Road Running

Inside the mind of a master Coach; Bob Larsen Interview (Part 2)

This is the second part of Cathal Dennehy’s discussion with coach Bob Larsen. Part one can be found here.


Cathal Dennehy: How much do you utilise physiological testing or monitor heart rate and lactates in Meb’s training?

Bob Larsen: It’s been proven that if you know what you’re looking for and you explain it to an athlete, he can duplicate right on the mark what a threshold pace is without doing testing. Before I had confidence in that, though, we had Meb take lactate tests, with Joe Vigil interpreting what it meant. Joe knows the science and physiology side of the sport, and he confirmed what I saw for Meb’s threshold. Once you’ve got that number, any coach who is watching his athlete can sense if he’s on that. Meb uses heart rate quite a bit just to monitor himself. He runs a bit faster on his recovery days than a lot of athletes do, because he’s more efficient at a faster pace. Ryan Hall, for comparison, runs extremely slow, and pushes his workouts very hard. Both approaches are okay; I can make an argument for either side, but there’s a happy medium, and Meb has found it for him.

CD: How important is the extra work – the drills, stretching, core work, the strength training – that Meb has done for most of his career?

BL: Scientifically, it comes out that as long as you have full range of motion, you don’t have to stretch beyond that, and extra stretching might hinder you because tenseness in the muscles helps you hop off the ground, but having said that, if you’re trying to get to age 39 still competing, then that extra flexibility has been a plus for Meb. I think the drills have been very important; if you look at Boston [2014, where Keflizighi won in 2:08:37], he’s still executing his mechanics perfectly because he’s done it endlessly in training. I’ve had world class jumpers during my time at UCLA, and it’s all about mechanics; those guys drill endlessly, as do sprinters and hurdlers. Meb has probably done more drills than any other human being as his career has been so long. Each person is different, though. There have been guys who set world records who’ve never stretched, or done a drill, or done strength work.

CD: How much of the input into training now comes from Meb himself, and is that something you try to develop in athletes as the years go on?

BL: With all my athletes, I encourage that. They’re the best ones to decide. Meb has never been an overtrainer, but these days he’s even more comfortable with taking an extra day’s rest if he needs it. We don’t pay any attention to what day of the week it is; it’s just whenever a certain workout comes up in the cycle. When designing a training plan, you count back from your peak race, but you have to know what phase you’re in. It could be light intensity during the aerobic phase, then the threshold phase, with a little more intensity, then you move to high-intensity in the anaerobic phase, and I think it should be done in that order; you shouldn’t mix them too much. I know Meb will make the right decision about which of those he needs to do at a certain time.

CD: What would you change about the methods of the average high-school or college coach?

BL: There’s pressure on coaches to get results in one season, but if you have stars that could have a future, you hope they’d keep an eye on slower development, rather than trying to see how fast they can be in one season. In high school, you need to develop mechanics and do some speed training, but quite a bit of the easy, non-pressured running to build up the capillary bed, and then the in-between running, building up the stroke volume with the semi-faster stuff, so you’re building all the systems all the time. In college, the schools that use a lot of their scholarships to recruit distance runners, they have a lot of pressure to win the NCAA cross country title, and that doesn’t necessarily foster good post-collegiate athletes. We’ve lost a lot of good athletes that way.

CD: Do you think the NCAA system is detrimental to developing athletes long-term, given athletes are usually expected to race three seasons in a year?

BL: I still think we have the best system. We’ve the best talent identification system in the world with our high schools, and then when they go on to college, it’s still the best program. You get a college education and learn how to race, but it needs tweaking – maybe a little more encouragement to think ahead. Let’s think of ways of identifying the really top guys early, guys who have the potential at the marathon, who could run under 2:10, but many of them never get there because they’re working so hard to make the team over 5,000m or 10,000m, which they might not have the basic speed for.

CD: How much of coaching is psychological? Is this something you can change or develop in an athlete?

BL: The main thing is to identify an athlete’s strengths, and then you can establish where their weaknesses are. If an athlete isn’t running up to their ability because of a mental issue, the first thing is to accept it, sit down with them, and tell them: ‘that isn’t the way you are. It’s the way you’ve chosen to be, and we can do these things to get you closer to 100 percent’, the same way you do on the physical side. The main thing is teaching an athlete that this [mental weakness] is a changeable trait.

CD: Do you have to talk differently to athletes, depending on their personality?

BL: Absolutely. In close track meets at UCLA, I’d say a few words to the group as a whole, then I would go around talking to them individually, because after you give them all the ra-ra speech, some guys need to be calmed down and other guys, like maybe a shot-putter, who is explosive, needs to be fired up. You have to judge how excited and calm different athletes need to be. I try to get coaches and athletes to realize you’re not just a certain way; you choose to be that way, and I expect you to make progress towards being a certain way. Even if, in the past, you caved, or you jogged it in, you ultimately chose to do that.

CD: You’ve obviously worked with many talented athletes. What were the main differences you noticed in the athletes who made it and those that crashed and burned?

BL: You need some people in your life to help you through the difficult times, people who take the long-term view. It can be a matter of opportunities, but patience is important. Not everybody has it, and it depends on if you have other attractive options in your life besides running. When do we have great boxers? When times are bad. It’s to do with hunger and desperation.

If you have a college degree from a good university, which Meb did, you can easily lose someone to being a businessman; they can go make a living elsewhere. We lost a lot of guys that way. To keep get more athletes who make it, we need to get more and more guys into training groups, and also training at altitude. It’s a percentage game, and that’s why the East Africans are so good.

Gemma Steel all smiles after taking gold in the European Cross Country Championships in Samokov
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Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy

Cathal Dennehy is a freelance journalist, a once-serious, now-retired athlete who writes for a number of international publications in the running industry. He has won two sports-writing awards, the Peter Ball Memorial Award in Ireland and the Wills Writing Award in the UK. Nationally, he previously worked for the Sunday Tribune, Irish Runner magazine and has written for the Sunday Independent, Irish Independent, the Guardian and The Independent in Britain. He is a regular contributor to Running Times, Runner's World, RunBlogRun and the IAAF website.
His banter levels are often poor, occasionally exceptional.

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