Ryan Bolton was a U.S. Olympian and an Ironman winner in triathlon. I first spotted him as a junior at the University of Wyoming, placing 12th in NCAA Division I Cross Country championships, the fifth American across the line that year.
He coaches now, and will teach a course in how to coach the run for triathletes at the next Slowtwitch Coaching workshop (June 8 and 9 in Denver, CO). I interviewed Ryan because he’s very good at what he does, and because I think I was his very first sponsor, during my Quintana Roo days.
SLOWTWITCH: Ryan, you’re training world class elite runners in the Harambee Project. But not only pure runners. Can you explain what the Harambee Project is, and who you’ve been working with over the past 3 or 4 years?
RYAN BOLTON: The Harambee Project is a group of elite runners I formed about 8 years ago. In Swahili it means as a group we can achieve more. It's a term the Kenyan runners often use to explain why training together is much more powerful than training alone. Because the majority of the runners I worked with at the time were Kenyan, I really liked it and thought it fit well with what we were trying to accomplish.
Athletes in the group are from the U.S, Kenya and Ethiopia, 2015 Boston Marathon champion Caroline Rotich, and 2016 USA Track and Field Road Racer of the year Aliphine Tuliamuk. They race anywhere from the 3000 meter steeplechase to the Marathon and Sprint ITU to Ironman.
I also have a coaching group called Bolton Endurance Sports Training – B.E.S.T. – about a dozen coaches, most of whom live in the U.S. Eighty percent of our athletes are triathletes. I enjoy the balance of working with age group triathletes, runners and cyclists along with my elites. I use the same principles on both populations.
ST: Your athletes are competing against runners with last names like Dibaba and Chelimo. What does it take, in terms of training, to run toe-to-toe with the world’s best?
RB: I saw a quote recently: “Wisdom has been replaced by knowledge and knowledge has been replaced by information and information has been replaced by data”. What does this have to do what it takes to run toe-to-toe with the best? I've noticed that the best athletes are also the most intuitive. Coaches too. With all the devices and data that we have, the art of training and coaching has been lost. However, you still see it at the top level.
Also, the top athletes have a true love for the sport. They just love to train and compete. They are capable of pushing their bodies to the limit. They know how to turn off from training when they need to. The East Africans train harder than any athlete, but they also rest better. When not training, they are very, very good at recovering.
ST: I have always been intrigued by the power of the enclave. How important is it to run specific workouts, or adhere to strict biometrics in training, versus the power of a group of athletes all training together? If science uncovers a truth, do you train to that truth? To that metric? Or do the athletes bypass that truth, and run together and challenge each other in training? What is the imperative?
RB: This is a great question. Metrics and data are very important indicators of what's going on in each athlete. They can also help guide a coach on how to train individuals. But data has become a crutch for both athletes and coaches. It's important to have access to and be educated on data, but it's a huge mistake to rely solely on it. Endurance training and racing is as much art as it is science, and coaches and athletes who don't take that into account are missing a lot.
I teach each of my athletes how to use the devices, analyze the charts, but also how to be more intuitive. There are techniques for this. This component of coaching is being lost. I feel strongly about teaching this to both the athletes and coaches I work with. I have no interest in having pure data geeks on my team.
ST: There seems to be a particular coach of high performance runners who’s having a bad time of it. More than one of his athletes has gotten popped for doping lately. What does that do to the morale inside your group? How do you process that?
RB: Currently, there are a couple managers and coaches in the industry who've had multiple doping violations, or who are being investigated for doping, including a misuse of TUEs. This is part of the endurance sports world. I can't imagine what this does to the morale of these groups, but it is interesting to see the reactions from each group that gets named. Some athletes move out, others defend, others stay quiet. It's an evolving culture and one that still baffles me. What bothers me most is when I go to a major event and these athletes, managers and coaches are still walking around like nothing is wrong.
When these stories go public I do address it with my group. I really like to be transparent with my athletes that these issues exist. But I also emphasize that major races are still being won by clean athletes, that we must always take the high ground and that there's hope that the doping agencies are catching up with the cheaters.
ST: Do you coach form? Running form? Or do you just let form take care of itself? Or do your athletes already have good form by the time they come to you? And as an addendum – and I’m probably stepping on myself here – but I think Kenyans as a group seem more likely to me than any other to exhibit strange form breaks, with a wild arm or strange arm carriage or something. Do you just let that go or do you address that?
RB:A classic case study on run form to look at is the Ethiopians versus the Kenyans. In general, Ethiopians drive their legs forward, have higher knee carriage and a quicker cadence. In contrast, Kenyans have a really big back kick, a longer stride and lower cadence. This translates into how the two cultures race, in general. Because of the Kenyans' form and style, they often take a race out relatively hard, keep the pace honest – or beyond honest! – and try to run the race out of everyone so that with 1k to go competitors' legs are shot. This type of racing benefits their type of run form. Ethiopians, in contrast, like to sit and kick. Both cultures have amazing aerobic capacities, but the Ethiopians rely on their quick turnover and powerful drive to kick to the win. This is why, in general, Ethiopians have dominated championship racing over the past couple decades. In my opinion, a lot of this has to do with their differences in form.
Like the Ethiopians and Kenyans, every athlete that a coach works with has strengths and weaknesses in their run form. I'm not an advocate of significantly changing an athlete's technique, but I do believe that minor changes can be made that add up to significant improvements. Small details can make big differences in run form, and that's what needs to be taught to athletes. It all comes down to breaking run form into a handful of components and then addressing each individually. Ultimately, it's like learning a complex dance move. You start with one thing, master it, and then move on to the next thing. Adding them all up can have a significant impact.
ST: Can your athletes run in any shoes? Is there a shoe tech or theme that you find interesting or troublesome?
RB: I always say that an athlete should run in the shoe that works for them best. Even within shoe companies there is a lot of variability in shoe design. From a coaching standpoint, there are techniques to use to determine what type of shoe is best for an athlete. Looking at run from, foot strike and even the sole of older shoes can really tell you a lot.
One hot topic in the shoe world is the new Nike racing flats. After seeing them, I'd say they'll be pretty controversial. And if I worked for any shoe company aside from Nike, I'd definitely be investigating them.