level. I started coaching him at about age 52. By time he was 54 he set several Swedish national records on the track, won championship events, won European titles, and won two world titles in Brazil. For Joan, she reached 2nd place in the USATF Masters Indoor Championships in the 800m, right behind a gal who was a fast 800m runner and Olympian back in the day, as I recall. 

My methods? Hmm, how about unconventional. I don’t use linear periodization (think Lydiard or Daniel’s phasic methods). I don’t use high mileage. I don’t use really high intensity. I use very little goal-pace training. I focus on Stamina, which I define at use of Type IIa (fast intermediate) muscle fiber development, primarily. Most coaches target high mileage (for Type I, slow twitch) or fast reps/intervals for turning fast fibers in anaerobic/power bursts. I think such an approach, though produces quick results in the short-term, has limitations over the long-term. I always use multiple paces in my training schedule designs. I always use Stamina workouts for each training cycle too. I define stamina training as 75-90% of V.O2 max, by the way.

Do you have a preferred diet for runners? Can you explain?

My advice for runners is to eat healthy foods, including protein often but not loads of it at one time, veggies, fruits, nutritious health liquids (diluted vegetable and fruit juices especially). Be sure you are well hydrated before workouts. Replenish fuels and fluids as soon as possible after workouts. Pay attention to carbohydrate consumption: way too many runners have “bad” workouts because they are skimping on carbs / calories. I think this is very important!

You’ve been identified with the concept of critical velocity training. Can you explain what that is and how you have used it with your athletes?

Critical Velocity (CV) training, as I define it, is training at or close to 90% of V.O2 max (about the pace that a runner can typically sustain for roughly half an hour in a race). I assign intervals, such as 1,000m reps, at CV pace. I use math formulas that I created many years ago to derive the ideal CV pace. For the runners I coach, I prescribe CV workouts at least every other week, nearly year-round. Once in the main racing season arrives, CV workouts are assigned weekly. Example workout: 4-8 x 1km @ CV pace + striders, hills, or short intervals at faster than race-pace.

By the way, you can find the CV pace for your race performance level by going to my website (www.runningprs.com). Simply click on the Running Calculator tab.  Then, select a race distance (preferably from 3km to 10km) from the drop-down menu and input your time. Next, click on the Training Paces tab and voila, your paces arrive. My email: runfastcoach@gmail.com

What tips do you have for those of us competing in ultra marathons?

I coached at one of the best ultra-marathoners in the world, Mark Werner, a professor of statistics. He used to live in Boulder, then a suburb of Detroit, and now he teaches at the University of Cairo. Mark won some big races! Won the prestigious Mount Fuji half marathon race. Was the top runner United States ultra marathon team that competed in Italy.

The #1 suggestion is make your long runs count. Run one or two big workouts per week and everything else should be jogging and not that far. Build up to 3 to 5 hour runs every weekend, and inside of those runs have lots of stamina pace training, from marathon pace to CV pace. 

Simulate the terrain over which you will run in a race. If it's going to be a hilly ultra, train on lots of hills. If you are going to run a race on pavement, you better get used to running on pavement.

Focus on practicing the art of consuming fluid and fuel. Hydrate every 20 minutes, but not so much that you dilute electrolytes in your blood, which leads to hyponatremia. Fuel every 30 minutes, if you can, but not so much that you mess up your gut. Very important!

Thank you Coach Schwartz!

2 comments:

Risto said...

Great interview! Thank you.

Brian Mcmann said...

That was a fun read !!!! I'm a milage junkie and just love to run , but I get it ! This guys resume is impressive considering all the health bullshit .Where do you find these people ? The kid in the pic looks like the next Gallen Rupp !