Coach Profiles

Brett Ely


Coach Brett Ely

Coach Brett Ely will be returning to Craftsbury in 2011 for her fifth year. She's currently training for the California International Marathon in Sacramento in early December. On her way back from a long injury-induced lay-off, Brett's goal of running faster than 2:39 would earn her an A entry into the 2012 Olympic trials marathon. Brett's masters in nutrition and exercise physiology led her to the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine where she works in thermal physiology research. Brett lives in Natick, MA with her husband Matt and she represents the BAA.

1. A runner has 45:00 to squeeze in a workout. What workout would you recommend that maximizes time and has a strong bang for buck ratio?

I think tempo runs are the simplest, most effective workouts to do in a limited amount of time. In 45:00, you have time for 15 minutes of warm-up, 20 minutes of tempo, and 10 minutes of cool-down. I like tempo runs because they don't beat you up the way intervals do, and they probably have the greatest carryover to racing. You can fake your way through an interval workout if you're generous with rest, but honing in on the right effort and teaching your body to relax during a sustained effort translates very well to racing. And this workout is long enough to get the necessary benefits, but short enough to fit your schedule even during the busiest of days.

2. Runners spend so much time and care on their physical training yet the mental component to racing is huge. What are a few things to keep in mind for a runner who wants to work on honing their mental strength and will? How would you incorporate these into a runner's training?

The mental fortitude that's required to get through a training program can serve you very well during a race. You're going to run some workouts when you're tired and hungry. You're going to complete some runs in a downpour or a nasty wind. When you are out on a run in any of these situations, be aware of the choice you are making in that moment to push through the fatigue or the rain or the wind. When you find yourself feeling the same way on race day, just remind yourself that you have already faced this adversity and conquered it in training. Remembering these moments can refocus your mind when doubt or pain inevitably creeps in during a race.

In my last workout before the 2006 Chicago marathon, I arrived at the track in the middle of an apocalyptic downpour. In a rare moment of weakness, I started whining to my coach about the weather (how dare the universe rain on my mile repeats!) and was ready to get back in my car and do the workout the next day. While I continued to complain, he said, "What if it's raining in the marathon? There's no going home and trying again tomorrow. What are you going to do?" Snapping right out of my funk, I instantly responded, "Get wet and kick @ss!" I did the workout that night, and now every time a race day forecast calls for rain, that moment, that workout, and those words are in my head.

3. Winter is coming and with it the perennial challenge of dealing with ice and snow. You live outside of Boston. How do you deal with running when the conditions are snowy and icy?

I like running outdoors in almost any weather, so I have a good collection of winter running gear. I'll use Stabilicers (traction cleats) once or twice a winter, but I usually just try to plan my runs with the forecast to avoid running or working out in the midst of a snow or ice storm (In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I often try to run right in the middle of the first big, windy, crazy snowstorm of the year, so that every cold or snowy run after that seems like no big deal). It's helpful to adopt a bit more flexibility into a training schedule to account for weather hiccups during winter months. I'll run in anything, but I try to plan workouts or long runs on better days so that I can run the proper pace.

4. What is the most common mistake you see runners making? What would you advise to correct this mistake?

I think the most common mistake runners make is not knowing or finding the appropriate effort to give in training or racing. Most runners fall into two categories of extremes. One extreme pushes too hard, where every run is a workout or competitive effort. These runners are hard-working and focused, they complete every run as outlined in a training program, but they are not tuned in to the way their body is feeling or responding. This can easily lead to overtraining, injury, or burnout, and giving a near-maximal effort in training doesn't leave much room for improvement in racing.

Coach Brett Ely

The other extreme is the runner who is afraid to push. These are the runners who are smiling and waving in their race photos without a single hair askew. Giving a hard effort exposes you, makes you vulnerable, and leaves you open to failure. It's safer to never try, to never say, 'I gave it my all, and it wasn't enough', but it is only with this peak effort that you can achieve something worthwhile in this sport. There is tremendous satisfaction in the effort itself, in channeling all of your strength and energy into getting across a finish line as quickly as possible. It's an incredibly empowering feeling, and I think the runners who stay in their comfort zone are missing that great joy and triumph.

If either of these categories sounds familiar, the advice I'd give is to understand the purpose of each day, approach easy runs with the goal of recovery, approach workouts with the goal of running a difficult but achievable pace, and approach races as competitions against others and against your previous self.

If you're someone who pushes too hard, don't wear a watch on easy days and really try to tune in to how your body is feeling. Save that maximal effort for a race.

If you're someone who is afraid to push, set incremental goals for each upcoming workout or race and notice how your body responds as you progress. Use those incremental goals to build confidence in what your body and mind can handle. It's only with experience that you make peace with discomfort.

5. You are in the midst of a strong comeback after being injured. Any insights from this process?

I've been through the injury cycle more times than I care to count, but still feel like I learn something new each time. I haven't quite figured out a way to make injury not suck, but I have learned that dwelling on how much it sucks only makes it worse (I have to apologize to my Mom here, 'suck' was a swear word in our house growing up, so I owe her $2 for that last sentence-but that is the most fitting word I can use). You're frustrated, grief-stricken and lonely, a proverbial benchwarmer in the most inclusive participatory sport out there.

I've actually broken the same bones (Left foot, navicular and medial cuneiform) multiple times, so I've been through this specific injury and recovery process 3 times in 5 years. The first two times, I harnessed every ounce of mounting frustration and let it loose in workouts. I'd push myself hard enough to throw up in the middle of a bike workout, I'd have to use the handicapped shower at the gym after a poolrun because my legs were so trashed I couldn't stand up. I took up the sport of competitive crutching, muscling my way up 13 flights of stairs from the subway while able-bodied onlookers stopped and stared from the escalator.

While this meant that the competitive fire never went out, it also meant that I was just marinating in frustration for 12 weeks, and I probably wasn't doing a whole lot of healing. I knew I didn't have the physical or mental stamina to repeat that same pattern this time around, but I questioned my ability to have a positive, productive experience with this injury given my history.

Somehow, I managed, and I think I was able to emerge on the other side of the injury as a more patient, appreciative runner. Rather than working hard every day in the pool or on the bike, I sought activities I'd enjoy: long bike rides on scenic roads, water running in a lake rather than an over-chlorinated pool, or even taking a day totally off from exercise if I didn't want to do it. I also sought company any time I could while cross-training (thank you Mike, Holly, EJ, Barb, Peter, Nick, Mary Lou for your company at Craftsbury!)

It wasn't perfect - I still had many moments when I longed to be running - but it was the first time I felt like I was working with my body while injured, rather than raging against it. And I felt that much more relaxed and refreshed when I began the long road back to training.

As hard as it is to be injured, I actually think the comeback after injury is even tougher. Coming back from injury involves the challenging process of learning to trust your body again. The instincts required to race are the exact opposite of the advice you're given upon returning from injury: you're warned to stop when it hurts, to stay in your comfort zone, and to be overly conservative. None of these sentiments would make a great pre-race pep talk. We all ride that line between peak fitness and overtraining or injury, but when you’re first coming back from an injury you are so acutely aware of that precipice that you're afraid to even approach it. It is a long process of re-learning your limits and trusting enough to push them.

While my first race back left plenty of room for improvement, I was thrilled to have the confidence to push my body again, and it felt....blissfully terrible. The workouts that I have done since then have improved a level since that initial shock and challenge of pushing my limits for the first time in months.

6. Nutrition matters, but treats are necessary though too. How do you incorporate treats into your diet?

I'm a firm believer that everything can have a place in a healthy diet, and I just try to plan healthy meals and listen to my body when it wants a treat. My favorite treats are beer and chocolate, and I'm a total snob about both (don't even think of offering me a Kit Kat or Coors Light). I know that when I'm running 90-100+ miles per week, I don't need to feel guilty about having a glass of beer with dinner or a few ounces of chocolate after. I just try to eat mindfully and enjoy whatever I have in front of me. I cut out beer and sweets in the week leading up to a marathon, but that's about the only time I make any rules about food. I more than make up for it post-race with a good pint of stout and a heaping plate of French fries.

7. You were a swimmer before you were a runner. You currently hold the running camp record for distance underwater from the dock in Big Hosmer Pond. Doing any specific training to retain your title next summer?

I'll start year-round training for underwater swimming when I feel I have a worthy competitor, but I'm not worried at the moment. For anyone looking to challenge next summer, I'd suggest the following training regimen: Begin by dropping heavy lawn furniture into the deep end of the swimming pool then diving in and pulling it up to the surface. Do this at least 2-3 times per week.

Once you have mastered that, try dropping unassembled furniture (Ikea style) into the bottom of the pool, putting it together underwater (no coming up for air, that's cheating), and then pulling it up to the surface in one fully assembled piece. Once you've got an entire patio set put together, you're ready to go. Other tips include finding a facility that can videotape your underwater stroke technique to work on any inefficiencies, and, most importantly, undergoing regular full-body waxing to minimize drag.

8. What is your favorite part about coaching at Craftsbury?

Craftsbury provides such an incredible community of support. I love how long-time campers welcome new ones like family, the way each group seems to come together so naturally, and the support each camper gives and receives across ages and ability levels. I will never forget seeing the Craftsbury crew at the 2008 Olympic trials. I was warming up and could see Lawton's giant smile like a beacon from about a half-mile away and I vividly remember Leon's enthusiastic cheering during the race. Feeling that support and sense of community year-round is what I cherish most about being part of the Craftsbury family.

9. What do you love most about running? What is it about running that attracts you?

This is a hard question-what DON'T I love about running?! I love relaxing trail runs when I feel like I could go forever. I love feeling my heart thud against my ribs at the end of a hard interval workout. I love the friends and teammates that running has brought into my life. I love breaking in a fresh pair of trainers on a muddy trail. I love exploring a new city and noticing things on a run that I would have missed from a tour bus. I love the tension between 'runners set' and the starting gun. I love that the only reason I own nail polish is to conceal black or missing toenails.

I love breathing in crisp fall air and thinking 'It smells like cross country!' I love running on a winter night and seeing the moon reflect off the snow banks. I love getting caught in summer rain. I love the moments where running feels like the easiest, most natural thing I do, and I love pushing through the most challenging moments.

It's that duality that attracts me most-that I can love both the difficult, competitive side of pouring every ounce of physical and mental strength into training and racing, but can still appreciate the simple, boundless joy of moving my body through space in any setting, any weather, any day.