With Online Training, You Can Run With Elite Coaches by Your Side

VIRTUALLY YOURS Bart Yasso, left, and Mark Allen are among the world-class athletes who offer online training programs that are less cosly than hiring a personal coach.
VIRTUALLY YOURS Bart Yasso, left, and Mark Allen are among the world-class athletes who offer online training programs that are less cosly than hiring a personal coach.
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By Lenny Bernstein
Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I had already joined a local running group to begin gearing up for the Oct. 11 Chicago Marathon when Runner's World called to ask if I wanted to talk to Bart Yasso about the magazine's new online training program.

This is like asking whether your Little Leaguer would like a few minutes to talk hitting with Derek Jeter. Or if your garage band wants to schmooze with Springsteen after the show.

Yasso has completed more than 1,000 races of various kinds since he turned to endurance events in the 1970s to help beat a drug and alcohol habit. He has lost track of the number of marathons he has completed, but he has done at least one on every continent, winning some in times as fast as 2 hours 40 minutes. He has bicycled alone across the United States twice and trained a sedentary group of recovering substance abusers to complete a 22-mile relay.

Now, as the "chief running officer" for Runner's World, the dominant publication of the sport, he has helped develop an interactive plan designed to assist anyone training for a 26.2-mile race.

Which got me wondering: Can you complete a marathon under the tutelage of a coach who is hundreds of miles away or, more accurately, who exists only in cyberspace? Is Yasso's expertise worth the money (in this case, $130), or should I spend it on a less-famous flesh-and-blood coach who can actually watch me run around a track and down a trail?

Traditionally, your options for marathon training -- and for many other kinds of fitness efforts -- are to follow a generic plan on your own, join a group and soak up the accumulated wisdom of veterans and instructors, or work with a personal coach.

Books and Web sites offer sound advice on everything from mileage to nutrition to injuries, but in training on your own for something as difficult as a marathon you are likely to make painful mistakes that could be avoided. Personal coaches are expensive.

Having run with a group before, I signed up for the Runner's World plan. I chose the intermediate package, for runners who have completed several marathons. It offers the same basic 16-week training program that can be found elsewhere, with a gradual buildup of weekly mileage punctuated by speedwork, rest days, cross-training and strength training.

But Yasso has augmented the plan with training techniques he has developed over the years, and there are lots of extras. You can plug in your pace for each run, the terrain, the weather, your heart rate. If you want, you can keep track of everything you eat and how many calories you expend while training.

"If any training is going to work, it has to be customized to your needs, your lifestyle," says one Runner's World editor who worked on the program. "It's got to work for you, or you're not going to enjoy the training."

Online offers are all over the Web, with a wide range of sophistication. A quick search reveals interactive or video help with your bicycling, your golf game, your tennis stroke, your volleyball serve, your overall fitness. A guy who says he was a top table-tennis player in Australia offers online instruction in "long pips" and "counterspin."

A few clicks brought me to another familiar name. Mark Allen and I are both 51, both into endurance sports and, in the 1980s and 1990s, we lived in neighboring oceanside towns in northern San Diego County.

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