Austin Tri-Cyclist Blog

Monday, May 28, 2012

Enlightened Performance Coaching
Leah Soro Skinner

by Kat Hunter
Running coaches are near-mythical creatures. They’re expected, whether by experience, intuition, or some degree of black magic, to conjure up prized PRs for their athletes. Often as well-grounded in human psychology as physiology, they’re required not only to know the right thing to do, but also how to get a person to do it.

If anyone can pull a few extra minutes or miles out of a runner, it’s probably Leah Soro Skinner. A former Division 1 cross country and track athlete at the University of Tennessee, she has the background and the experience. But more than that, she has the personality. If you talk to her about running even for a few minutes, you come away with the impression that she’s someone you can trust, someone who knows a lot about and cares deeply for the subject matter.

Leah started her coaching business, Enlightened Performance, in February. Currently all of her clients are marathoners, though she doesn’t specifically focus on that distance. Some are beginners, while others have targeted goals like qualifying for the Boston Marathon. She also works with high school students at St. Michael's Catholic Academy as assistant coach to Jeff Cunningham, esteemed head coach of Rogue High School Training.

Leah says she plans to keep her business small and as “hands on” as possible. “A lot of running programs are kind of generic. My coaching is really tailored toward the individual athletes – their previous running experience, the kind of injuries they’ve had, their long-term goals. One of my biggest questions is ‘what do you like to do?’ Are you better at tempo? Are you better at speedwork? What gets you excited about running?”

Separating training into four phases, Leah has her athletes do as much of their preferred type of workout as possible in the hardest phase so they don’t get burned out. She also adapts workouts to the runner’s personal life, taking into account work, stress, kids, sleep, time, and other events and obligations that affect performance. The training plan is never set in stone.

Leah’s husband, Gray Skinner, is a cat 1 cyclist. A full-time lawyer, he coaches a small number of cyclists on the side. Leah is a cyclist as well, racing as a cat 3 for Snapple-ATC Racing. The Skinners are considering combining their expertise in the two disciplines in a multisport program. This program wouldn't be specifically designed for dedicated triathletes, but rather those athletes who fall somewhere in between – an individual who wants to compete in both running and triathlon, for example, or someone who’s simply interested in incorporating running and cycling in a general fitness program.

So what is it about coaches – those magical leprechauns and sometimes evil taskmasters – that makes them so successful at leading athletes to that long-sought pot of gold at the finish line?

For starters, Leah says, it’s very beneficial to work with someone who’s emotionally removed. “’Well, I was really tired but I pushed through it’ – you hear that all the time in running. Or, ‘I was super tired and I did it anyway because it was on the training plan.’ As a coach, you can say that’s not important. Running through injuries, running through being tired, running through illness, those are things you can step in and say, ‘Look, as your coach, I don’t recommend this.’ It prolongs the season.”

Leah says she herself used to be a “presser” and was frequently injured. “Every run was fast, every workout was hard, everything I did was all out... I never really took it easy and relaxed. As a coach, I don’t want people to press. I want them to have some intention in what they’re doing. I want them to understand the purpose of every single workout and why it’s so important to rest and to consider your stress level and how much sleep you’ve had.”

“I also had a lot of racing anxiety in college because I put so much emphasis on the results of the race,” she says. “My big thing is taking a very holistic approach because the sport is so much fun and it’s not good to waste all that energy on negative expectations.”

Another benefit of coaching, Leah says, is having someone to plan and interpret your workouts. Many people don’t fully understand the structure of the training plans in one-size-fits-all, do-it-yourself running books, especially if they haven’t been running for a long time. “I don’t think they understand how each of those workouts affects them physiologically, even if they read the whole book. And every runner is very different. As a coach, as someone removed, you can say, ‘You’re not responding very well to this workout, and you’re tired three days later. Maybe we should do this other kind of workout when you have this one backed up right behind it.’”

Kirk Larson, a client whose goal is to run a sub 3 hour marathon, has had big improvements this year. When she talks about his accomplishments, Leah sounds as proud as if she were speaking of her own. “I’ll kind of rag on him,” she says. “He had no idea what he was doing. He was just following a training plan, and he ran a 3:33 for his first marathon. He really wanted to run the Austin Marathon before Vancouver, so I had him run really slow and then tempo the last 10k. He ran a 3:18 and felt like it was easy. That was a huge confidence booster for him. He’s been doing incredible stuff, like the other day he PRed in the 5k in the middle of a workout. He just needed a little bit more structure and to understand his body.” A few weeks ago, Kirk set another PR at the BMO Vancouver Marathon, running a 3:06.

A coach can be someone to help define your expectations, to celebrate with you when you meet your goals or to help you come up with an improved plan when you don’t. Leah says, however, that the number one benefit is accountability. “Just saying I am dedicated to this, I’m dedicated to this goal, I’m going to have complete confidence in this coach that he or she is going to get me to that goal. Just doing that one step will make you successful and will make you run PRs.”

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