Track Coach

Interview with Peter Grinbergs

The juxtaposition of this interview with Canadian coach Peter Grinbergs directly after the Cerutty “dictionary” is instructive. Could two coaches be more different in attitude and philosophy? Could Cerutty ever have said “A falling short is tended with mirth, laughter, and acceptance?” Grinbergs supplements several of his answers with quotes from his book.


Peter Grinbergs has been coaching for 46 years. This has never been full-time-paid employment yet NCAA medalists Doug Consiglio (Arkansas), Kathy Butler (Wisconsin), Matt Kerr (Arkansas), Nathan Brannen (Michigan) and Ben Flanagan (Michigan) got their start in this Canadian training group. Grinbergs chronicles the journey in a small book Coach As Poet-Survivior: Running a Tangled Dream. Many of the interview questions are answered with excerpts from this book. Grinbergs current focus is on simplifying-adjusting the movement of limbs-idea-soul.

Peter Grinbergs

1. Peter, what is your current coaching position? What are some of your responsibilities there?

Last year. I stepped away from running the middle distance and cross country program at Wilfrid Laurier University. I am currently in the midst of starting/developing the Tri City Run Club. This is a concept group that revolves around personal discovery-growth as well as athletic improvement. It all starts with the ideas in my book: “Coach As Poet-Survivor: Running A Tangled Dream”. The book was written over a thirty year period. The original intent was to orient any new athlete more completely to the background of the group as well as the growth and insights of the coach.

2. What are some of the similarities and/or you see between running and hockey?

In Canada, hockey is an intense, cultural activity. Everyone knows hockey. Consequently, the work is political as well as physical. Running not so much. There was more room to breath, experiment, create. As soon as work started with the track group, the contrasts with hockey fast became obvious. To quote from the book:

“I quickly recognized the large up-side of consistent year-round commitment. If you arrived regularly, you created relationship as well as fitness, flow. These ingredients are still at the top of my list. Most coaches espouse the fitness but forget how important it is to forge relationship. And this does not mean stepping inside, controlling the life of your athlete. Many senior athletes also misunderstand. Fitness is the easiest aspect in this process. The challenge is to find that ribbon of give-and-take that spits out the right workout at the right time and finds the words or single image that nudge the dream over the top. It takes time, contact. The difficulty is in the patient wait, the quiet stretches necessary for understanding to develop. Often, it never happens; we move too fast, too harried to heed this wisdom. Sometimes just hanging out is better than running twice a day.”

My first group of distance athletes started with three runners: Mary Bauer, Beth Houston and Nick Cipp—one of my hockey players. The group grew quickly after the first winter and before long conflicts with hockey began to arise. Several years down the road, I would have to decide. What made the choice track-favourable was the difference in the kind of energy that surrounded the two sports. As much as hockey was deeply etched in my soul by Foster Hewitt’s voice, “Welcome to Hockey night in Canada,” I struggled with the diffident attitude of the athletes at the Junior level. As coaches, we had two or three months to sell, instill, deliver. The energy was all push-pull, coercive, too proud. There was very little room, time for a natural rhythm to develop between the work, the team and the schedule. The schedule ruled and it had a hard and insistent edge.

The track environment had its schedule but there was a large luxury that came with the athlete who trained all year round and stayed on from year to year. In this place, a relationship had time to build, slide, stretch beyond the usual surface, the short-term creature. This energy could be gentle, subtle, and powerful of its own determination. Once an athlete was not threatened by performance issues, wonderful things could happen. Track was the easy choice because I was the sole purveyor of pace, rhythm, the push.

My core interest was always in things psychological. I was quick and early to buy into the idea that the “big stuff” was the give-and-take between people. The skill and technical side of running could be learned straight up. But as I was to find out, the sorcery was in the blending, merging, allowing the “psyche and soma” to become driven by the same image, word, philosophy. It was not enough to be the gentle-insistent coach and then ravage the athlete with the physical work. My prime responsibility, as coach, was to create an awareness of my own internal conflicts and issues (fear, anger, shame) so that the performance-training of the athlete would not be overshadowed. Somehow the work had to be meaningful, palatable, empowering. The work and the promised riches are only the initial lure for the athlete. It is in the process of doing the work that the athlete can expect to be pulled to this place inclusive-beyond the “running”. The work is then free to take on the shape of the athlete’s vision. Coaching is not manipulation or control; it is driven by the intricacies of flow.”

3. Have you coached any other events in track & field or has it always been running? What age groups do you deal with? How do you cluster your athletes into groups? I’m thinking about adolescent 14-16, late adolescent 17-19, early adult 20-24, adult 24-32+, and the master athlete 40+ (feel free to re-age these groups)

I chose only to coach middle distance runners. There seemed to be more of an area for coaching growth here. I was new and needed time to understand and evolve. The first 20 years of the coaching life was an exploration of building environment-relationship. The next ten years focused on how to train and converge it all in a seamless and gentle fashion that made sense to the athlete; mileage, intervals, fartlek, intensity, recovery. The last 15 years, the entire focus has been on the improvement of movement. The age groups have never been split.

To quote form the book: “I am not an exercise physiologist, so my explanations are homespun, direct from the front lines. I am not a psychologist, so the ideas are not always cooperatively aligned or restricted by academic boundary. I am a self-professed coaching expert. Consider this my strength as well as my limitation.

Let me begin with a quick description of the backyard: three days a week for 35 plus years. The group has grown from 10 to 60 and then 70. The age range is from 12 to 60—beginners, high school, university and masters athletes. Since the inclusion of the Wilfrid Laurier University cross country teams, some nights workout numbers are closer to 80. The energy is incredible.

Managing the numbers, getting the right workout is always a challenge but it is seldom a daunting task. I have grown into large running group management gradually. My system is geared to deal with the many as well as the lesser few that attend the Sunday morning devotional at the park. I spend most of my time observing and urging on, scanning the groups for any anomaly, anything that doesn’t fit. This gets my attention. I may pull athletes out of a session and assign HOH (Hands-On-Head) work, barefoot or tempo-change strides. I talk to the lingering-devastated, discouraged, misunderstood, excited, exuberant athletes all. Seldom are the issues running-only related.

It is my wish that an athlete be fearless, be able to experience deeply, become a resilient being. Consequently, I listen for her (the goddess) whisper. I am patient. If it’s not working, I am willing to adjust, change in midstream. I use the word “organic” to describe the type of work that assumes a plan but shrinks not from the intuitive nudge of her whisper. It is about leaving behind notions of domination and then linking itself, not only, to the successes but the failures that mark an athlete unafraid to risk and dream. The goddess is an idea in “soul” and it is her whisper that is able to break through tired legs, the malaise of injury, a reluctant spirit. She strips away the notion of greatness to allow great performance to emerge. When it looks as if it’s impossible, “stuff” just happens.

4. Do you have any particular observations about the challenges you as a coach have dealing with a particular age group? What do you see as some of the challenges facing the athletes?

Competition and its value is overwhelming in our culture. Although our training group is brimming with winners, emphasis is seldom if ever placed on this aspect of the event. “It means everything and it means nothing.” Living and racing this notion is the key. No one really cares about your finish other than you, me and your mom.

Quoting from the book: Approaching the deception In persuasively researched works such as Alfie Kohn’s “No Contest: The Case Against Competition” (Kohn, 1992), much surfaces that shows little advantage to the competitive structure. As a matter of fact, so pervasive is the evidence against competition that we would be negligent not to investigate, listen. Kohn points out that competition and excellence are not necessarily synonymous. It does not take an army of studies to help a parent or coach read the expressions, our children’s faces, to understand that something is amiss. If the environment is reduced to a pragmatic excellence, a manipulation of numbers, it seeks not to enlarge or deepen, but rather, to fill a void created by expectation that is rooted in the myth of the conquering hero. Competition seemingly creates an insatiable thirst, an accompanying distortion. The ardor of one against the other, winning blunts good intention.

5. The Canadian collegiate system is quite different from the American system. What are some of the Canadian system’s advantages? What are some of the disadvantages? Could you speak a little how the Canadian collegiate system works? (My understanding is that it is more club based)

The Canadian University system has a cross country season and an indoor season. There is no outdoor track. The system was once more club based but no longer. In the last ten plus years, you would see little difference between our two systems. The depth of competition is much greater in the United States. The top level of competition is similar just not as populated. It seems the Canadian athletes have more time to spend on their studies. The larger schools cross the border often to take advantage of the competition.

6. The U.S. collegiate programs are stocked with Canadian athletes. What are some of the positives and negatives of this reality?

There are greater competitive opportunities in the American system. Many of my own athletes have married and stayed to raise their families as well as coach in the United States. This is all good. Given the wrong scenario, a potentially great athlete can be easily lost in the shuffle. That would be my only regret. The damage is hard to undo.

From the book: “Every fall a small exodus of athletes would head south to their new programs. This was very tough. With the first few, it felt like I was losing small pieces of myself. I was supportive but confused. It opened my eyes to the fact that my ties to these athletes needed to be less possessive, territorial, less about me. Why was I to feel this negativity when we had done a good job? Big schools were offering scholarships, free education. Every fall our training group would shift, reshape. It became an interesting fresh time of the year, watching as new energy shapes took form and athletes accepted new roles and challenges.”

7. Canada has a long and rich history of track & field dating from the earliest Olympic Champions (George Orton and Bobbie Kerr) through Bruce Kidd, Harry Jerome, Debbie Brill and Diane Jones. I know that hockey is part of Canada’s DNA but how much of the national sports psyche is track & field?

Canada has a wonderful tradition in running, track & field. Unfortunately, so much has been buried beneath our cultural behemoth, hockey. This has changed with the success of individuals like Damian Warner, Donovan Bailey and many others. The sport keeps growing through the public school system as well as an ever stronger university program. One of Canada’s hidden secrets is its coaches. We have so many fine coaches. Many of our graduating senior athletes are staying in the game and may be the group that defines Canada’s future growth in the sport.

8. How has your coaching theory evolved since you started? Who were some of your early influences in coaching? What about them spoke to you? I am sure there were coaches who helped with the scientific side of coaching, but what about the people side? Are there any distance coaches whose methods you feel are particularly effective?

Arthur Taylor was first impactful and is still always on the fringes of my thinking. He was a new Canadian arrived from England. I was a hockey player looking for fitness. Arthur was an amazing individual. He participated in many of the workouts with the group. He was a run leader in the community. He was for a stretch the world masters record holder in the marathon. His energy and love for the sport was infectious. This was my beginning with running. Then there were the obvious—the running writers that everyone was reading. This mixed with my personal interest in psychology and philosophy.

To quote from the book: “The effective fairy tale tugs at unconscious, fearful elements and allows a spinning out. By listening to the tale, the child accepts an invitation to explore unfamiliar, perhaps even frightening territory. Direct association with unrealistic characters and situations allow the child to play out innermost fears. Unconscious processes are brought to the surface without overwhelming a young, fragile ego. This happens not through rational process, analysis but rather by becoming familiar, listening to the same tale many times, spinning out daydreams, ruminating, re-arranging and fantasizing. Fairy tales enrich the child’s imagination, encourage new images to sprout and develop—new possibility. As the child is held in the firm grip of the tale, so the athlete submits to the tales and guidance of sport. Sport molds and shapes while we watch. Like the fairy tale, sport is ripe to play a vital role. Through physical encounter, the child teases fantasy into enactment. Dreams of attaining, winning, being champion are put into motion in the reality of the game. Just as some fairy tale is demanded to be heard many, many times, the athlete in similar fashion brushes up against the same issues again and again and again. The frustration of the beginner is gradually overcome. The emotion in winning, in losing is at some time led to a place of reflection, insight. If this opportunity is patiently respected, the game, sport attains a place of meaningful encounter. There forms an understanding, a deepening.”

NB—rounded shoulders—cut off apices of lungs

9. What are some of your keys towards practice organization? Could you give a rough outline of your daily training plan? Canadian Athletics has a very well organized Coaching Education program. Have you done much work with this group? Where do you think the program is particularly strong?

My involvement with Canada’s coaching education program was basic and minimal but important. It provided a grounding; It gave exposure to many fascinating coach instructors. It offered break time conversations that were stimulating. The training program grew from an intensive listening to the wise men and women of the game. The future layering came from front line service. It took new shape as the one year piled on top of the last.

“Our physical surroundings are generous with an abundance of green space in various parks and a 232m indoor behind-the-arena-seats running surface that has been available to us for the last 15 years. The group does interval work all year round; Tuesday, Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings. e.g. (10 x 2 min.) 60sec R. The park we frequent most has several soccer fields that can often be accessed for HOH (Hands-On-Head) style work, barefoot running and interval segments.

All workouts start with a group 30 minute warm-up run. Our group stays off the track in spring until the wind and the rain give way to better conditions. Racing on the track includes a very large aesthetic component. Constantly battling wind and rain seems counter-productive. Running on the track should feel special, energizing, empowering. Often our high school group enters the OFSAA Championship with less than a handful of track workouts. The track, the racing is special, fun and it feels wonderful to be on that smooth rubber surface—feels like you are flying. What about pace work? The watch can be a straight-jacket. If it is always in use, many negatives can take root unless you are an artist with the timepiece. The athlete simply needs to know if he is running too slow or too fast. Seldom do they need to hammer out repeats at a prescribed tempo. Some workouts are just slower. Some need to be gentle to allow for recovery and renewal. I prefer that athletes race, not too fixated on pace or finish time… more fun, empowering, energizing, fresh. Yes, they do run fast.

Let me outline the basic training structure. The first group of athletes is working to get to a basic level of fitness. They can partake in almost everything the rest of the group does but just in smaller chunks. When running style droops, fades, disintegrates, I remove the runner from the workout. The second is our largest group and is “training to train.” This group has achieved fitness and has to now become more efficient, strong. The majority of intervals for this group is consistent in design—keep the distance the same, the recovery the same throughout. The final group has climbed to the topmost rung and may require more individualized attention with upcoming race-specific issues. The volume may be greater, and by the nature of the group, the tempo often quicker.

The exact same workout may be assigned to all (male and female). After a mass start, the groups naturally form themselves. The interval sessions almost always have a minimum and maximum number of repetitions designated. This takes care of many of the differences in range and ability. It also legitimizes an athlete’s need to do less in any given session. Whatever the reason, this is no place for guilt or shame. It is all grist for the mill. The definition of these three levels is arbitrary and is based on the current needs of the group. Traditional “peaking” is avoided entirely unless I know exactly why the workout is necessary and I am convinced the athlete can handle the session and recover for the next workout. Otherwise, we are consistently building strength with work (Training To Train), doing HOH (Hands-On-Head) and barefoot running drills. How to arrange training groups is sometimes a challenge-difficult task.”

10. Why are you such a big “foot guy” with your barefoot running? Where did those thoughts come from? Are there specific drills or exercises you use or do the runners simply run for a certain time or distance barefoot? What are some of the benefits you see from barefoot running? How do you measure or quantify how much is done? When is this running done in a practice session? One of the great problems many distance runners succumb to is poor posture, especially young women (see picture below). This not only alters one’s running mechanics but the rounded shoulders restrict the apices of the lungs. What gave you the idea to start the running with the “hands on the head,” your HOH? How much is done daily? Is it used for all recovery jogs and walks? You’ve mentioned an additional benefit of the HOH technique is that it “frees up” the hips. Could you explain that thought?

Perhaps the greatest impact was from watching the Kenyans and Ethiopians lead world cross country races. Their movement and rhythm was fascinating, hypnotic. How could this help us in Canada? Once an understanding was developed around the notion that everything in the body is connected, the ride down the water slide became furious and intense. It all started with putting a hockey stick on your shoulders. What developed was Running HOH.

“Run with your Hands On your Head, hence, Running HOH. Once you move beyond the HOH image, you are confronted with a difficult truth. Running style is most difficult to change and adjust. Change is even more difficult to maintain. How can placing your hands on your head change this complex, difficult-to-change activity? Running HOH isolates the lower body and also acts as a diagnostic tool. In this sense, offered are the keys to the kingdom. Running HOH opens the door to more efficient, economic running. It provides a structure and an order for effective change.

All Running HOH components arrive directly from the front lines of trial and error—direct application. The run is forced without upper body support. Weakness is quickly apparent. “Keep the upper body still.” The running HOH structure reveals the initial layer of required attention. Running HOH has simplified a complex activity like running in a way that gives beginner and expert quick access. It delivers one idea, one image for every new coach that can effectively introduce Running HOH; minimal instruction and consistent repetition. “Put your hands on your head (HOH), run the length of the gym. Keep your upper body still. Put your hands down. Run again and let your body feel the same.” If this is all the grade four teacher does all year, there would be marked improvement.

Running HOH can quickly become a sound diagnostic tool and a directional beacon for beginners and Olympians. Run better faster. Run more efficiently, economically. Reduce injury during training and racing. Let us describe this process as “econoficiency”. Imagine if this type of focus could make a hypothetical two per cent difference in training, recovery, less injury. What might be the aggregate time improvement? Imagine the reduction of training stress, less injury, less fatigue. Imagine. Unfortunately, we are all in such a rush to performance. Shift the training model to include ideas of “econoficiency” and the American running community will have far fewer casualties among their talented collegiate community and would soon challenge the world’s best distance runners en masse.

Run Better Faster Safer. The initial models used in the evolution of this thinking came from observing the male Kenyan distance runner. They were starting to dominate the world from distances 800m to the marathon. The Kenyan carriage and gait was so very similar. They ran upright and relaxed. Their legs would spin quickly and for what seemed like forever. The arms moved in pendulum-like fashion at the shoulder socket; elbows held at 90 degrees. The women were few and even today their running style is not as obvious or consistent across the spectrum as are their male counterparts. This image of Kenyan men running has haunted the mind of this coach for the past 35 years. Many drills, commands were attempted in service of improving running style, if only to look just like the Kenyans. Quick was the discovery that changing or altering movement is the most difficult, demanding, and elusive of tasks. So began the task of finding an approach to allow runners to be more efficient, to run like the Kenyans.

Obviously, there are many other aspects of Kenyan life and training that could not be reproduced because of geography, life beliefs and culture. My interest was in the physical. Could we run similar to these Kenyans and benefit from our own version of their success? Running HOH represents this system. It has merit and value because through its many incarnations, there have evolved half a dozen Olympians, successful age groupers, teachers, parents, kids. The setting to words of Running HOH has allowed a crystallization of the many ideas in this structure—the system.

Having a system is perhaps most important. I have coached with segments of many systems beginning with my own original athletic experiences. I had amassed an assortment of concepts that had been retooled to fit my particular circumstances. The evolution of Running HOH has allowed me to look at runners differently. What in their movement structure is interfering with economical movement? What tool can be accessed to quickly begin the change to econoficiency? Remember, this system has been developed by a citizen-coach, not a physiologist. It has been prepared from 35-plus years of coaching observation, trial and error, persistence, as well as, the odd epiphany, dream-like insight. Everything that has not worked was altered, broken down, further attempted and only discarded if there was no further promise. What remains are the ideas, concepts, the drills that worked well. This might be more accurately viewed as a “”living document” because after every workout week there remains some new fragment with potential.

BEWARE, this is not a scientific document. Distance running is coached from a physiological vantage point. Things psychological and nutritional are also gaining momentum. We count the miles, extol the virtues of long tempo runs to prepare the cardiovascular system. Running twice a day, sometimes even three, strength conditioning in the gym. Speed work creeps in at the end of a workout and the season. It is good. It works. During the World Cross Country Championships several years ago, the lead group of senior men had sorted itself out and six or seven were left—primarily Kenyans and Ethiopians. With three kilometers remaining, this group was churning up the course with their quick tempo style of running and all looking eerily similar. The television people soon needed additional focus so one camera swung around to take in the action of the runners following. The first images were of the runners no longer in the lead pack—fading, struggling, done. They had lost spirit and had no more to give on this day. They struggled to lessen the loss of more ground, pride. Soon upon them came the rest of the field and here was my epiphany. They came in ones, small groups to give chase, to catch those dropping badly. They were pressing, yes, but it seemed they had lost the “grace of movement.” Without exception, these runners were muscling their way to finish their race. It was ugly. The contrast was ever more apparent when the picture switched back to the lead group. The camera turned from pump-push-ponderous to smooth, quick and determined. At present, 20-plus ideas comprise the Running HOH structure. They are in a constant state of flux.

11. What type of psychological prep do you recommend? Is there an author or school of thought you subscribe to? Or are there core beliefs or attitudes you try to instill? One of the tenets of your program is “it means everything and it means nothing.” That is almost a zen-like quality to thought management. How well has that been received?

Psychology for athletes begins when they tie the laces on their training shoes. For the coach it begins with hello. Everything you say is impactful and none of us can escape the errors. There are many errors but the value is in the response. That is where we grow. Rich Alapack was a professor at St. Jerome’s college in Waterloo. I took every class he taught. He introduced us to many critical thinkers. Hard to remember where I tripped over James Hillman but I read almost everything he wrote. Read one of his books seven times. The spine was broken and pages were spilling out. It had to be stored in a plastic bag. And this was just a taste of many impactful thinkers.

”I knew there were no quick or easy solutions to becoming a winner. The more successful my athletes were becoming, the more it became apparent that if the focus was directly on winning, the fizzle would be louder than the hurrah. This was difficult to articulate. The notion of the “goddess” was useful in presenting sport in a somewhat different light. The emerging ideas around “paradox” were further key elements in clearing up my thinking. “It means everything and it means nothing.” If the event was too “big”, the response would be conservative, halting, without risk. If too little, there would be no joy or tension. Merging the two opposites successfully is a lifetime process; it gives access to the elusive river of performance; it becomes more accessible, close. The coaching challenge is to assess when and how to intervene; how to listen, interpret her whisper.”

Permission to succeed. How do you manage a developing athlete who is making a breakthrough that is suddenly stalled by the doubt and insecurities created by greater expectations? Do you have a separate management strategy for unrealistic expectations from within (the athlete) and from the outside (press, parents and general public)?

Every athlete is different. I believe the trick is to immerse yourself in the individual. Listen. Listen more. Build an understanding. Create trust. This takes time. The one-to-one is critical. Being open and honest is magical. The approach to competition develops in the bubbling of this cauldron. “The only people who really care about your results are your mom, you and me. That’s it.”

12. Racing tactics are very much about knowing when to strike and are often delivered as surges or sprint efforts. Can you elaborate how you teach race tactics and pacing using your 7-5-3 step count system? When in a race do you recommend using the different step counts? What about weight or resistance training? Could you list some of the specific exercises you use? How often do your runners lift? At what age do they start?

Our athletes do not have a designed weight lifting program. If this is something they have been accustomed to they can continue with our guidance. The key to good racing seems to be in “staying in the present”. Counting is one way of achieving this. “Every time your left foot hits the ground, count. The seven count will help maintain tempo. The five count will increase tempo (as in a race surge). The three count will start a last 100m stretch. This tactic is worked on in training. Otherwise, the heat of the race may stop it cold. This is just a tool to get the runner out of trouble. Two or three vocalizations and you are back.

13. Any advice for a new or younger coach? This could be books to read, things to focus on, things to ignore, philosophies to consider or management/organizational skills to sharpen. What do you see as the biggest challenge in coaching?

Talk to as many of the wise coaches in your given discipline. Listen. Read whatever you are drawn to. Then coach and repeat. Coach and repeat. Sharpen your pencil often. Developing a language about what you do is our biggest challenge. The language has to be inclusive of science but larger, more direct, incisive-interesting.

“Every coach of my acquaintance has the soul of a poet: passionate, inquiring, dedicated. This is the world in which much of my discovery-growth was made possible. This is the world that tolerated and encouraged. It has allowed this soul many opportunities to spin out and chase, create, again and again. And I have also survived. The writing style is my attempt to shake and loosen, invite the reader to reframe current sport thinking, especially any sacred-cow deep structures

Poet-survivors (coaches) care deeply and, in their element, operate without FEAR. They coach and they counsel and they build supportive environments. They are the imperfect fit with the large heart. The perfect fit for your child’s team. The poet-survivor may be your neighbor, your child’s coach. Treat that individual with the highest regard.