Interview with Jeff Atkinson about Running

Jeff Atkinson is a world-class athlete who broke the fifteen-hundred meter record at Stanford University in 1985. After winning the US Olympic Trials, Jeff represented the United States in the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, Korea where he finished 10th in the 1500m. He ran professionally for 10 years, earning spots on eight U.S. National Teams and sponsorships from Nike, Foot Locker, Brooks, Oakley and Ray Ban. Jeff is currently a coach of cross country & track and field at Palos Verdes High School (one of the most competitive schools in these two disciplines in California). He also trains athletes at all levels in the Los Angeles area under the banner Olympian Fitness.

Here are my 5 questions with Jeff and his answers:

1) First and foremost, what was your favorite moment about being in the Olympics?

The best moment for me was when they announced my name at the starting line. A woman with a sexy voice announces your name in three different languages and at that moment you think to yourself, “I’ve made it. The whole world is watching me.”

2) Okay, to put you on the hot seat for a second… I know you are in the Arthur Lydiand camp that a high volume mileage training regimen is ultimately the best way to train if you are trying to improve performance. You are aware that I support an alternative view but I wanted to give you a chance to defend your position.

Look at it this way — you can only build a pile of sand so high. Ultimately you need to increase the width/base if you want to reach new heights. The base of this sand pyramid is a good metaphor for the foundation of your aerobic capacity. I believe that the only way to max out this “base” is through sustained volume.

Take the non-believers rhetoric out of the lab and look at the empirical evidence offered by professional athletes. All of the top guys in our sport have big volume (120 to 140 miles per week for a marathoner). It is that simple.

I offer your readers this truism: The more you can do without breaking down is what you should do if you want to increase aerobic capacity.

3) As a trainer whose athletes run the gamut of fitness levels and ability, what is the biggest newbie mistake that you see that impedes progress and/or natural progression.

Too much, too soon. Okay, so I am an advocate of high mileage – but everything is relative, right? Look, the teenager Pamela Jelimo won a decisive victory in the 800 meters at this year’s Summer Olympic Games. Are you telling me that she runs 20 miles per week? No. But should someone off the couch replicate her training regimen, of course not. People aren’t reasonable when they first start off and don’t honor the natural progression that needs to take place. We are all capable of a lot more than we think – but it doesn’t happen overnight either.

4) What are three motivators that have proven, in your experience as a mentor and coach, to be the most effective at keeping an amateur athlete on track?

Well before I can answer this I need to set the stage and preface that it starts with the person. Are they competent enough to set reasonable goals that elicit follow-through? If the answer is yes, then they create drivers that are personal to them either in an external or internal way.

With that said:

  1. Commitment to the goal/driver as a process.
  2. Obtaining support for the process (i.e. getting a coach, getting involved with a training group, etc.).
  3. This is the most important: changing that process into the goal/driver itself.

Let me explain, once you begin to enjoy the process (and it becomes the goal) then motivation is automatic. This comes in the form of “moments of truth” as you execute the process. There will be days that you don’t want to advance your goal but you know you have to as part of the “process”. It turns into a situation of personal integrity rather than an external benefit. When you force yourself to complete the process (on a day where you wanted to give up) the moral victory becomes easily worth the effort, in turn the process and goal become self-perpetuating.

You are able to move past that little voice (inside everyone) that is telling you it would be a lot easier to watch television — and the kicker is that voice is right! You don’t need to get out and run — watching television is easy, fun and enjoyable. If you can get yourself to view the process as the goal then you have switched the paradigm.

5) In your “bag of tricks” of all the workouts you can prescribe a client/athlete/student, what is your favorite?

The one hour run with descending splits. It is the most pure of the running drills. You can do long runs, hills, interval training, all at varying degrees of effort. When you set out to do a one hour run with descending splits you are committing to having a better mile each leg of the way. You are saying to yourself, “I am going to get better with each mile,” and it is super satisfying no matter who you are and what level you are at. You can be world-class or a total beginner, either way it will be a great hour for you.

I mean, come on, it leaves you feeling good and it only takes the same amount of time it takes to watch two sitcoms. It is a good one.