Cathy Utzschneider: Running Wisdom from a Coach and Competitor

imageEvery once in a while, you meet someone in life who changes your approach to the world. This happened for me on my 40th birthday when I called Cathy Utzschneider and asked if she would coach me. Founder of the coaching practice MOVE!, and then the head-coach of the oldest all-women’s running club in the country Liberty Athletic Club, Cathy is known for coaching female runners. In particular, she is known for stressing the importance of goals.

Little did I know then that the two years I would spend training with Cathy would lead me to physical feats I only dreamed of, personal bests at seven different distances ranging from the 200m to the half-marathon, and a renewed sense of purpose regarding both my career and my family. Yes, one person helped me accomplish all of that!

So you can see why I felt compelled to write about her for Salty Running, and bring her story to you, our readers. She truly embodies what many of us are striving in our own way to be: accomplished runner, successful family-woman, and well-respected career professional.

A petite and lively woman, Cathy’s friendly demeanor belies the fierceness of her competitive instincts. The list of her accomplishments in running, all achieved after age 40, is long. They include a world age-group ranking in the mile, a number one in the U.S. age-group ranking in the 3000m, a silver medal in the 800m at the Nike World Masters games, a gold medal in the North American Regional World Championships in the 8K, plus multiple national and regional USA Track & Field and Cross Country titles.

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All photos courtesy of Cathy Utzschneider.

As impressive as her running resume is, Cathy’s academic and career achievements are equally stellar. A professor of performance and leadership at Boston College, she holds a doctorate in human movement (exercise physiology, human development, and coaching) and has been an instrumental player in developing the Sports Leadership Program there. She has authored two books, MOVE! How Woman Can Achieve Athletic Goals at Any Age and Mastering Running, and is a frequent contributor to National Masters News, Running Times, and New England Runner. All of this she juggles while being a mom to her two college-age children.

But she is most beloved as a coach. Her primary focus for the past three decades has been on training women for athletic goals, and she has helped countless athletes in this endeavor. Here she talks about her running career, both as a competitor and as a coach:

You showed a lot of running talent as a young adult, but weren’t able to realize that potential until later in life. Your father also faced challenges realizing his running potential. Can you talk about how these factors influenced your running and your ability to achieve a high level of excellence in the sport?

We remember what we are denied. Born in 1916, my father was a talented 100 meter runner. He won 100 meter races in Vienna in 1934 in 10.8 or 10.9 seconds. The 1936 Olympics (the Jessie Owens years) were two years away… But he was Jewish. That was it.

I attended Middlebury College before track was offered as a sport for women. Training for Nordic skiing, we were timed for a “mile” on the roads. I ran it in 4:48. It was hard and fun. But I never ran on the track.

When I learned about masters running at 40, I had those memories and was inspired by other masters women. That’s the wonderful thing still about masters running 20 years later: masters running being fairly recent, we are still discovering the potential of middle-aged athletes. There are incredibly fast runners out there!

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Cathy’s client Madeleine Davidson of Boston College.

How did you get started coaching?

By accident, really. In my 20s and 30s I was playing a lot of tennis and played in tennis tournaments. I always ran for fun and lifted. Other tennis players, friends of mine, asked me for training programs (I was quick on the court). I wrote them down on calendars.

But that didn’t work. It wasn’t enough. When I’d run into the players weeks or months later, I asked them how they were doing. “It’s not happening,” was the answer. It’s then that I realized that support and the human touch, with goals, are essential. An article in The New York Times in 1992 confirmed that. Its message was that knowledge is not enough to motivate people to exercise. Support is critical.

How have you balanced your own athletic career with coaching?

All my life I have trained – and for a lot of it, competed. So running and racing is something that just feels “normal”. At the same time, as a mother (since age 40), I have juggled different responsibilities: a “hy- or tri-brid” career of coaching, writing, and teaching. Each of those takes time. Since I enjoy training, I have never needed to race much to feel happy. For most years I have entered one or two races a year. For myself, I stress quality over quantity.

What are your thoughts on self-coaching vs. being coached by others?

I have always had a coach myself and I think it’s hard to “self-coach.” It’s hard to have perspective. It’s invaluable to have that. My own coach, World Cross Country Champion Lesley Lehane, has always had thoughts I would never have had on my own. It’s easy to be too hard on ourselves. It’s hard to hold back. Running is one of those sports where holding back at times is the best thing we can do for longevity. With running it’s easy to compare ourselves to others and a coach can help us articulate and define our own goals. A coach also brings perspective on running that fits with the rest of our lives. I’m very interested in that – in how running goals helps us achieve professional and personal goals – balance and fulfillment, in short.

What do you feel are the most important mental aspects of coaching?

In a phrase: helping athletes with a long-term, balanced perspective. Helping them see the big picture in training to reinforce patience as a key to achieving their potential. It takes years for athletes to achieve their best. When they are putting their heart and soul into training, they tend to want achievement faster than it comes. Years of training is the key to success, as is holding back in some seasons.

Supporting athletes is also essential, as life is never always smooth. There are challenges in other areas of life and those challenges often interfere with athletic success more than physical stresses associated with training.

One of Cathy's Move! groups in action
Cathy’s training groups include runners of varying ages and abilities.

What are some differences and some common themes that exist for coaching masters runners vs. coaching post-collegiate runners?

The themes are similar. One main theme is identifying goals that are meaningful for them and that fit with the rest of their lives. Many of my masters and post-collegiate runners come to me, wondering whether a group’s goals match their own. They want an objective perspective. They also want to lower anxiety when competition with peers becomes “louder” than competition with themselves.

Post-collegiate and masters runners, like all runners, both tend to overdo training. I spend most time holding back runners –telling them to limit their mileage, for example, or to stop before the last repetition on the track.

You are best known for your goal setting methods, and for helping others to use athletic training to realize goals in a variety of areas in their lives. How have your own experiences in athletics informed this approach?

Early on in my masters running years, I set goals. With several responsibilities in my forties- I was a mother of two preschool age children, my husband traveled a lot, I was still working on my doctoral dissertation, and I had a practice- I had to think very deliberately about how I would approach running. If I just tried to let it happen, it may very well not have happened.

I had to think through the steps of the MOVE! method (explained in MOVE! How Women Can Achieve Athletic Goals At Any Age): prepare for goals, set short-term successive goals, manage them, and evaluate what happened afterwards before setting the next goal. I realized that these goals applied to all of my life’s challenges, including finishing my doctoral dissertation and setting up a website for my research in 1995 when we hardly knew what websites were. The MOVE! method worked for everything, and my clients were using it successfully for other aspects of their lives as well.

What are some questions you would like posed to you, and what are your answers?

I guess there might be three questions.

What is new in your coaching?” is the first. I started a volunteer project in my town to help financially disadvantaged women. The project involves volunteering my coaching to a group of other women whose contributions are going directly to this organization. Second, more and more high school and college coaches in different sports, high school and college coaches, are using the MOVE! goal achievement method and finding it helpful. It’s simple and proven….and coaches can use it to support their own style of coaching.

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Another MOVE! group on Heartbreak Hill, preparing for the Boston Marathon.

It’s Boston Marathon season, so “Why haven’t you run a marathon?” is the second question. I remember asking Lesley and also her twin sister, Lisa Brady, a two-time All American, about running a marathon and both urged me not to. It would hurt my speed, they said, as I was interested in the 800 through the 3K on the track and in cross-country events, most of which are mid-distance. So I listened and was grateful for their perspective. I did race two half-marathons, a B.U. half marathon when I was 40 or 41 (1:17:45 – hard to believe now) and another in my late forties.

Like other coaches, I coach all distances and have coached over 100 marathoners in the past 25 years. The great thing about running is that there are many distances to choose from, and the marathon is one of them.

And the last question is “What do I love about coaching?” I can help people achieve goals they never thought they would, in all areas of their lives. That feels like a gift for coach and athlete. I have worked with some athletes for 20 years and hear from others I coached over a decade ago. That’s fulfilling.

Many thanks to Cathy for sharing these pearls with our Salty Running readers. For more on Cathy’s coaching and the MOVE! method, visit her website.

Mom of three kiddos and a black lab, running enthusiast, sports-med-doctor-in-training. I love the science and sport of running and all things related.

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16 comments

  1. Garlic: insightful, inspiring interview of a woman I’d love to have for a coach–if only I lived closer! She embodies my idea of the ideal coach (learned from watching my father, a college coach): taking each person as they are and helping them to find success in ways they didn’t believe possible. As a senior masters runner (or older?) I, too, am enthusiastic about seeing what we women can achieve as more of us continue to tackle running and other activities that not too long ago were not considered possible.

    1. Thanks Patricia! Cathy is an exceptionally special coach, and, yes, I am truly lucky to have her guidance. She definitely inspires her athletes to push past perceived barriers, at any age!

  2. I was fortunate to meet Cathy a few years ago at a Master’s Indoor Track competition in Boston. I envy you and the other runners that train with Cathy..not only is she an incredible athlete but she has expertise in ‘everything’ running. I adore her!

  3. I love Cathy’s philosophies. What she says is so refreshing. I too would love her as a coach and am extremely jealous of you Garlic, but also happy for you because I have seen first hand how she’s helped you grow! Thanks so much for sharing this with us and I’m happy to help spread Cathy’s message that middle age doesn’t mean the end of athletic awesomeness!

  4. I’ve been fortunate enough to have Cathy as my coach, and friend, for close to twenty years. In that time, she’s helped me achieve professional goals and physical goals (X country skiing, swimming, hiking) I never thought I would—and never would have—without her. She’s the best!

  5. I’ve known Cathy for years as a friend and coach. She is amazing. She has guided me toward a number of goals all of which helped me overcome some serious obstacles. Her book MOVE! inspired me towards achieving personal as well as athletic goals.

  6. Wonderful interview, Garlic. I have seen Liberty Athletic Club or Liberty Track Club listed with some fantastic finishers at USATF events, but I wasn’t aware that it was specifically a women’s club or its long history. Thanks for an informative and motivating post.

  7. Cathy is unique (I focus on sprints and strength training)–thoughtful,
    very knowledgeable, an acute listener. She is the best strategist with goals.
    Her runners are from all over the country.
    Great Article.

  8. Terrific interview! Great questions, great responses. I’ve been fortunate to have had Cathy’s coaching for a bunch of years. Cathy’s approach to goal-setting and to guiding people toward what they want to achieve has been a powerful force in my life, particularly in getting competing passions to cooperate (I’m a painter, as well as an athlete.) And in re-framing your life when things happen you didn’t plan on. One very special thing about Cathy’s philosophy and coaching is the spirit of mutual support it fosters. We cheer each other from the heart and celebrate all of us.

    1. Agreed. The emphasis on focusing on your own individual goals really makes it possible to derive happiness from the successes of others in the MOVE! community.

  9. Wonderful article about a very special friend and my coach! 4 years ago I read her book and decided to ask her to coach me while I learned to sprint. Using MOVE program, deliberate practice and many goal setting conversations and heart to hearts, I am a sprinter! She has coached me through injuries, work situations, family crises, the works. And I was able to meet my goals, I have taken 2.5sec off my 200m time as I am getting older, and earned a silver medal at a national meet. How great is that! She is a pioneer in developing training programs for Masters Runners at all levels.

  10. This is a great article and oh so true! I started working with Cathy as my running coach seven months ago and saw my times drop – 6 seconds in the mile and 7 minutes in the half. This of course makes me very happy. What I didn’t realize at the time I started working with Cathy was how much positive impact her coaching and specifically the MOVE! method would have on my WHOLE life. She’s still my running coach but is also helping me with my business. Using MOVE! I’m simultaneously restructuring my work and training for my next race – the mile. I’m aware daily of how lucky I am to have Cathy in my life and be a part of a group of women in MOVE! who are strong and inspiring. Thank you for writing this piece about a really special woman.

  11. Cathy is an amazing person. Having been a runner for many years now, I have always set goals. But Cathy has inspired me so much that I don’t think of aging any more. I just thinking of improving. It has helped me in personal life, my professional — in all areas. The MOVE! community is unique and special. We are all striving to do better and get faster. And we all care about each other. Cathy is the catalyst.