The Lost Art of Training Alone

Runner Training Alone

Image credit: Simplifaster

During my daily wanderings through Twitter and Instagram, while shuttered inside of my house, I have noticed a large upswell in the amount of content about remote coaching being pushed. With the stay-at-home orders that are still in place around much of the country and the seasons cancelled, Olympics postponed, and campuses deserted, it is obvious why remote coaching is a hot topic for coaches on social media. We have athletes that we miss, seasons that are lost, and most importantly, a community that is looking for answers. And so, it becomes an important topic because nobody really has the right answers for what is best right now. Should I train? Should I feel bad about not wanting to train? How do I train without facilities?

The answers, like most things in life, are not clear, and what is appropriate for one athlete may not be for another. But what is clear is that the athletes are now, more than ever, responsible for themselves during a time when they have been used to having personal guidance.

In sprinting they say that only you can run your race and that you are responsible for what happens in your lane. Regardless of the meet, it is your preparation that has put you at that starting line, and it is your decisions in the race that influence the outcome. It is your reaction, your race model, and your victory to cherish or loss to take. Most importantly, they are your lessons to learn.

As coaches, we teach the lessons of responsibility to our athletes from day one. Show up on time. Put in the work. Eat and sleep well. If you take a look at the social media for the world of coaching/strength and conditioning, you will see these lessons repeated daily. The athletes entrust three hours of their day to their coach, and the coach trusts the athletes to take care of the other 21 hours outside of practice.

Each day presents itself with new opportunities to build and develop that trust and responsibility, just as every loss or setback brings a chance to develop resilience—the ability to bounce back from losses or difficulties. This is athletics, and if you aren’t the winner, you are one of 7+ other losers. Every loss is on display for everyone to see with no place for the athlete to hide.

Building a Foundation of Fortitude

Resilience isn’t something that you just fall into when times get tough. It is built with intent, fostered by coaches and leaders who are unafraid of letting go a little, and it is drawn upon throughout life. I find the easiest way to build resilience is to view each problem or obstacle as an opportunity to learn about yourself. Any coach who teaches from a philosophy of learning to love the process will recognize the benefit of that mindset.

Being provided with teaching moments and practicing resilience in sport are both essential for preparing yourself for life. Between injuries, emergencies, life stress, and now pandemics, it is obvious that life is hard: harder than anything the track can throw at you. However, just as you build on the skills and abilities developed season after season, your mind builds on its ability to handle new stressors in order to help you succeed. My personal lessons of pulled hamstrings, training solo and without a coach, and not having facilities while pursuing my goal of racing at USATF were all the building blocks that, years later, gave me the resilience to keep moving forward during the hardest time of my life. But I’ll get to that later.

As we have had daily practices and weekly meets over multiple seasons that have provided ample opportunity to teach these lessons of trust, responsibility, and resilience, I have to question the current trend of remote coaching. If during the first sign of distress we turn outward for solutions instead of inward first, have the lessons even been learned at all? Instead of relying on remote coaching to solve all of our training problems during this shutdown, I offer a different solution: self-coaching.

For the sake of displaying my bias, I want to lead with the fact that I self-coached to all of my personal records after college. And I’m also giving myself three-quarter credit for college because we only had five months in the season, no strength and conditioning, and no prescribed off-season workouts. I had help, of course, with many people on various websites and forums providing guidance and advice for designing and monitoring my training. There was rarely anyone with me for workouts or meets, however, and that is why I have such a strong belief in the importance of building resilience. I see this moment in history as a perfect opportunity for this task.

Training Is Sometimes a Lonely Journey

Resilience is an important skill in track, especially if you live in the North. When I was competing in college in Wisconsin, my team was under strict conference rules that banned team practices before January. For any typical team, the easy workaround would be to have unofficial practices without a coach present. Practice typically requires facilities, however. My college technically had a fieldhouse with a three-lane, 150-meter track, but the bleachers covered each straightaway, and there was no safety netting. If you wanted to train, there couldn’t be anything else going on at the gym, and you were kicked out if something was starting before you finished.

We also didn’t have an outdoor track. Not that training outside would have been my first choice given how Wisconsin winters are, but it could have been a choice if we had one. None of that stopped me from becoming a multiple All-American (granted, genetics definitely played a part) because nothing was going to stop me. Well, injuries almost did.

My college career came to a screeching halt my senior year with a hamstring pull at the 60-meter mark in my conference 100m final. Three-plus races every weekend that season leading into a six-race conference weekend with 45-degree weather wasn’t necessarily a recipe for success—more like a recipe for catastrophe. Since I’d already qualified for nationals for the 100m and 200m, the pull left a sour taste in my mouth as I watched nationals via a crappy live stream that year with a six-pack of Guinness. It was an unceremonious toast to the end of a college career that had been riddled with injuries.

That 100m final, my final college race, occurred during the first home meet of my college career (the track had been just been completed), so I have learned to forgive myself for not speaking up about how beat up I was. The pressure was high, I was driven to win, and, in that pursuit, I tanked my chance at nationals. One of the downsides about being hyper-competitive is that I gave myself a few extra chances to practice resilience by pushing through injuries.

While I try my best to empathize with all athletes who have found themselves without a season, a coach, or the ability to train, it is obvious that the shutdown is not the same as a season-ending injury. The risk to the population is real during this pandemic, and people weren’t dying because I pulled a hamstring. There are far more life stressors now than from a simple season-ending injury. Differences aside, we can still try to take some lessons away from this all.

While the stay-at-home order has not been the defining moment in my story, it has certainly been an exercise in my resilience as a parent and an active adult. For many athletes, this will be the defining moment of their resilience. I believe that when this is all said and done, the athletes who emerge as standouts next season will be the ones who did not look outward for their motivation and coaching solutions, but who looked inward.

I will not mince words. When I talk about training, I do mean training. Instagram and TikTok workout challenges may be a fantastic way to get your heart rate up, but your body weight (typically) is not enough of a stimulus to be considered anything other than a different twist on cardio. The workouts are trending because they are everything that TikTok is, wrapped up in a package that resembles a workout: short, easily consumed by many, and requiring little to no thinking.

We’re better than this as athletes. Training is focused and measured. It has reason and direction. Not having a gym, track, or weights is not an excuse to not train.

So instead of not thinking, let’s take a step to the side and think about the last interview you had. Chances are that the interviewer asked a behavioral question along the lines of “Tell me about a time that you solved a problem, on the job or in life, that required a creative solution.” Those of you who are former athletes and in the workforce will probably have had a similar response to this question. These types of questions are one of the reasons that athletes typically do so well in interviews. Sport provides daily challenges that require resilience, grit, and problem-solving. It provides the opportunity to lead and take responsibility. If the athlete and coach aren’t carrying this over into the real world when real-world problems pop up, however, the lesson has been lost.

Solo Training in All Sports

So, thinking creatively, how do you start coaching yourself when your options are limited? I think the first thing that needs to occur is a shift in mindset. You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Of course, we are all athletes and are familiar with discomfort during workouts. Coaching yourself with no facilities exposes you to a different kind of discomfort, however. It is a mental test like no other that you experience in the sport, and it will test your problem-solving skill and resolve on a daily basis.

When it came to solving my training problems, one of the benefits of having relatively nothing to train with was that I could only go up from where I started. I was fortunate to live on a hill, which made acceleration work easy to figure out. What was more difficult was figuring out how to do it safely—as mentioned before, I was a short sprinter living in Wisconsin. That meant speed work in the winter with no facility access was necessary if I wanted to have any shot at success during the indoor season.

With the hill sprints in winter, it wasn’t so much a question of how to get warm, but how to stay warm. Spending 30 seconds outside in 5-degree weather to get to the hill, sprint, and walk back inside kept you cold for a heck of a lot longer than the recovery time. A trip to Goodwill and $15 later, I created a hot air wind tunnel inside my front door with used hair dryers. It was simple and effective, and I was now kept warm for the entirety of my session. Of course, this was only if I remembered to turn off a few lights or the TV so that I didn’t trip the breaker.

While recovering from my injury, I built on the creative solutions that I used during my college off-seasons and developed an entire training plan based on what would be a college’s poor plan B training. In researching tempo alternatives, I discovered Alan Wells using a speed bag for training. A cheap, used punching bag was the closest I could find, but I also ran across a hydraulic rowing machine discarded on the curb. It was the middle of summer and I was on a walk when I found it, so I carried it home 2 miles. It was heavy and uncomfortable, and I can only imagine what I looked like carrying a rowing machine down the side of a road. I didn’t care though: I was already getting very used to being uncomfortable.

When my hamstring allowed it, I began training again. When it was warm, I ran hills outside my house and did grass tempo runs at the park. I used landscaping stones as medicine balls for multi throws. Playground equipment became the tools for my recovery day bodyweight lifting circuits. When it got cold, I fired up the heat tunnel and switched to boxing and rowing circuits.

For weights, I had a used $99 Olympic set with a terribly rickety squat rack. It was a display model at K-mart when the store was going out of business, and I bought a wrench to take it apart in the store in order to fit it in my hatchback. I worked full-time and often split my sessions morning and night. I filmed everything and analyzed it after my practices.

Each day had its own struggle. Sometimes it was raining or snowing. Other times the park had a kid’s soccer tournament. One time the neighbor called the cops because I was wearing a hoodie doing hill sprints, and they didn’t recognize me. Each challenge was defeated, and in turn, my resilience grew.

In the two years post-college that I trained like this, I set PR’s both years. I went from running only a handful of 60s faster than 6.9 to running multiple in the 6.7 range. I went from a 21.91 200m on a flat, indoor, non-oversized track to a 21.65. I was helped by many but coached by me.

Maturation in Life and Beyond Training

Life as an adult, removed from my truly competitive years, has given me time to reflect on those lessons in resilience that I learned during my training. I see now that those lessons helped me the most when my son was born with multiple heart defects. How do you spend every moment that you can with your child who may not survive and also work, pay the bills, and move? The plan was to move the month before Finn was due. We didn’t plan on him arriving a month early when a check-up didn’t go well, and they told us that my wife would need an emergency C-section that day.

Thankfully, Finn is now thriving. My wife and I made it through those difficult months in the hospital with an even stronger resolve and the faith that we can make it through the tough times and come out the other side stronger. That is why we are able to maintain a level head through this shutdown. For many, this shutdown may be the first big moment in their career that truly tests their resolve.

Growth doesn’t occur within the margins: you have to push, test, assess, step back, and reframe what you’ve learned to see what works, what doesn’t, and where to go from here. Resilience is what keeps you coming back for more, and like every skill, you have to practice it in order to develop it.

So instead of looking outward at solutions during this time, take a look inward first. Chances are that you can do this solo and come out even stronger at the end.

Authored By:

Josh Hurlebaus,
originally posted in SimpliFaster

Now a Master’s level sprinter, Josh Hurlebaus is a former NCAA All-American and USATF competitor in the 60-meter dash. After coaching numerous All-Americans in NCAA DIII sprints and jumps from 2010-2017, Josh branched off from the NCAA and opened his own sport performance consulting company, Great Lakes Athletics.

Josh graduated from the University of West Virginia with an M.S. in Coaching and holds USTFCCCA certifications in Sprints, Hurdles, Relays, and Strength & Conditioning. When not at his day job as a small business finance manager, he is an independent consultant for track and field and speed climbing.