Interview With Tim Catalano and Adam Goucher

Catalano, left, and Goucher, were teammates at the University of Colorado. Photo:

We caught up with founders of Run The Edge and the Level Up training plans.  

Tim Catalano and Adam Goucher were college cross country teammates at the University of Colorado, running under famed coach Mark Wetmore and helping the Buffaloes achieve national prominence as a distance running powerhouse in the mid 1990s. Fast forward a few years, and the best friends combined their shared passion for running and life to form Run The Edge, an initiative that has spawned a book, a speaking tour, a popular blog and now, a set of unique training plans.

We caught up with Catalano and Goucher this week to talk about the genesis of the Level-Up training plans, how they differ from traditional approaches and what other projects they have up their sleeves.

RELATED — Level Up: A New Take On Training

When did the idea for the Level-Up plans come about?

Tim: It actually evolved. We originally weren’t going to do training plans, but a lot of people were asking if we could do training plans because they wanted something to go along with the book (“Run The Edge”), but we didn’t want to do training plans unless they were completely different than any other training plan. We didn’t want to be just another voice in the chorus of the same old, same old, “Here’s week 1, week 2, week 3” and that’s why resisted in putting one out. It was a little over two years after we put out the book before we did training plans, but we just didn’t want to be like everyone else. Our book was completely different than any other running book and we kind of liked that unique factor, so we said, “if we do plans, they have to be different than anything else that’s out there.” So, as we talked about it for two years, Adam had ideas, I had ideas and all of a sudden it was like, “Oh, here’s what we can do!” We basically wanted to do something that we would find fun, that kind of put the fun back into training plans. That’s kind of my two cents.

Adam: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It did evolve and we did have a lot of people asking us about training plans and it was like, “no, we don’t really want to go there.” And, from my point of view, I didn’t want to get into the training aspect of things, writing training plans and putting Tim and myself in a coaching position without being able to see the people we’re coaching. For me, to a certain extent, from a coaching point of view I’d want to, as much as I could, be interacting with the athletes on a regular basis, whether it’s face to face, or on the phone or through text messages, whatever. So writing a training plan and saying “here you go” didn’t interest me. It worried me more than anything because I take responsibility for that. So that’s why we had to come up with the formula that we did and creating the virtual coach, avoiding injury blueprint, just giving people the tools necessary to allow them to progress at their own pace without having someone standing over them the whole time saying, “OK , today you need to do this or that” — which, we do do that, but we want to give them as close to a coaching relationship without us actually having to be there. And it kind of places a lot of responsibility on the runner because they have to be completely honest with themselves, and know, “is this really right for me this week or today?” and be able and be confident to make the adjustments.

Tim: And that’s why the plans are so adaptive, because we do ask the user of the plan to be self-reflective and when they’re looking at the virtual coach and doing the body check, asking, “Am I healthy?” and doing the mental check and asking, “How do I feel about my workout?” — those are questions the coach would ask, and based on that the coach would say, “this is how we ought to proceed.” So, in a traditional training plan, that’s difficult, because it says, “in week 1 do this and in week 2 do this” and there is no flexibility so that’s why we had to make super adaptive plans so that based on their answers to those questions they can progress through the training plan at a different rate because we’re also making training plans that are good for beginners all the way to up to people who are trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials.

Building off that answer, you do have a variety of plans for runners of all ability levels. How do the plans differ in terms of how a beginner might advance versus how an advanced runner might proceed through the Level-Up system?

Adam: The way we wrote them, to have a premium plan versus an ultimate plan, we wanted to have essentially two different objectives: On the premium side, having runners say, “I’m just starting, I want to get into running, I’m nervous about it and I don’t know if I can do it,” and open the door and welcome them with this kind of program and say, “Hey, you can do this and we’re going to help guide you.” And that’s the goal of the Running Start, it’s really a beginner, get-off-the-couch program. We want to give them the opportunity to progress gradually, to be able at the end of the program to be able to finish that 5K, that 10K, half marathon or marathon and be confident that you will be able to finish it and feel good about it. We’re going to get you fit enough to do that. You know, people can go out and not really do any training and say, “I’m going to go to this half marathon” and they’ll do it, but this is a way to actually train for that and get the most out of themselves. And on the ultimate side of things, this is more for those people who have been around the block, they love running, they love racing, they love this stuff and now they want to see what they can get out of themselves when it comes to faster times and harder workouts and stuff like that. In the ultimate, we really integrate workouts, specific types of workouts.

Tim: I don’t have much to add to what Adam said, but we do look toward the upper levels particularly, the 13.1 and 26.2 ultimate, and those are tough, tough weeks. When you look at the workouts that Adam and Kara designed, I mean I read some of those weeks and I get tired reading these things! They’re for serious runners, and because it goes on intensity and perceived effort, it’s not that you necessarily have to run 6 minutes a mile, 8 minutes a mile or whatever, it’s just that if you do those workouts that are prescribed in there, you’re going to get fit. And by the time you finish, it’s the real deal when you get to the upper levels of the Ultimate plans, which is kind of fun.

What do you guys see as a runner’s biggest challenges — whether they have no running background at all or even if they’ve followed a training plan before — in undertaking one of these plans for the first time?

Tim: One of the things that we were very aware of, and when I was reading a lot of literature on the couch-to-5K sort of programs, was that people stop about two-thirds of the way through, usually when things get tough. And going back to what Adam said, when you don’t have a coach that’s there and has his or her eyes on you and is giving you that encouragement and motivation, it’s real easy when things get tough to not run for a day, and pretty soon that turns into two days, then three days or a week and you’re not following the plan any more. And knowing that, one of the things we wanted to focus on, as Adam said, if we can’t be there as coaches, what can we do? We send a weekly email to people who bought a plan — so if there’s a 24-level plan, that’s 24 weeks of emails worth of running tips and motivation to keep you going at it. I think the hardest thing, not just with Level Up but with any training plan that you’re following on your own, is that individual initiative to get out and do the work by yourself. And that’s any training plan, even Level Up, but with the weekly emails and by making it a game and by putting finisher medals at the end of every level, we kind of keep that carrot out there to keep you motivated. It will be interesting to see, over time, how much more effective that is than any other plan.

Last question: You guys started with the book, there’s also a website and blog you keep updated, and now the training plans. What’s next for Run The Edge and Level Up? How do you progress from here?

Adam: Right now actually, or by the end of the month, we’ll launch training journals, integrating the same training plans into a log book. It won’t have the interactive aspect of being at your computer, having a medal count or being rewarded when you achieve things and all that, but there are some people who just like to have a journal. What we do is put workouts, level by level, into this book format, or journal format. So we’re doing that and we’re excited about it. A lot of people will like it. There’s definitely different types of people, the technology folks who like things on their computer or on their smartphone, but there’s still a lot of people like myself, the old people, I guess, who just like to have a paper log. So that will be out. We’re really working on building our motivational speaking circuit, we’re signing on with more and more non-running groups. Our first year was all about going to camps or running stores and doing these big keynotes and we love it, and we still do that, but we started branching off because so much of what we talk about in the book transcends running. It’s really about life and trying to be successful in everything you’re trying to do in life. Earlier this year our book was picked up by a high school outside of Chicago as part of their reading program and part of that was that we spoke — we did 8 consecutive hours of 40-minute speeches to the entire student body and faculty of over 3,000 people — and maybe 10 percent were runners or had some sort of running background. So, really, to be able to expand what we do and what we love and what we talk about in the book to every aspect of life and applying that to people who don’t give a crap about running. One of the funnest things we did, one of my all-time favorite things we did since we started, was a keynote and a workshop the following day for the HeadStart Foundation for their regional conference in Oregon. That was really, really cool, just being able to expand into that audience where again, you had hardly any runners, but these are people who are passionate about helping youth and are passionate helping underprivileged people to get the most out of themselves. For us to go in there, it was powerful for me and Tim because we were able to expand our message what they’re doing.

Tim: And they liked it so much they picked us up for their state conference and we’re going to be doing another keynote on November 6 for HeadStart in Salem. But in the future for us, we’re going keep innovating, but we’re really enjoying the public speaking thing right now. We’ll let Level Up marinate for year or so before we tackle our next book or big project.

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