Interview with Coach Dennis Barker of Team USA MN
Dennis Barker has been the head coach of Team USA Minnesota since its inception in 2001. Until 2013, he was also the head coach at Augsburg college in St. Paul Minnesota. He has an impressive resume,coaching “an Olympian at 1500 meters, 22 U.S. National Champions at 1500 meters, 3000 meters and 10,000 meters on the track; the mile, 10k, 15k, 10 mile, half-marathon, 20k, 25k and marathon on the road; 4k, 6k, 8k and 10k in cross country; and 2 USATF Running Circuit Champions.”
Sara and I had the chance to sit down with him recently, and ask him a bunch of fun, random questions, as well as some serious training stuff. This was some hard core running wisdom.
To make this a little more interesting, I emailed some of his athletes, asking for some insider information. All coaches have certain quirks, and I had heard that Coach Barker has a few (“Who’s my little buddy?“).
Ask an Expert?
This was originally going to be part of an “Ask an Expert” series, where we would trickle out one of the questions we asked over the course of several days. We scrapped that idea, and decided to just give you everything, in all its glory, in one shot.
Here are a handful of highlights from our conversation with Dennis. Make sure you listen to the whole interview to hear them in context.
11:00 – About doing strength training, or other supplemental stuff.
I grew up in a rural area and we just ran. Maybe I would have been a better runner if I had [done other stuff], but they weren’t available to me. If you want to be a better runner, you have to run.
14:05 – On dealing with setbacks.
Like most things in life, it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that determines your success.
15:00 – Best Burger in the World?
Bacon cheese burger from The Nook in St. Paul… it makes you really happy.
16:30 – QUESTION #1 – How do you transition from running longer distances to shorter ones?
When you’re doing what you want to do, I think you do it better…
You can reduce your mileage, but have better quality runs…
25:50 – Specific workouts for Jack [who asked the question]… 4X800 w/ 2 min recovery or descending ladder. 1600, (2min) 1200, (2min) 800, 400, (1min) 200 (1min).
Always train up one distance and down one distance. If you’re training for a 5k, I like to alternate between workouts of 10k workouts, and mile type workout. Trying to work all of your tools… little bit of speed, little bit of endurance.
30:32 – On getting athletes to relax…
If somebody’s having a bad workout and is all disappointed, I’ll go up and say something like, “who’s my little buddy?” Just to relax them…
32:25 – QUESTION #2 – 20 Mile Long Run?
Formulas like rules are meant to be broken… There is some benefits to someone going longer to have the confidence that they can finish the thing. See if they can finish it, then after they do that, see if they can go faster. Some people don’t need to run as far… more wear and tear and structural breakdown.
Everybody brings things with them from their past… and you don’t know why they work or don’t.
In my 30’s I had a formula that worked for me, but it didn’t work for everybody. At the end of 20 years, I was hearing something new… people bring so many psychological/emotional things to their running.
The long run comes down to an individuals thing. Basic principals apply to everybody, individual stuff…
37:29 – A random reference to Antonio Vega…
I’ve seen Antonio not calm… ask him what he said at 7 or 8 miles in US Half Championships to his competitors.
38:20 – Random reference to Meghan Peyton
Get Meghan Peyton to do burpees… she is a burpee beast.
A few more random quotes…
39:57 – “…you can never go wrong with Vanilla ice cream.”
40:45 – “De Loosa!” – DB International Unlimited.
42:22 – “Are runners softer now?” “Oh yeah! Without question.”
44:03 – QUESTION #3 – Should you do hill repeats, or run a hilly course?
Do both – run a hilly route and do hill repeats. Run a hilly course and attack the hills. Also work on your downhill running.
Hill reps are good, but recovery is long because you have to jog back down.
Great thing about road races is the challenge of the hills, and turns and wind… I don’t like pacers because it takes the competitiveness out of it…
49:13 – On coaching high caliber athletes.
Most rewarding when you figure out the puzzle together… I like to think I coach in a cooperative way… working together with each person to achieve their best.
What I really want from athletes is honesty, honest feedback, and I think I owe them honesty back. Not always, ‘hey that was great.’ If somebody isn’t doing what they should, they need to face up to it. Leads to better relationship and better running.
51:50 – On taking success or failure of his athletes personally.
I do carry it… both success and failure… real personal. You can’t not do it because you invest a lot into it as they do…
53:30 -QUESTION #4 – (from Jessica) On warming up before a race as long as a marathon… is it necessary?
For a warmup for a marathon, I would not do a dynamic warmup. It is reasonable to look at first few miles as a warmup – if you’re used to a certain warmup (elite)… do that.
Start a little easier, when you get the feel of the race, you can pickup it up. The longer the race, the less warmup you need.
56:21 – QUESTION #5 – How to Stay Motivated
You don’t always feel it… depends on your goals… stay focused on those… if you are in a phase where you’re not training for anything in particular… it can be hard to keep running without another goal.
Some days I decide I’m not going to run today… then I go out and feel better about it.
If I didn’t want to walk away from finish line disappointed, I needed to focus on my training.
1:00:33 – Most memorable race?
Gabe’s 3,000 m sticks out as a very memorable race…
Dennis also mentions that, “I’m the Godfather of St. Paul… there are guys who stay home and make pasta and protect me…” You’ll have to listen to the whole thing to hear what that’s about.
Coach Barker also started coaching non-elites (limited basis). He says he is,
…really having a blast with that. It’s a lot of fun… people are training for a lot of different things. Various backgrounds and abilities.
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