Being a professional runner can be an individual pursuit. But rarely do professional runners reach their highest potential alone.
Many of the world’s best runners have a team of experts who help them get their minds and bodies primed for performance. These runners have physical therapists and psychologists, coaches and nutritionists, doctors and teammates.
This month, we decided to treat you, our newsletter readers, like the professionals, by introducing you to a team of experts to help you run your best this year.
Last week, we introduced the first two members of your team: Yera Patel, a physical therapist at NYU Langone Health, and Justin Ross, a clinical psychologist in Denver.
This week, we’re talking to Amy Yoder Begley, coach of the Atlanta Track Club and a 2008 Olympian, and Amy Stephens, team dietitian for Empire Elite Track Club.
Want to ask them a question? Email [email protected] and include the name of the expert in the subject line. (Questions about training or coaching go to Begley; those about nutrition go to Stephens.) We’ll answer readers’ questions as we move into February — which can be the hardest month for keeping New Year’s resolutions.
These conversations have been edited and condensed.
⚡️ Q. and A. with Amy Yoder Begley, Atlanta Track Club coach and a 2008 Olympian
What advice do you give to new runners?
I tell people to try to get rid of all of the barriers that would keep you from running.
Make sure you have shoes that are fitted: You don’t want old shoes that are going to cause sore knees, a sore back or blisters that would keep you from running.
Learn to fuel and hydrate to make sure you don’t bonk on a shorter run.
And start slow. There’s walking, there’s run-walking and there’s running. It can be easier to start with 30 seconds running and 30 seconds walking instead of three miles.
What do you tell runners who are trying to level up their performance?
People who have just been running who haven’t added anything like hill repeats will see huge improvements as long as they progress slowly.
Make three days a week important workouts. Add a speed workout a week, a threshold a week and a longer run a week. Start slow and low with the intervals and add to it.
Any advice for runners coming back from an injury?
Coming back from injury is the same for everybody: You need to start slower than you think.
I say the same thing with elite athletes and everyone else coming back. They say, “I’m ready to start!” and I say, “Yeah … wait one or two more days.” It’s a progression.
When do you tell runners to consider working with a coach?
People come to me when they have done one or two races and they want to hit a certain goal. So if you’ve been running for a while, or done a couch-to-5K program, or done three or four 5K races but are not getting any faster, that’s a good time to find a coach.
Also, if you are getting injured while running, it can be helpful to find a coach.
What should runners look for in a coach?
Look for someone who has training plans but also has flexibility in those plans to be able to fit your life. Can you move things around? If it’s a team, do they meet as a group, and are there times and places that work for you?
It can be hard to fit it in, so it’s important to find something that’s going to work in your life. Once you’re addicted to it, yes, you’ll get up at 4:30 a.m. to get it in. But not at first. At first, make it accessible so you don’t find yourself racing across town to make it to a workout.
Any words of wisdom on goal-setting?
Finding flexibility in your plans is huge, and be OK to pivot and find a different race if needed. You may spend a lot of time and energy and money on training, and you don’t want the disappointment to keep you from finding another opportunity. Or if an injury happens, you don’t want to push through and hurt yourself.
Have multiple goals for the year and have process goals too. You could get terrible weather for your half-marathon or your marathon. And you might not hit your time goal or age goal.
But if you have a progress goal — I’m going to try and run four days a week, or I’m going to try and go to all the speed sessions this season, or I’m going to try and stretch every day — have that process goal just in case you don’t hit that time goal.
???? Q. and A. with Amy Stephens, team dietitian for Empire Elite Track Club
What’s some top-level advice you give to runners?
The first thing I tell people is that there’s no need to overthink eating. Fill your diet with lots of fresh fruits, vegetables, low-fat proteins and whole grains.
Another big thing I tell patients is to stock your pantry. That should include healthy carbs: things like rice, whole grains, oatmeal and potatoes. And keep snacks on hand. There are some fun snacks if you are willing to make a few things that are nutritious, like chia pudding or homemade protein balls.
Have some easy-to-prepare snacks that don’t require cooking, like apples and peanut butter, or carrots and hummus, or toast with avocado. Those are all awesome and easy foods that are as easy to grab as a bag of chips. And people want to compete with the bag of chips — you want something easy and fast.
When — and what — do you tell athletes to eat before their runs?
Your body has enough stored glycogen for an hour and half of running without food. But getting something in your stomach is important to preserve the glycogen in your body longer.
I recommend choosing higher-carb foods that are low fat and low protein. Something like oatmeal with some banana and honey, or a waffle and jelly because they are easy and quick.
The biggest mistake athletes make is not eating enough or eating too much before a run. You can have a carbohydrate-rich meal before an event (a meal a few hours before) and a small snack one hour before. And practice that.
How do you recommend runners refuel?
I encourage my athletes to eat right after a long run or a workout, within 30 minutes or so. That glycogen window is where your muscles and your body are primed to absorb the maximum amount of carbohydrates. I usually recommend things like chocolate milk, yogurt with some fruit or some kind of nutrition bar.
If you are running, you want to support the run and get the most out of it. Refueling kick-starts recovery right then and there, which will help you recover faster so you can get ready for your next workout or run.
Are there any foods you tell runners to avoid?
As long as 90 percent of your diet is packed with nutrient-dense foods, 10 percent can be less nutrient-dense. You don’t have to give up your favorite food.
You can have chocolate; that’s not changing your performance. But if you tell yourself you can’t have something, that has a much bigger impact on your mental state.
A lot of elite runners feel this pressure to be perfect — all or nothing — but over the years we have learned that doesn’t help the athlete. They get distracted thinking about foods they miss and thinking too much about food. I don’t want you thinking about that at all at the start line; I want you thinking about how you are going to take the lead.
What advice do you have for runners with stomach issues?
I like runners to have two options, and to practice with a couple of different foods that you think might work before a run.
Running involves continuous jostling of the stomach, so you have to train your body for that. But if you are having consistent stomach issues, touch base with someone who can help you pinpoint an issue. Too much food? Too little food? A sodium issue? A nutritionist can help do some troubleshooting with you.