The North Face athlete, certified coach, and sports nutritionist Stephanie Howe shares her approach to coaching runner Jesse Sutton as he trains for his first 50-mile race at The North Face Endurance Challenge. From “quality over quantity” to five-day food logs to strength-building with Mountain Athletics, Stephanie gives us an in-depth look at Jesse’s training regimen.
I LOVE to run and I love to share what I know about running, which is fitting because I work as a coach and sports nutritionist. Serving as both a member of The North Face Global Athlete Team and someone who has studied exercise physiology and nutrition (almost done with my PhD), I have a unique perspective when it comes to coaching.
Simply put: When I talk with my athletes about training, racing, injuries, recovery, nutrition, etc., I can relate because I’ve been there myself, time and time again.
I truly believe that having both the educational background combined with the personal experience helps me to be a more successful coach. And I love it! I’m passionate about everything related to running and nutrition. And who doesn’t love talking about their passion? So when I heard about the opportunity to help coach a runner, Jesse Sutton, training for his first 50-mile race I jumped at the opportunity to support him.
Jesse’s plan was designed to get his body and mind ready to race while keeping him healthy. Since the 50-mile distance was a whole new level for Jesse, I developed a training plan to gradual increase his mileage while maintaining his strength and fitness. It was extremely important for us to closely monitor Jesse’s training to ensure that his body was withstanding all the extra miles.
A little bit about Jesse…he is great to work with. He is smart, driven, determined, and a hard worker. At times, I had to keep Jesse from doing TOO much. He has been so excited to take on the challenge of running 50 miles and brought incredible focus and dedication to training.
As a coach, it’s important for me to not only develop training plans, but also to teach athletes how the body works and responds to training. One of our focuses was the importance of quality over quantity. This is something that few runners can grasp on their own. It’s tempting to go out and run hundreds of miles, but in reality it’s not the ideal way to train. It doesn’t result in faster running and usually leads to injury, illness, and/or overtraining. No “junk hours” is what I constantly kept telling Jesse.
“Can I run extra today?
“How about an easy run instead of a day off?”
A key to Jesse’s success will certainly be his ability to trust in the training program, have confidence in his workouts and know why I was having him do certain things.
Before I began coaching Jesse I had him fill out a detailed questionnaire (READ: 10 pages), including things like his past training history, workout preferences, current fitness, health history, physiology, personality, work environment, and many other non-running related questions. I like to get a good idea of each athlete’s background from a holistic standpoint. It may not seem like stress or work environment is important to consider when writing a training plan, but it really is!
After Jesse completed the questionnaire we set up a time to talk on the phone. I work with many non-local athletes and to be effective, we communicate by phone or Skype regularly. During our first call I asked Jesse loads of questions to learn more about him and to get a better idea of what his training plan should look like. After our call I designed a weekly training plan that outlined what Jesse should do each day of the week leading up to his race.
Throughout this process, I emphasize the importance of communication – I expected a weekly email or call to discuss his training and make sure things were going in the right direction. To be a good coach with an effective training plan, regular communication is vital. Jesse was great about shooting me a quick email at the end of the week and setting up phone calls when things came up we needed to discuss. From these conversations I was able to create a tailored plan that fit Jesse’s needs exactly! Instead of just writing one plan leading up to his goal race, Jesse’s training was constantly tweaked to exactly fit his needs.
Another important aspect of Jesse’s training was the Mountain Athletics program. To prepare Jesse’s body to handle the stress on his muscles, tendons, and joints; strength training was a necessity. Mountain Athletics is unique in that it’s customized to fit the needs of the specific athlete. In Jesse’s case, Mountain Athletics was integrated into his training a couple times a week to compliment his running.
The importance of strength is often overlooked in a training plan, especially for endurance athletes. Strength, however, is one of the most important things a runner can do to help prevent injuries and to improve strength, stamina, and fitness.
The Mountain Athletics program consisted of high intensity strength and power exercises that were designed to challenge Jesse and prepare his body for running long distances. Running is catabolic in nature, meaning it breaks the body down. In contrast, strength training is anabolic, meaning it stimulates building muscle. By incorporating the Mountain Athletics strength plan into Jesse’s training he was able to maintain muscle mass while running high mileage. Without Mountain Athletics, Jesse would have been more prone to injury, lost muscles mass, and not been as healthy, fit, or strong leading up to his race. Incorporating Mountain Athletics also served as a means to cross train, giving Jesse’s body a break from running and providing a different type of stimulus, leading to greater adaptions and improved performance.
The last key to Jesse’s training was nutrition. Endurance performance and nutrition and closely linked, but often a neglected part of training. The fuel you put in your body can really impact the ability to train, recover, and perform. Jesse and I worked together on nutrition starting with his daily diet. I had him keep a 5-day food log, tracking everything that he consumed (NOTE: this is not an easy task. Anything that Jesse ate, he had to record. If he ate lasagna one night, he had to write down all the ingredients in the lasagna, or do his best to estimate).
From Jesse’s diet log information I was able to put together a detailed nutrition analysis that showed exactly how many calories, carbohydrates, fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, and water he was consuming each day. We compared what Jesse was actually eating to what he should be eating to support his current training level. Since Jesse eats very healthy, we only made minor tweaks to his diet. Mainly, making sure he was eating enough to support the extra training and discussing his timing of meals which influences the ability to train, recover, and perform.
Last but certainly not least, we focused on race day nutrition. In long races, such as a 50-miler, fueling and hydration are very important. The body doesn’t have enough energy stores to race for an extended period of time, thus to avoid “hitting the wall”, fuel must be consumed during the race. Jesse and I discussed the best choices for fueling during his 50-mile race. Not all products are created equal, and while there is some degree of individual preference, certain products are better choices than others.
I had Jesse try some different types of fuel in training to determine his body’s preference. I even shared my secret (or not so secret) concoction I take while racing. After a few weeks of trying different products on long runs, Jesse and I developed a plan for both fueling and hydration based on the spacing on the aid stations at Bear Mountain.
In summary, working with Jesse is an amazing experience. He was a hard worker, followed his training plan, and trusted me 100% in getting him ready for his race. If I told Jesse to take a week off of running (yes, this happened), he listened. One of his most valuable take-away is how he has learned to listen to his body and discover the importance of rest and recovery.
As a coach, there is simply no greater feeling that working with an athlete and using my knowledge and experience to help them achieve their goal. And as a fellow athlete, I cannot be more excited for Jesse as he takes on his first 50-mile race at The North Face Endurance Challenge in Bear Mountain, New York.
Photo credits: Tim Kemple; Tristan Greszko