Mark Wetmore: On Fartleks, The Importance Of Time Off and Controlling Efforts On Long Days

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Mark Wetmore, the University of Colorado's men's and women's cross country and track and field head coach, is one of the preeminent voices in distance running in the United States and has coached countless NCAA Champions, All-Americans, and future international stalwarts. 

He's won seven team NCAA cross country championships, is a five-time NCAA coach of the year, and in 2014 was named USA Track and Field's co-coach of the year. 

Below, Wetmore offers advice in some key areas of cross country. This interview is recirculated from a conversation in 2012. 


Can you explain fartleks?

"Fartlek is a Swedish term which means "speed play," and it just means that it's run with variations of speed along the way that could be completely controlled and maybe what we used to call aerobic the whole way. But then you could make it as hard as death defying 400s on the track if you want to. So fartlek can be used in a lot of different ways. Actually, everything can be used in a lot of different ways. What some people call a tempo run can be an all-out race if their athletes cross the finish line and collapse on the field. Then it was the same thing as running a race."

What is the importance of time off?

Wetmore, on his athletes at Colorado...

"They definitely need breaks throughout the year. We require two weeks off at the end of each six month macro cycle. So we cross ends with the NCAA -- one hopes they have a couple weeks off when outdoor track finishes, which is different. There are people who don't get to the conference meet and there are people who don't get beyond the conference meet. Anyway, they take a couple weeks off then. I don't mind if it's more than that."

Why do they do that...

"Most of them want to. I guess most of them are comfortable with a break. There are a few who always want to get going early. But we convince them it's necessary."

When is a valuable time to get away...

"Well, collegians have vacations, and so there is a Christmas break. When school is out for almost five weeks, our athletes probably come back one week early. They have three and a half to four weeks on their own in the winter, and then there's a spring break when we let them go -- if they want to. If they feel they need a break or if they're anxious to go home for awhile, we don't object to that. I think 20 years ago, I probably wanted them around as much as possible and felt that any day they were out of my sight was a day lost. But I've mellowed about that lately. We're comfortable with them going away. Emma Coburn is from a place called Crested Butte. It's a beautiful little mountain town in central Colorado and she really gets recharged by going home. And so we rarely dispute that when she says 'Can I have a three day weekend at home?'"

What's caused you to loosen the reigns on athletes...

"I think just learning that they come back and they're OK and we didn't lose a lot of ground. It took awhile to trust that, and I'm sure athletes are different. Some athletes go home and don't get it done. But again, around here, if you don't get it done, you lose a lot of ground. We learned that they're going to take care of business when they're home."

Gathering Data To Get Better

What have you learned form using heart rate monitors...

"People are so different. When I used to run up here, it wasn't uncommon for me to run 15 miles at a heart rate at 172. And we have people who do tempo runs, at 156-160, on a track downtown. So it's such  an individual difference in heart rate and response to elevation that really we have to gather data with each individual for a couple of seasons or a year and a half before we even know. Even here, it's so hilly that you might average 150 but you could be 180 on one side of the hill and 115 on the other side. It's kind of hard to run by an assigned heart rate. Really, we just gather data at the end and ask, 'What did you average in the end?' And see what we can learn from that."

What caused you to change that mindset...

"Anything you can learn might make you a little bit better and is worth trying. And even though I've been doing this for a long time, it would be a mistake to be satisfied, so we just keep trying to get better and better."

Controlling Effort On Long Days

What have you found over the years in terms of effort, when you can let them loose...

"I don't know if we ever let them loose. We let them loose on about five Saturdays in the fall and four or five days in the spring. That's letting them loose time. The rest of the time is control." 

Do you have to monitor the athletes hard in come cases...

"There are people who like to go. And no matter how many speeches we give them, the little voice in their eye overcomes what I say. We have to stay on them. The good ones all want to go. 

How can that effect a season? And is it more than a week that it can effect...

"We have another workout and 50 hours. And so they have to be ready to go on Tuesday. They'll go hard again on Thursday or Friday. If you're failing to recover slightly from one workout to the next. As it accumulates, you're in a big hole by the end of the season. Again, there's no science to it, I don't think. I suppose we can take blood tests of everybody 36 hours after every workout to see how recovered they were, but I'm not even sure a blood test would tell you everything you would need to know. Sensory data is more accurate once you learn how to read it. We have to communicate with them a lot and half trust what they tell us and half take it with a grain of salt and make a decision. Every athlete is unique. It changes from year to year. It keeps us on our toes."

How good are you with reading an athlete...

"Well, of course, I guess you get a little bit better. One would hope you get better at it as the years go by. I'm lucky that I have two assistants that are also good at it and we can put our heads together and say 'Harry needs to rest' and 'Harry needs to go down a group.' Something like that."