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

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.

The only difference between us is that Allen is a six-time winner of the Ironman Triathlon World Championship and I am not. Allen won the Hawaii endurance event, which many consider the most grueling single-day race in the world, every year from 1989 to 1995 (at age 37), except in 1994, when he did not compete because of an injury.

He and a partner, Luis Vargas, were pioneers in online coaching, having launched their site in 2001, and Allen says he helps beginners, veterans and elite racers train to swim, bike and run competitively. Despite early mistrust of Web-based instruction and the 2000 dot-com bust, he also says the business is successful so far.

"It has to be based on something sound," Allen says. "I like to think I have a base of knowledge that very few people have."

The key is unlimited e-mail support, which allows Allen to tailor his program to each participant. Allen says he personally answers hundreds of e-mails a day, shaping his program to whatever is going on in the participant's life. For $29 a week, he dispenses advice about dealing with stress, getting enough sleep, proper nutrition, racing philosophy, distractions and "how to take it to the next level."

Sam Seemes, chief executive of the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association, said online programs offer a broad outline that may be useful, especially for beginners, but shouldn't be used as a replacement for personal attention from a coach.

"Structured workouts with meaning are written around the person. And if you don't have contact with that person, you can't see how they respond physically, mentally and emotionally. You're leaving out a ton of the ingredients."

But not all of the more than 400,000 people who will run a marathon this year can find or afford a good coach. Yasso and Allen say their programs bridge the gap with expertise and interaction. Beyond Yasso, the Runner's World site has a couple of dozen staffers whose whole careers are built around their knowledge of running, including Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon. Behind them is a stable of doctors, nutritionists, exercise physiologists, physical therapists and, yes, coaches, who the Web site promises will answer questions down to the smallest detail.

Another benefit is the Web's ability to create an instant online community of people interested in the same goal. Already, the Runner's World site is filled with messages from first-timers and veterans alike, exchanging advice as they begin training for fall marathons and cheering each other on.

"I always say that the biggest running group is 'unattached,' " Yasso says. We "are trying to reach out and help people achieve their [goal], and creating this community to help people do it."

Okay, Bart, here's my first question: There's this 51-year-old guy who has completed half a dozen marathons but is really happy with only one, his personal record of 4:33 in New York. Somewhat overweight, left knee hurts all the time, right foot bothers him. Tends to puke toward the end. Thinks he can run a 4:20 in Chicago with the proper training, because it's flat as a pancake.

What would a nutritionist say about your diet? Yasso asks during our telephone interview. (It's pretty bad; let's not even go there.) Are you in the proper shoes? (I think so, but all shoes tend to give me trouble.) Are you doing long weekend runs with a good, supportive group? (Not yet, but I plan to start this week.) How closely are you simulating the actual race in your training -- right down to the fluid stops and the terrain? (Hmmm, haven't done that before. Good idea.)

As for that 4:20 goal, Yasso says, he'd shoot for 4:25 or 4:30. It's a little more realistic.

What the hell does he know anyway?

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