5 Minutes with coach Eric Houle
The Southern Utah coach gives insights into Cam Levins' training
By Zachary RossEric Houle is the head cross country and track coach at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. In 20 years at the helm of the Thunderbirds program, Houle has coached 736 all-conference athletes, 252 individual conference champions, 25 conference athletes of the year, 27 conference newcomers of the year, 24 NCAA national qualifiers, 75 NCAA West Regional qualifiers and four NCAA All-Americans. Among his most notable athletes are Jess Baumgartner, who finished third at the NCAA cross country championships in 2006 and more recently Cam Levins, who was fourth at NCAAs this past cross country season and has been near the top of the NCAA lists for the mile (3:57.16), 3,000m (7:48.25) and 5,000m (13:42.90) this indoor season. We talked to Houle about how Cedar City is one of America’s “best-kept secrets” for distance runners, keeping Cam Levins healthy, and how he’s able to maintain a flexible schedule with Levins in order for him to compete in big races with professional athletes.
As featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine
As featured in the Web Only issue of Running Times Magazine
Running Times: First of all, tell us your training philosophy as a coach.
Eric Houle: I believe the body is capable of a lot more than sometimes we give it credit for. Sometimes we put in a lot of work that sometimes doesn’t add up to much, it’s just sometimes going through the motions. So I think, in a well-thought-out program, in terms of all the different elements of training you can focus on quality and take that approach. We can get young athletes to arrive, but it’s a hard process to know exactly what to do. So my philosophy basically is to increase the loads with each athlete in a systematic way that is healthy and good and will allow these athletes to experience more success at the college level.
RT: Would you consider your program to be more of a high-mileage program or a low-mileage/high-intensity program, or does it just depend on the athlete?
EH: For me, with each athlete I do an evaluation — and I know all coaches do this — what they did in high school, where you would like them to be, their talents. And some athletes cannot handle high mileage. So not everybody is on high mileage here. Some kids you start to place some loads on them and you start to realize they’re strong, so you try to up that mileage for them and they respond poorly.
I think if you’re going to go low-mileage, you’ve got to think about quality; if you’re going to go high-mileage, you can focus on some other things comparable. But I don’t think you can get high-mileage and high-intensity to work together all the time. You’re asking for some huge problems in terms of injury and mental burnout.
RT: What are some key workouts you have your athletes do?
EH: We like to test where they are periodically throughout the year. We’ll do endurance type-workouts that test their max VO2, we have speed-type workouts that will test where they are with their overall speed, and try to use that information to set up workouts that are tailored to them. Specifically, for instance, if they’re lacking endurance and they’re not at the level they need to run at, then I’m going to spend more time doing power runs with them, try to build a better endurance strength so they can maintain for a longer time.
RT: Do you do a lot of things off of the track? Like in the weight room or strengthening exercises?
EH: Basically, core work. We focus a lot on core. I really do not want to beat up the athletes legs, especially if they’re on high mileage. It’s just high intensity. I personally just want them focused on core and upper body work. They’re not sprinters; they’re not throwers. We do a lot of that (core) and we do a lot of alternate workouts depending on where they are with health and if they need a break. We do pool workouts and bike workouts depending on where the athlete is.
I make my athletes rest. We do cycles and within those cycles I incorporate rest. Athletes, mainly distance athletes, they don’t want to rest. They think if they miss one mile, they’re done. Within the system I have it just naturally repeats itself and they’re forced to take a rest.
RT: How does the altitude of SUU play into training?
EH: Oh, yeah, we’re at 5,700 feet. The beauty of this place is: the track sits at 5,700 feet, I can get them in vans and drive up the canyon 30 minutes and they can be as high as 10,000 feet, or I can go south of Cedar City and they’re at 2,000 feet. To me, it’s one of the best kept secrets in terms of the availability of different altitudes in reach. It’s pretty sweet.
And when it snows here — like we have a big snow storm hitting us right now — we can’t get that track cleared. We don’t have an indoor facility so workouts are incredibly important and if I can’t make adjustments in the power runs then we’ll gather everyone and head down to St. George (about an hour southwest near the Utah-Arizona border) and do a workout. If it’s 30 degrees here, it’s 55 degrees there.
RT: What exactly is a power run?
EH: We’ll either set them at their max VO2 and force them to maintain a percentage, say 70 percent of their max VO2. I’ll either have them do 90-second pickups, 2-minute pick-ups with equal amounts of rest, depending on the energy system we’re trying to focus on that day. It’s easy to substitute a workout you were going to do on the track on the road based on where the athlete is emotionally, where the athlete is physically, the situation environmentally. You know, it’d be nice to have an indoor facility or live in California with weather that is nearly always perfect but with that being said, you can still get the work done at the level you need to get done and have it still become a positive no matter what’s thrown at you.
RT: So, what do athletes like Jess Baumgartner (who finished third at the 2006 NCAA cross country championships) and Cam Levins bring to the atmosphere of the team?
EH: Anytime any program can get someone to blow up, in a positive way, and achieve great things, it inspires everyone around them. All of the sudden, the focus is “Is it possible?” and yes, it is possible. They see it happen in front of their eyes. They know, yes, the work they’re putting in and the things they believe they can achieve are happening. They can do them. And that’s what (Baumgartner and Levins) bring to our program. I think they bring inspiration, I think they bring belief — that the program does have — but now (their teammates) see and realize.
RT: How do you keep Cam Levins healthy when he’s running 130-160 miles a week?
EH: I think it’s important to monitor health. I think it’s important to monitor pulse. I think it’s important to monitor what the athlete is taking into their body prior to upping their mileage and while they’re maintaining their mileage and seeing all of the indicators — you know, health indicators, mental indicators — that start to talk to you, not outwardly, but you start to see the signs and start to make quick adjustments for that. You’re always going to have breakdowns. No matter how well you prepare or how well the athlete prepares, you’re going to have those breakdowns. But my philosophy for the athletes is, if we can keep interruptions to a minimum you’re going to be able to do the things you need to do to get yourself to a level unlike you’ve ever been before. So, it’s the interruptions we try to control, which is why in the program itself there are things we work on that force the athlete to take rest, to monitor certain aspects of their training, to look at certain aspects of their sleep patterns and pulse, and stuff like that. I know all the other programs do this stuff, it’s just what things that are working for us.
RT: How do you manage a program in which athletes are going all over to race on any given weekend?
EH: I think I have to be flexible. If you look at my schedule, I have a three-tier program that I try to run. So, the first-tier people go to meets close by that I feel are at their level that the athletes there (at the meet) will help them rise, won’t be overwhelming and allow them to adapt. The second tier is made up of those who are most likely going to make up conference team, so we’ll get them to higher level meets and warmer climates, like California, to race in. And the third tier, the very top, we will do whatever we have to in order to get you to the races that they need to get to. Obviously, we don’t always get to Millrose or Boston, and that may never happen again, but the opportunity presented itself so I had to look in terms of: what can we do to raise his level of performance, raise his overall experience in competition so when he moves to the next stage of his competitive life — outside of Southern Utah — he has come out fully educated, so to speak, ready to take on that next stage? So I have to be flexible, and there’s a little bit of promotion there as well. Anytime you can get your university out there on big stages it speaks well of the university and what’s happening in the program. In my opinion, you have to be flexible. If we have to pull out of a meet, we have to be flexible to pull out of meets. If we need to attend a meet and that opportunity arises, we need to be able to attend.
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