Learning On The Job: 5 Questions With Jonathan Peterson

"I’ll always be a miler at heart, but since I’ve been dancing with sub 4:00 for 3-4 years, I believe I’ll shine best in the longer distances," says Peterson. Photo: teamusaminnesota.org

The 25-year-old Team USA Minnesota athlete talks about finding his niche as an elite runner.

Jonathan Peterson isn’t a household name in professional running circles, but that’s something the Team USA Minnesota athlete hopes to change in the next couple of years.

This fall, the Road Runners Club of America named Peterson a Roads Scholar, an award granted to American post-collegiate runners who show great promise to develop into national and world-class road running athletes. The 25-year-old, who joined coach Dennis Barker’s training group in the summer of 2012, has posted some solid results on the track as well as on the roads since graduating from the University of California, Davis. The Aggies’ school record holder in both the 5,000 and 10,000m, Peterson has set personal bests from the mile to 10 miles under Barker’s tutelage. He’s also a two-time winner of the Medtronic TC 10 Mile and in 2014, he finished eighth in the 5,000m at the U.S. Track & Field Championships in Sacramento in June, and also nabbed a fifth place finish at the 2014 U.S. 7-mile championships on the roads this past summer.

We caught up with Peterson this week to talk about his transition to professional running and what the next 18 months will hold heading toward the Olympic Trials in June of 2016.

You ran collegiately at a smaller D1 school and have flown under the radar in your first couple years as a professional. What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your first two years as a pro since graduating UC Davis?

With any new program, there are a lot of new variables that you have to adjust to. Injury can pop up too easily if you’re not willing to take the time to appreciate every little aspect that comes with training.

The biggest challenge I faced was trying to train too hard every workout. In college, we were given set times per rep—with Dennis [Barker] we simply go for a certain feel or rhythm without any specific times to hit. I saw that as a green light, which works well to a certain extent, but isn’t sustainable. I particularly have had to learn the hard way a few times to ease into training rather than jumping right in. Last winter I was out for the entire indoor season, along with early outdoor due to two consecutive injuries, both easily preventable. So, the biggest concern for my own training is simply staying healthy.

What has joining Team USA Minnesota and working with Dennis [Barker] done for your professional career?

Team USA Minnesota has been around since 2001, so it’s pretty well established within the professional realm of the sport. It’s also really well integrated into the Twin Cities running community, which has allowed me to connect on a more personal level with much of the community, which I don’t believe would be reflected in too many other parts of the U.S. And while I believe our group could use a bit of an update to appear more relevant with fans of the sport, it’d be difficult to find similar support anywhere else without having to commit to the same blanket shoe sponsorship as everyone else on the team. In terms of creating my own business model for my training and namesake, I’ve really appreciated the ability to choose the sponsors that fit me the best. It’s given me a better sense of the wheels that work behind the scene, along with a better appreciation for all the effort that must be put in beyond racing and training.

Training under Dennis has given me a bit more patience. As I mentioned, injury has been an issue. It’s no secret that consistently healthy training is the key, so as long as I monitor my training to stay healthy, I can continue to see the growth that a majority of Dennis’ athletes have seen. With a slightly heavier workload than what I was used to, I’ve been able to adjust things to better accommodate my training. With these new training techniques, when synced properly, I believe will put me right where I need to be down the road.

You’ve improved on the track since graduating from UC Davis, but you’ve begun to dabble in some longer road/XC distances in recent years. Where are you focusing your training and racing efforts with the next Olympic trials less than 2 years away?

I’m working on finding my niche in the grand scheme of things, which is why I’ve been working on broadening my depth and jumping into races I haven’t been entirely comfortable with in the past. In working on my speed this year, I hope to increase my overall strength and look toward the longer distances, such as the 10K. I’ll always be a miler at heart, but since I’ve been dancing with sub 4:00 for 3-4 years, I believe I’ll shine best in the longer distances. I’d like to think that I’d be capable of something in the marathon, but I’d like to see what I can do with what speed I have.

Running fast isn’t enough to land many runners sponsorship anymore. Talk a little bit about what you’ve learned about the business side of trying to make it as a professional runner in the U.S. today.

It’s interesting to see the shift in who companies are going after these days. Certainly there are people who stand out based on their times along with their personalities, but for anyone behind the major contenders, it’s difficult to legitimize your value to companies. Any means of expanding your voice beyond your hometown can work wonders. The trick is trying to figure out how to do so. Blogging has helped me gain a few followers, which companies love to see, but fresh content isn’t always easy to come by. And any major incident that does occur within the sport itself will probably have a thousand others chiming in on the topic. My goal is to never lose my unique voice in what I hope to convey to my readers. Everything I put on paper obviously has something to do with my own training/experience, but I like to tie it into the bigger picture, as the sport itself is not an end all be all. It’s simply a vehicle for which we can create a better sense of community and improve ourselves as a whole.

Along with the standard of social media followers and adding quips to my prose, I’ve decided to pick up an agent, Chris Mengel, to assist in my endeavors as an athlete. As much time as I put into marketing myself as an athlete, I needed someone who knew a bit more of the ins-and-outs as to how to go about gaining exposure as an athlete. It takes a bit of work off of my plate, allowing me to put more energy into my training, so long as we maintain an open dialogue as to my goals as an athlete and how best to achieve those goals.

In addition to your own training and racing at a professional level, you hold down a job and, up until recently, you were coach high schoolers. What impact has working and coaching had on your own career as an elite athlete?

I’ve recently started a new side career that no longer allows me to coach but coaching high school kids was great as it allowed me to put some of my passion for the sport into the next generation of runners. A key factor in my own training is that I’ll always have something new to learn, which I hoped to have rubbed off on my athletes. Regardless of whether it’s your first race or your last, there’s always going to be a take away. If you don’t have anything to take away from the experience, training related or otherwise, you’re missing the point.

It took me awhile to figure out the appropriate life balance, along with figuring out how to make my running career work out. Balancing the job on the side has given me the security to pursue my dream of a professional athlete along with providing other means to focus on outside of training. For a while I was bit concerned as to whether or not I could validate my training at this level without having the initial results I was looking for. But like everything else, it takes time, commitment, and focus. Luckily with the help of a teammate and her husband, I was able to leave the long hours on my feet at a local running store to an office job that allowed me to be more flexible in my hours, while keeping me off my feet. Now the work/training balance is much more enjoyable. I’m busier than I was before, but it’s required me to keep more to my schedule of training.

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