When I started running in my twenties, I didn’t have any running experience. I ran my first ten marathons using training plans from various books, with a fair amount of success — mostly Pete Pfitzinger plans.
I had never considered a coach; until I knew some Ironman triathletes, I didn’t even know that was even a thing. After coming back from an injury and running two consecutive marathons much slower than pre-injury, I started training seriously again.
When I was trying to finagle a seeded spot for the Monumental Half Marathon in 2014, I got a prompt and considerate email from the elite coordinator, Matt Ebersole. His email signature had a link to his coaching website — a-ha! This is a real thing! People do this!
In fact, more than 7,000 runners have trusted Matt with their training. Perusing his site, I had the distinct sense that he would be a good fit to coach me.
After kicking the idea around for a while, I finally took the plunge last January and I couldn’t be happier. I was right; he’s a great coach for me. Like any good coach, Matt has his philosophies and insights that I wanted to discuss with him and share with you.
So, in a complete reversal of our usual conversations, Matt and I spent time talking about him and his coaching philosophy.
Chicory: Let’s start with your own running background.
Matt: The first runner I ever knew was my grandfather. When I was three or four years old, he would take me and my brother to the playground and run laps while we played. My father started running a few years later — so I was exposed to it at a young age and at a time that running wasn’t that common.
Chicory: When did you start running yourself?
Matt: When I was going into 8th grade, my dad was going to run the Blueberry Stomp 15k (in Plymouth, Indiana). It used to be a big race. I decided I wanted to run it, too. So my first race was a 15k. It seemed a lot longer than my nine mile training run! There was a parade going on at the same time, and there was an archway of balloons that I thought was the finish … but it was just part of the parade.
I started cross-country a few days later. My freshman year of high school I was on a pretty good team. I was the 23rd runner — on a team of 23. I was not blessed with a whole lot of talent, but I was willing to work. I went on to run for a small college team.
Chicory: How did you transition to running post-collegiately?
Matt: I got married and I took a job in Atlanta. When I got there, I was introduced to Coach Roy Benson. He was a pioneer in effort-based training and an early adopter of heart rate use for running training. I was better a few years after college than I ever was in college! And with the effort-based training, I didn’t feel like I was working as hard — but I was getting faster.
I was really interested in the process of training, and Coach Benson showed me I could be a coach without being a school teacher. I returned to Indiana and Ball State University to study exercise physiology, with the plan of starting a coaching business like what Coach Benson had in Atlanta.
Chicory: That’s a different route than a lot of coaches take, especially at that time. How and when did you start coaching?
Matt: I started my coaching business in January 1991. I got my first break because of heart rate training that I learned from Coach Benson. Roosevelt Jackson (sub-4:00 miler) and another athlete hired me because they wanted to implement HR training. I remember looking at Roosevelt’s log and thinking, how am I going to help this guy? But right away I saw things he should be doing differently. It was a huge confidence boost.
This was also when Team in Training was in its infancy, and I coached that team for 15 years. I’m really proud of the money we raised, and I also had access to a laboratory most coaches don’t have. I worked with thousands of people over that period. A lot of them were people off the couch, but there was also a 5000-meter Olympian and another who qualified for the 5000 meter trials. I got to really apply my theories across the masses.
Chicory: Who are your biggest coaching influences?
Matt: My greatest influence was Lydiard — the godfather — everything kind of changed with him. But his training worked really well for cross-country and track, but doesn’t apply in the traditional way to marathon and half-marathon training.
I learned two things: 1) mileage matters; and 2) high-end aerobic training is the best chance for improvement over a long period of time. I recognized runners don’t want to just peak twice a year, they want to race all year. It’s more of Lydiard’s coordination phase. And I had Roy Benson for my business model. I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to coach professionally, and I recognized the way to do that was in the post-collegiate market. One of my first clients was a running store owner.
Chicory: So can you summarize your coaching and training philosophy?
Matt: Develop the runner as completely as possible. Have them ready to race at any distance. And that coaching (and training) is both an art and a science.
Chicory: Okay … now you can expand on that!
Matt: I keep workouts in rotation. I don’t want to be too far from mileage, threshold, or speed, or running economy. I want (my runners) to have all their tools. A runner who has the complete package is much harder to beat.
If we do it in stages (like Lydiard), the tools aren’t as sharp. And I don’t think in terms of three months, six months — most of the runners I have are for years. We look at where you are on day one and go from there.
The hallmark of my coaching is that it’s the art and science of running. There are coaches out there who are really scientific — but you can’t capture everything in a lab. You have to have the art. And fast is fun — I’ve had periods where I’ve thought I don’t need to run hard any more … and it bores me to tears.
Chicory: What would you consider a signature workout?
Matt: The one we call “61st Street Mix”. We start with 800s supposedly at threshold pace — I want you to build a little deficit so that we don’t have to be out here all night. Then steady-state at 85% — not racing but not taking it easy. And then we run some quarters.
It’s stamina, economy, and speed all in one. And because of warm up, length of workout, and the cool down, it ends up being 10-12 miles so there’s endurance too. We’ve done a lot of things in an hour, hour and a half.
Chicory: You have both the Personal Best Running Club in Indianapolis and your private coaching clients. How do you interact with your athletes?
Matt: The Personal Best Running Club has a range of athletes from beginners to Olympic Trials qualifiers. We meet for Tuesday speed sessions and Saturday long runs. Members receive a group training plan and weekly email updates. The best part of my week is when we do a track workout on a Tuesday night and I can be there. When you see someone in the middle of a workout and they’re after it … that part is a blast. I love seeing people put their heart and soul into it. Out of 104 meetings a year, I’m probably at 100 of them. If I’m not there, it’s because I’m at a race.
The unique thing about the group that I coach is that the people who are trying to break four hours or run their first marathon are following the same principles as the people trying to break 2:10. Sure, it’s a different pace and different volume, but the principles are the same. I’m looking for where they can improve the quickest and most efficiently.
For the private coaching clients, I update their training plans every three weeks. I review their workouts and add notes or ask questions, then add the new workouts and send them an email. Communication is really driven by the runner. I have some people I exchange emails with once every three weeks (when I update their plan), and other people I talk to several times a week (Chicory) and maybe see them a few times a week.
Chicory: Give us the behind-the-scenes look into the life of a professional, full-time running coach. What’s your typical week look like?
Matt: This may not come as a surprise because I’m a running coach, but I time everything. I track time on everything. Most days are split three ways: meetings, writing plans, and communications. The meetings are fixed times; everything else I pencil in.
Chicory: Um, and you’re training for Bayshore.
Matt: … and I’m training for Bayshore. A lot of coaches think coaching full-time will be great for running. But I feel guilty if I’m spending too much time running, lifting, riding — because I have too many emails. It’s hard to fit in, even though it’s important to me. The upside is that I understand people balancing their lives.
Are you looking for a coach? What qualities do you want in one?
Find out more about Personal Best Training online, or find Matt on Twitter and Instagram. Matt is also the elite athlete coordinator and pace team coordinator for the Beyond Monumental series of events, including the CNO Financial Indianapolis Monumental Marathon.