7 Keys to Being Your Own Best Running Coach

Olympic marathon alternate Jess McClain offers advice on crushing goals, your way.


courtesy of Brooks

Jessica McClain would never say she achieved great things alone.

As she powered to a 2:25:46, fourth-place finish at the Olympic Marathon Trials in February in Orlando, family and friends cheered her on in neon green shirts that read, “Bring the Pain McClain.” She’s also quick to credit her training partners, including Rosie Santos and Julia Griffey, for inspiring and motivating her in the buildup to her nearly four-minute personal best.

But she can take credit for a big chunk of her success: Unlike most of the other top finishers that day, McClain had no shoe sponsor or coach.

She had taken a shot at pro running for about three and a half years after graduating from Stanford in 2015. She signed with the Brooks Beasts in Seattle and specialized in the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. But frequent injuries and the pandemic led her to stop running full-time.

McClain moved back home to Phoenix, got married (her maiden name was Tonn), and gradually resumed training while working in marketing, eventually finding her footing in the marathon.

On March 25, the 32-year-old announced she had signed a new contract with Brooks. Her new-again sponsor is the only thing that will resemble her former life as a pro runner.

She’s keeping her full-time job as executive director of the Johnjay & Rich #LoveUp Foundation, though she might cut back on some of her marketing consulting clients. And while she’ll have access to Brooks coaches and experts if she needs them, she’ll remain self-coached, for now.

The flexibility of setting her own schedule and priorities, she believes, has been key to her success—and her happiness. “A lot of what I’ve been doing is workouts I love, running with people that I love, and it’s been very freeing,” she said.

Though her approach may not be conventional for high-level distance runners, McClain’s small group has gradually added other self-coached athletes, including Katrina Spratford-Sterling, a fellow Trials qualifier who also finished seventh at the USA Cross Country Championships in Richmond, Virginia, in January. Even if you’re not a veteran pro athlete—or, like Spratford-Sterling, a certified running coach—you can learn from the way these independent athletes plan their training and racing. Here’s their advice on steering your own running progress.

Find Goals That Ignite You

When she stepped away from pro running in 2020, McClain was burned out, especially on the track. Marathoning started relatively casually for her—she decided she wanted to run one before her 30th birthday, and trained only for about eight weeks before winning the 2022 Mesa Marathon in 2:33:35.

That was faster than the 2:37 mark required to enter the Trials, but because the course is net downhill, it didn’t count as a qualifier. After that, her goals crystallised: She wanted to run a qualifying time when it counted, which she did by clocking 2:29:25 at Grandma’s Marathon in 2023. Then, she set her sights on staying healthy and running her best in Orlando.

Whether it’s the Trials or the Boston Marathon, aiming to qualify for and compete at major events can feel like the logical next step once you start marathoning. But it’s also important to check in with yourself about what matters most, Spratford-Sterling said.

For example, she began 2024 with two goals—the Trials and trying to make the team for the World Athletics Cross Country Championships. But as time passed, they became incompatible: “Partway through the Olympic Trials build-up, I realized I can’t train for a fast 10K and also be prepared for the marathon,” she said. Though it was a tough call, she decided cross country was where her heart was, so she backed off on some of her longer workouts and put more focus on shorter, faster efforts.

Her 34:31, seventh-place finish at the USA Cross Country Championships put her just one place away from going to Worlds. Although she fell short of her biggest goal, she doesn’t regret her shift in focus: “That was a huge race for me and a great performance.”

Consider What’s Worked and What Hasn’t

Another big difference between McClain and many of her Trials competitors is mileage. While some, including winner Fiona O’Keeffe, log 160-plus-kilometre weeks, McClain topped out at around 115 kilometres weekly.

That’s based, in large part, on experience. After Mesa, McClain planned to run the California International Marathon in December 2022. She went all-in, squeezing long workouts and 120 weekly kilometres around a different and more stressful full-time job at a startup. Then, in November, she developed a sacral stress fracture.

So in her preparation for Grandma’s and then the Trials, she dedicated less of her limited time to running and more to rehab and recovery, adding in physical therapy, chiropractor appointments, and massages.

“I made sure my fueling was not only good during my runs, but after. I quit my job that was stressing me out,” she said, recognising that life pressure was also taking a toll on her body. “I started going to physio; I was just doing all the little things. Every marathon stint, I’ve learned so much.”

Put That Into a Roadmap—and Track Your Progress

By the time she was building up for the Trials, McClain knew the basic formula that worked for her: One long run and one workout per week, two days of easier runs with strides (for her, that means six to 10 20- to 30-second fast efforts, followed by 40-second jogs), two days of strength training, and one full rest day for both her mental and physical health.

In the notes app on her phone, she worked backward from the date of the Trials and broke down a progression of long runs— building from 14 up to 22—and weekly mileage. Then, she tracks everything on her Garmin watch and app.

Spratford-Sterling, meanwhile, sits down with a paper calendar and pen. She marks down her goal races, then plans eight- to 10-week blocks of training at a time to reach them. Once she has all the puzzle pieces together, she puts them into a Google doc, which she then updates with her completed training.

“Keeping a training log is the best tool, because you can go back and reference it,” she said. That can help you revise your training for the future. For instance, she realised that although she was running many of her workouts slower than she had in the past, she had one of her best seasons of racing this year. So, she might continue dialing back intensity in the future.

Workouts for Weaknesses and Strengths

Every runner has workouts they love and some they can’t stand. McClain, for example, hates kilometre repeats—but she knows they’re important for improving VO2 max. So, she makes sure to include some of them in her schedule.

But she also incorporates sessions that make her feel strong and happy. “I love a ton of 400-metre repeats—20 to 25 times 400 metres,” she said. Doing those on a Phoenix trail at a pace similar to what she used to run on the track reassured her she was keeping her speed.

She also prioritised long runs, including plenty of pace variations to mimic race scenarios. “We practiced everything,” she said, including fast kilometres in the middle and gear shifts at the end. Her last long run, on January 15, featured a hard effort in the middle of 22 miles (35 kilometres) —including a 4:56 17th mile (3:04 kilometre). “Having all that time on my legs and then being able to run that—that gave me a ton of confidence,” she said.

Stay Flexible

The big benefit of self-coaching is that no one else is setting the agenda, McClain said. As she went, she adjusted her training based on factors like travel, what her training partners were doing, and how much sleep she got each night.

“It’s great to be in a routine and have a set schedule,” she said. “But I also think it’s really good to have adaptability, where you’re letting how you’re feeling dictate what you’re doing in workouts.”

On days when they meet for hard sessions, the group often texts beforehand about the details, or talks through each person’s plans when they meet up. “We try to collaborate and work with each other the best that we can, depending on everyone’s schedules and goals,” Spratford-Sterling said.

Sometimes, McClain has a workout in mind, but her mind or body don’t feel great. So she’ll push it another day or revamp the plan right before she starts, reducing the load or intensity. In other cases, she feels better than expected, and picks up the pace more than she’d planned.

Group members might also alter their workouts somewhat to do them together, taking some creative approaches when things don’t align exactly. For example, one of Spratford-Sterling’s last workouts before the cross-country championships was four 1.5-mile (2.4km) repeats. The pace was easy for McClain, so on the last repetition, she started behind Spratford-Sterling and tried to catch her. “I was running so hard, knowing Jess is going to motor by me,” Spratford-Sterling said. “It was fun.”

Find People You Trust

McClain learned a lot from her previous coaches—including her high school coach, Jeff Messer, whom she worked with again briefly after leaving the Beasts. And, she’s soaked up knowledge from training partners with more marathon experience, including Santos, a 2:31 marathoner from Great Britain, and Griffey, who trained with the NAZ Elite team from 2020 to 2022.

Spratford-Sterling, too, credits the group for both improving her performance and helping her enjoy the process. “Rosie is so strong in the marathon; she helped me improve in that way. Jess is so fast and confident, she pulled me through some pretty hard workouts,” she said. “We all lift each other up and help each other improve.”

Spratford-Sterling also checks in frequently with other coaches, including Steve Spence, her college coach; Kurt Benninger, who coached her for several years as a pro (and is also Molly Huddle’s husband); and Kaitlin Goodman, another good friend and elite runner.

She’ll often ask them to look over the training she writes to make sure she’s not missing anything, or seek their advice on big decisions, like which race to prioritise. “Collaborating with other coaches has been fun, because you get different perspectives,” she said. “I think having a support system is really important.”

Adjust Goals and Training Accordingly

McClain headed into the Trials believing she could finish top five on a good day, in a time of around 2:27 to 2:28. So while her fourth-place finish wasn’t a complete surprise to her, her time shocked her.

Now, she’s pondering what it will take to run below 2:23. Jumping right into the same training at much faster paces feels like a stretch, so she’s aiming for a more gradual approach, building off what’s worked for her in the past. She may add a few more miles, or build in mini-workouts on Fridays.

And before she starts full marathon training—in case she gets the call to go to the Olympics in Paris in August, or for a fall marathon if she doesn’t—she’s planning a segment on the track, aiming to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in the 10,000 meters. That should also boost her speed in ways that will benefit her over 42.2kms, she believes.

One thing she knows for sure, now that she’s established herself on the marathoning scene: There’s value in designing your own life and training program, even if it doesn’t align with what everyone else is doing. “It’s cool to see all the different stories and paths that it took to get to a starting line,” McClain said. “Your way is the right way, but there are tons of different ways to do it. It’s all about figuring out your recipe.”

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