A Running Culture Evolution: Through the Lens of Olympic Runner Turned Coach, Amy Yoder Begley
Written by: Leda McDaniel
Amy Yoder Begley began running when she was 10 years old after noticing a woman in her neighborhood who was running around the park. She would watch this woman from the time she was 8 years old and thought running looked like so much fun. Her parents made her wait until she was 10 years old to start running and then entered her in a local 5-mile race, thinking this would dissuade her from continuing; but she loved it!
In the beginning, Begley had no indication of the successes that would follow…first as a high school runner winning state track and cross-country championships, then as an All-American collegiate runner at the University of Arkansas and ultimately competing for the United States at the 2008 Olympic games! However, her running journey that led to these successes was anything but easy…
Begley grew up at a time that paralleled an evolving running culture that often did not prioritize or recognize women as equal to their male counterparts. After starting her running journey in that local 5-mile race, Begley continued to run in middle school, but had to run on the boys’ team because there was no team for females. During her collegiate career she ran on a team that was split, just as all athletics at that time, into separate male and female teams, with different coaches and resources.
In her interview with Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards and Dr. Kacy Seynders, Begley talks about some of these issues as well as the professional running cultures and teams that she experienced. After her collegiate career, Begley continued her professional running career early on being coached by her future husband, Andrew Begley, but then moving to work with the Nike Oregon Project from 2007 to 2011 under coach Alberto Salazar. During this period, Begley was training alongside elite runners like Kara and Adam Goucher and Galen Rupp. She describes some of what went on in this period, noting that there were situations that did not necessarily prioritize her success as an individual nor her mental health as an athlete.
Begley describes her early role in the Nike Oregon Project, saying, “I was originally brought in to be Kara’s (Goucher) training partner.” She goes on to describe how they became friends, but then were alienated from each other for a long period after a sports psychologist started pitting them against each other in training work outs. This approach was ultimately not helpful for either athlete resulting in loss in confidence for her and damage to their friendship (they have since rekindled their friendship after a period of separation).
Additionally, Begley did not receive a training plan guided by what she needed, but instead was training according to the practice plans for the main male athletes. In one period of training, she describes this trend saying, “Everything revolved around Adam Goucher …whatever mood Adam was in that was how practice went that day…”
Begley is now the head coach of the Atlanta Track Club, where she implements individualized training plans for her runners (men and women) and she understands that each athlete is different in how they will respond to training load. Begley has distilled much of her coaching wisdom reflecting on her experience as an elite runner through a career of negotiating these coaching changes and combatting the hardships from various environments that did not prioritize or recognize her individual needs as an athlete nor her mental health. As a coach, Begley now utilizes a focused but flexible view on training and describes how some athletes that she coaches will need a training plan with more recovery time built in while other athletes can tolerate higher volume training such as “two a day” workouts. Understanding each athlete’s strengths and weaknesses is the key to optimizing performance and mitigating injury risk.
Begley also emphasizes the need for athletes to feel supported emotionally as well prioritizing their physical training and recovery. Her dedication to coaching is apparent in the care that she describes in addressing each of these factors for her runners in training and competition. As she sees it: “It should be equal parts of work from athlete and coach,” that ultimately will lead to success.
In their interview with Begley, Mihevc Edwards and Seynders describe other benefits of having such an attentive and committed coach include gaining an outside perspective on training and recovery practices, having an individualized training plan, and optimizing nutrition and fueling for workouts. As Mihevc Edwards says, “athletes are driven and they really know their bodies, but they don’t necessarily know the warning signs that may indicate injury or overtraining.” Additionally, the importance of positive mental health and confidence cannot be overstated. All three women discuss how beneficial a “holistic” view of health can be for running and endurance athletes.
Begley notes that her experiences as an athlete including the self-doubt and inter-team competition that she went through have really given her motivation to encourage her athletes with positive reinforcement and build a culture of comradery within the Atlanta Track Club. As she tells it, “I never want to get to point where I don’t believe in athlete.”
To hear more from Amy Yoder Begley’s interview, check out Episode #26 of the More Than Miles Podcast with Physical Therapists Dr. Kate Mihevc Edwards and Dr. Kacy Seynders.