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Greg McMillan who operates adidas-McMillanElite in Flagstaff, Arizona — a post-collegiate training group for runners — is seeing significant returns from his athlete’s training efforts. He started the adidas-McMillanElite program nearly three years ago, and it seems this past year everyone is running new personal bests; right on schedule.

At P.F. Chang’s Rock ‘n Roll Arizona Marathon Alvina Begay, ran a 5-minute personal best with her Olympic Trials qualifying time of 2:37:14. Brett Gotcher ran the 4th fastest US marathon debut with his 2:10:36 at the Chevron Houston Marathon. Andrew Middleton finished the Austin Half Marathon with a new pb of 64:48 — all on January 17. Jordan Horn finished 2nd in 7:52.45 achieving the IAAF A-Standard a USATF Indoor Championships qualifier. Paige Higgins managed a 2:33:22, which is the US Olympic Trials A-standard at Houston. December 13th at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships his women’s team finished 2nd and even the master himself, Greg McMillan, won the master’s title at USATF Marathon Trail Championships on a character-building course at elevation.

What is the secret to his success? There is no secret. In this interview below, McMillan talks at some length about the training program he administers and more specifically Gotcher’s training leading up to the Chevron Houston Marathon. 

Christopher Kelsall: You coach according to the Arthur Lydiard method, yes?

Greg McMillan: I was very lucky to spend the last week of Arthur’s life with him. We talked extensively about training, how his group of “Arthur’s Boys” worked together to become the world’s best and about how to apply his principles to US post-collegiate runners. In my opinion, Lydiard’s principles envelope every successful training program and what I learned from him (and he states this clearly in his books) as well as from his proteges, Nobby Hashizume and Lorraine Moller is that the principles are the most important aspect and each coach should apply the principles to each runner’s situation. It’s not about a formula or a set program. Lydiard hated equations. Understanding the principles is the key and with this understanding, the coach creates the perfect training program for each athlete.

While talking with Arthur, it was clear that the key points are (1) the development, over years, of the aerobic system, (2) the correct ordering of the training phases to reach a peak at the key races and (3) teaching the runner to listen to his or her body and learn his or her own rhythms with training. Lorraine and Nobby explain it better than I can, but in our group, we follow Lydiard’s principles by building the aerobic base, adding hills to develop strength and power, then transitioning to race-specific training. I don’t think this is too much different than what most other coaches prescribe, but I hope that as we give it 2-3 years to fully develop, it will honor Lydiard and continue to show that what he learned nearly 50 years ago is the foundation for distance running success.

CK: Congratulations on Brett Gotcher’s recent 2:10:36 debut marathon.

GM: Thank you. We know the training system we use works. We also believe that the group environment and altitude location are working. I was telling Brett before his marathon that it’s been fun to see our original plan yield results. And, in most cases, the athletes are now getting the feeling that they can, in fact, run very, very fast.

CK: Lydiard said: “Champions are everywhere, you just need to train them properly.” If this is the case when looking at applicants to adidas-McMillanElite, do you look beyond an athlete’s athletic resume and look more at the person and whether they will fit in?

GM: There are several important aspects we evaluate when looking at applications. One is performance level. We can only take athletes who are fit enough to train with the current group of athletes. For example, our 5K standard for men when we first started the group was 14:15. The second year, it was 14:00 and now it is 13:50. The reason is that if we were to accept 14:15 guys now, they would be over-training every day. The group is just too fast and our idea was always (or at least through this Olympiad) to add athletes that fit within the performance level of the group. New athletes must be able to train with the current group. They may be near the back of workouts, of course, but they shouldn’t be off the back.

Another aspect we look at is the mentality. Does that athlete have a demonstrated “winner’s mentality”? Before we started the group, I asked a psychologist at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs about athlete selection. She said, “Just watch the finish line. The ones who are winning, regardless of time or level of competition (high school, college, club, etc.), are the ones we see making it to the highest level of sport.” I’ve always remembered that and so we look back through the athlete’s career to see if they exhibit that mentality. Did they win in HS? Did they win in college or at minimum exhibit the ability to set a goal (All-America for example) then go out and achieve it? Lastly, we look at personality and determine if that personality fits with our group. The spirit of each training group is different and the athlete must fit with the spirit of the group. If the athlete meets the minimum performance standards and looks like a good fit on their application, then I arrange a phone interview. If they seem like a good fit after the phone interview, then we bring them to Flagstaff to meet the team and for the team to meet them. This usually shows us whether the athlete will fit or not.

CK: If your performance standard requirements continue to rise, you may have to start another group at a lower level or stop accepting new recruits for a while.

GM: That’s why I say, “or at least through this Olympiad.” We have the idea that we will start another group within our group that would be for a new set of emerging elite athletes. On the women’s side, we are still adding more emerging elite runners but on the men’s side, we are looking for already very good runners to complement our current group of men. I think it just shows that there is a need for more training groups to start; we need to help more athletes and to do that, we need more groups.

CK: With Lindsay and Brett at least, it appears these two athletes were performers in High School and are performing post-Collegiate. Is this because three race seasons during the University school year does not allow adequate time for recovery from racing and then the undertaking of a proper aerobic build-up? Or was it just a matter of circumstance with these two?

GM: In both cases, they had multiple coaches. This inconsistency matched with the influence of college life can interrupt the development of great athletes. We see this all the time – an athlete is great with their high school coach then they struggle in college. Most of the time, they then give up the sport because they lose their momentum. Sometimes, as with Brett and Lindsay, they stick with it and begin to return to the mindset they had in high school.

CK: You have said (something to the effect) that Brett is the perfect example of the type of athlete that will benefit from joining adidas-McMillanElite — can you elaborate as to why he is the perfect athlete?

GM: We have an abundance of talent in the US. That is not a problem. The problem is that we don’t keep this talent in the sport long enough for the athlete’s full potential to be reached. Brett was a stud in high school and due to just bad luck, he had three coaches in college so he didn’t continue to display the talent seen when he was younger. Our group was formed to provide enough support for athletes like Brett to continue their running careers. Every collegiate runner and coach knows athletes who could have been world-beaters but they simply gave it up. Groups like ours keep athletes like Brett in the sport and as a result, he’s been able to put in the training to be a very good runner and to reconnect with his best mental self, which allows him to now believe he can compete with better and better athletes. Imagine if there are 10 new training groups like ours and each new group could support 15 athletes. We would be able to keep 150 more athletes in the sport. They wouldn’t all turn out to be Olympians but we would get many, many more Brett Gotchers who would force the performance level as a whole much, much higher.

CK: During Gotcher’s first year and his first cycle of altitude training, how many miles was he running during that particular initial base phase, being fresh out of college?

GM: Coming out of college, Brett ran 75-85 miles per week on average. His peak mileage was 95 and his low was 55 (though it should be noted that those were usually on six days of running, not seven). In his first base phase (Fall 2007), we were able to get in 12 weeks of a Lydiard base. We started at 75-85 miles per-week and gradually built his mileage to 95-105 (though he was rarely over 100 that fall). We took six weeks to build from 75-85 up to ~90-95 then we put in the next 10-12 weeks at 95-105 (this mileage level extended into the hill phase that followed the base phase). This was the base he needed and I think his development is due in part to this annual base-building phase. I should also note that when building the mileage, we would take a “down” mileage week every 3-5 weeks to avoid injury.

CK: How much aerobic development did Brett need before he exhibited signs of needing to move on to the hill phase. What were the signs?

GM: Our philosophy is to do as much aerobic base building as the year will allow. Our general plan for track-focused runners is to spend all fall in the base phase, take a recovery two weeks at the holidays, then do 4 more weeks of base in January. We then begin the hill phase in February and into March before we begin moving through the race-specific phases in the spring and summer. It’s pretty standard periodization and when we start the hill phase it is determined more by the need to get ready for race-specific training as opposed to when the aerobic development is complete. I prefer to stay in the base phase as long as possible.

CK: Did you end up using the Gabriel Rosa marathon model in 2007, or was Rosa’s model saved more for this latest sequence, leading up to Brett’s first marathon in Houston?

GM: Do you mean the Rosa marathon model as our base building program? If so, then no. We use a Lydiard-style base. In reference to the program, for Houston, the marathon-specific program was a combination of what I learned from Arthur, Dr. Rosa and from the Japanese.

CK: No I mean the inverse pyramid inserted before the hill phase, with some quality running, of Rosa’s model.

GM: For Brett, we didn’t. His fall was very half-marathon and marathon-oriented so his fall was very Lydiard looking. For Alvina and Paige, we did insert VO2max development first then the marathon-specific phase. Both ran US Club Cross Country Championships so we were getting ready for a 6K then from there, switched to marathon training. So, as often happens, coaches and athletes must modify the organization of the training to fit their goals.

CK: Did you need to fit in some sub-AT work and later AT work with regularity with Brett during the aerobic phase?

GM: In the base phase, we do one weekly session that we call a steady state run. It mimics what Lydiard called the 3/4 effort run. We build it from 4 miles to 10 miles over a few weeks and the athletes run it at what would be described as marathon effort. It’s slower than a tempo run but faster than their regular training. For the men, I like to get in five 10-mile steady state runs and for the women, my goal is to get in five 6-8 mile steady state runs during our fall base phase.

Murray Halberg and Peter Snell got their 10-mile runs down to 52 minutes and our athletes are inching closer to that speed even at 7,000 feet. We also include one leg speed session, which is our version of Lydiard’s fartlek run. These two sessions plus the long run we build up to 2 hours in the first base phase of every athlete then up to 2-2.5 hours in the second base phase. All other running (most athletes run 10-13 times per week) is at an easy aerobic pace. We are very mindful that the musculoskeletal system is the limiting factor and that’s why we are so gradual in our approach.

CK: Can you describe the leg speed session for me?

GM: We rotate through four sessions, doing one per week during the base period. We start with 8 laps of 100 meters on, 100 meters off then the next week; we do 10 laps of 200m on, 200m off. Next, we do 300m on, 100m off then finish the cycle with 3 sets of 300m, 200m, 100m all with 200m jog between and 400m jog between sets. Then, for the next rotation, we increase it to 10-12 laps of 100/100 and 12 laps of 200/200. It is VERY important to note that these are NOT anaerobic sprints. They are strides and don’t result in a large build-up of lactic acid. In other words, it is not a heavy breathing workout. It is all about controlled, leg turnover using good form. Since we are at altitude, I use these leg speed workouts in place of Arthur’s fartlek workout because I want to make sure we don’t go anaerobic in the base phase.

CK: There are many coaches and athletes it seems, who follow the Lydiard method, but often do not get into the hill bounding drills. I assume, so correct me if I am wrong here, that the resistance work that hill bounding is, is more suited for middle-distance runners who will need to create more force in their push off? Did Brett not do bounding because of being a marathoner?

GM: I’m not sure we can say it’s better for middle-distance runners. In my opinion, it is important to look at the purpose of hill bounding. I get frustrated that some people say, “You don’t do hill bounding so you don’t support Lydiard training.” We must remember that the purpose of hill bounding was to prepare the ankle joint for the race-specific training that follows the hill phase. Arthur always said that the runner must be like a ballet dancer with strong, dynamic ankles. He used hill bounding and springing to achieve this state. Most coaches and professional runners today use circuit-training exercises to achieve the same goal. Brett has been doing our circuit training routine for 2.5 years and he is a very dynamic athlete, to begin with (just give him a basketball and a hoop and you’ll see what I mean). So, we didn’t need to do the hill bounding. Instead, we do the Lydiard-style hill circuit with strong uphill running, lots of strides at the top and bottom and fast downhill running.

CK: Is the downhill striding done on the dirt path you show in a video, where you talk about the Lydiard hill circuit? What is the grade like?

GM: Yes, ~5-6% grade.

CK: And the grade of the up?

GM: We use the same hill up as we do down. The circuit is like a figure eight with the hill in the middle, strides at the top and bottom loops.

CK: Did Brett have a workout where he demonstrated the fitness to run a sub-59 20k? Can you tell me about it?

GM: He had several workouts that let us know he was in great shape. His steady-state runs were ~10 seconds per mile faster in the fall of 2009 than in the fall of 2008 so we knew he could now run low to mid 4:40s aerobically (which usually translates very well to 20K or half-marathon race pace). He also did 6 x 1 mile with 3-minute jog at 7,000 feet on the roads hitting 4:50, 4:44, 4:43, 4:41, 4:44, and 4:37. We get ~70-10 seconds per mile conversion for the altitude so this indicated that he was ready. I know these times aren’t that fast but when it is combined within the smart plan of good volume, hill workouts and leg speed sessions, it proved he could run well when tired so our confidence was high that he could do well at the 20K. With the 20K, however, we cared less about time than about competing. It was all about trying to win and fortunately, he won and ran a fast time.

CK: During a typical week, how did Brett’s anaerobic phase look leading up to Houston?

GM: His marathon phase which would match up with the anaerobic phase in the Lydiard pyramid followed Lydiard’s concept of putting the most race-specific training closest to the race. So, the marathon phase was anchored about two key workouts: the long run and the marathon-specific workout. His other workout in the week was either another long run (usually 90-105 minutes), a hill circuit workout or a VO2max workout. This was the rhythm of the training and is what I have found works very well for most runners.

CK: When you arrived at the taper, did you have to lock him inside and duck-tape him to a chair, or did he cope ok with the downtime?

GM: He handled it pretty well. The main thing I worked on was keeping him calm mentally and helping him to avoid getting hypersensitive to his body. I call it the “Great Marathon Freakout” as runners head in the marathon peaking phase but Brett has always been pretty even-keeled about things, which is why I think he handled the peaking phase okay and is why he will be a good marathoner.

CK: I understand for the spring Brett will be racing some shorter events, looking to take down some personal bests, which of course he clearly indicates the ability to run faster at 5K and 10K than his record shows. For the fall do you have your eyes on something like Chicago or New York marathons? I assume NY makes more sense being rolling and providing more time for training?

GM: Yes. We believe it is important to run fast on the track while preparing for a fast marathon, particularly for a young runner like Brett. (We’ve seen new US marathoners abandon the track once they get to the marathon and they seem to plateau quickly. We prefer the method Meb, Deena and Paula took where they ran the marathon but continued to try to improve in track, cross and on the roads.)

Brett wants to have similar 5K and 10K credentials to some of his heroes like Rod Dixon and Steve Jones. We may not get there this year but I certainly think we can move closer to those times than he is right now.

For the fall/winter marathon, it will come down to what fits best for his development, where the 2012 Olympic Trials will be held and the financial opportunities as he tries to make a living in the sport.