Meet David Coetzee – the humble coach
01 January 1970
You can also listen to these podcasts directly from the Old Mutual app, which is available here.
Brad Brown: You’re listening to Old Mutual Live, great things start here, great things start now. Not too long to go now until the 2016 Comrades Marathon. We’ve been building up, pretty much since the Old Mutual Two Oceans Marathon, focusing specifically on Comrades and everything around that. We’ve chatted to some incredible athletes, contenders for the title, back of the packers and just a whole spectrum of athletes who are taking part as well as administrators around the Comrades Marathon.
It’s time now to chat to someone who has coached a whole bunch of athletes to Comrades success, at various levels as well over the years. It’s a wonderful pleasure to welcome our new guest onto the podcast, David Coetzee. David welcome, nice to touch base.
David Coetzee: Hi Brad, thanks very much for having me.
BB: David, you’re known as the ‘humble coach,’ you’ve done some amazing things with runners over the years. We’ll chat about some of those in a moment. But first and foremost, you’re a runner yourself. You come from a running background, you love the sport?
Running is in my blood
DC: Yes, running has been in my blood. I started running with my dad when he was coaching his group, way back when I was in Grade II, around ’78 or somewhere around there. Then I started running properly, myself, when I was in Standard 4, around 1982 odd.
BB: You were a pretty decent runner as well, you’ve a couple of good performances under the belt over the years.
DC: I’ve been honoured enough to have a couple of great races in the past. I have some nice times that I’ve run over various distances.
BB: David, what was your specialty, from a distance perspective? What did you love running?
DC: Me, personally, I loved running 1500m and cross country.
BB: It’s interesting you say that because there’s been lots of talk over the last, I don’t want to say last few months, it’s been a while now. Where if you look at the state of South African running and particularly our marathon runners; we’ve been struggling to produce world class marathon runners. If you look at the 80’s and the early 90’s, we were producing world class athletes on the track. We had a very strong cross country system and that’s almost fallen by the wayside and it’s showing in our marathon results.
DC: Yes, definitely Brad. When I was growing up in the 80’s, it was common to see our top runners actually running cross country on a Saturday afternoon in the winter. There’s a couple of Comrades greats, that I’ve sat next to when I was in Standard 6/Standard 7, that were racing 5000m on the track in the track season.
BB: It’s so funny you say that cause I saw a photo on social media this morning, I kid you not. I don’t know how many years ago, they were both very, very young. But a photo of Elana Meyer and Zola Budd racing cross country in national colours. I don’t know how long ago that was, but there’s a prime example.
DC: That was around ’84, I think, if I’m not mistaken, but don’t quote me on that. Yes, and you know what, great road runners were racing 5000m and 10 000m on the track. The problem we have nowadays is those guys are actually not seeing the track too often. We have too much marathons all over the country. The guys are literally racing marathons for money every weekend.
From good runner to great coach
BB: It’s a sad state of affairs and unfortunately economics, there’s a lot of things that drive that. But that’s a whole other discussion we can get into, I’m sure. Let’s talk about your coaching and the shift from you running to coaching athletes and how that all came about.
DC: Coaching, for me, sort of just became a natural progression, basically. I wrote my coaching exam for the first time in 1984 because some teachers, when I was in Standard 9, sponsored me to go to the schools which was a sort of a coaching weekend. But it was also a training weekend where teachers and other people were taught how to be coaches and whatever. We got to sit in on those lectures and whatever and I wrote my exams back then already.
BB: It’s been a long time that you’ve been coaching and around that side of things. What in your opinion makes a good coach David?
DC: A good coach is someone that can take individual athletes and work with them individually. Because no two athletes are the same. Like in life, no two people are exactly the same. You can have two people that are running the same time; in 1500 for arguments sake and the two of them are not the same person.
You can actually not give them the same programme. Because the two of them are definitely, without doubt, the tests have been done; running at different VO2 maxes and they’re running at their different potentials. I’ve seen guys with exceptional potential being beaten by guys that have less potential, in theory, because they work harder.
Don’t judge a runner by his social media posts
BB: It’s interesting you make that point about everyone being different, because that is so often the case. I think in today’s day and age with social media, it’s so easy to get caught up in that comparison game. Where you look at someone and you see what they’re doing.
You think, oh gee, I need to be doing that and that’s probably a big pitfall that people fall into. They play that comparison game. They think they need to be doing what this guy is doing because it’s going to work for them. It doesn’t necessarily work that way.
DC: No, definitely not Brad. You see, the elite athletes are almost easy in a way, in that they do their running full time, etc. The normal club level or provincial level athlete, the person that’s on that borderline between the two, they work a fulltime job.
I can’t take a man that’s running a very good 1500m, but still has to work a fulltime job. Give him the same training programme I’d give someone who is living in a training camp, that can train three times a day and get to sleep for four hours in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, reality is not quite like that.
How to approach a race like Comrades
BB: I could do with that luxury, that would be amazing. Imagine a four-hour nap in the middle of the day, it would be phenomenal. David, the reason I wanted to actually get you on, it’s an interesting time of the year now. Obviously we’re not long to go to Comrades now and a lot of people just wing it. They belong to a running club and I hate to say it, but almost everyone is an expert in South Africa when it comes to Comrades.
Because they’ve run a few, they feel that they can impart whatever wisdom they’ve got. Yes, don’t get me wrong, there’s tons of wisdom around. But from a specific coaching perspective, if you want to improve your Comrades time; the best time to start planning it is now, around this Comrades. You’ve got a year basically until the next one and to be totally deliberate about getting to your goal.
DC: Yes Brad, I totally agree with you. Unfortunately, in South Africa, a lot of runners have done nothing, no running before they left school. Then they’ve got into road running and all they’ve ever done is run road races. There is a ton of old wives tales that revolve around that.
Essentially, when you run a race, you need to assess what criteria your body needs to be able to fulfil, to actually finish that race. Because no race is even equal. Training to run an 800m is not the same as training to run a marathon, which is nowhere close to training to run a 100km for example.
Running 87km, the Comrades, is going to demand certain things from your body. In training you need to adapt your body to deal with that. Yes, as you say, you actually need to take a long term build up on that. A year to two years to actually working up, running a 21km, a 32km, a marathon and getting a couple of 50’s under the belt. Then actually trying Comrades.
The importance of a good recovery
BB: It’s also interesting David, I wanted to make the point too, a lot of people will run Comrades this year and they might not reach the goal that they wanted to reach. Maybe they were going for a Bill Rowan and they get a Bronze, or they were going for a Bronze and they get a Vic Clapham, just for arguments sake.
Because of that disappointment, they feel that they’re going to come out of Comrades. They’re going to take two or three days off, maybe a week off, until the body is not that sore. Then they’re going to start smashing the kilometres again. As much as training for a specific race is important, resting and recovery is vital too.
DC: Yes, rest and recovery is very vital Brad. There’s a thing called a macro-cycle in training which a lot of people, normal road runners don’t quite understand. If you’ve built up to Comrades as your goal race, you actually need to work in a block of rest after that.
After Comrades, my guys normally, for the day after, the two days after, they get to jog 20 minutes. But then they take off two weeks where they don’t run at all. I don’t even want to know them, I don’t want to see them, I don’t want to speak to them. Then after that, for another two weeks, they can then go and jog or cycle or do whatever they want to. But no formal training starts until 4-6 weeks after Comrades, if that was their goal race.
BB: That is vital as well. David, then as far as looking for a coach. Say I’m an athlete and I’ve been pottering around and I’ve managed to finish a Comrades, but I really want to get better. What should I be looking for in a coach?
What to look for in a coach
DC: As a runner you need to find a training group or a coach that’s close to you. Then you also need to go and look at the coach’s accomplishments in the past. How many athletes has he worked with, which athletes has he worked with?
Then what’s vitally important between a coach and an athlete is trust. I need to trust that my runner is doing what I tell them and my runner also needs to trust that what I’m giving him is the correct thing for him to accomplish his goal. Whether it’s marathons, Comrades or even the shorter stuff.
BB: It’s so funny you mention the word ‘trust’. Because I see it so often too where someone will be coached by a coach and they get the programme and they almost second-guess what the coach is telling them to do. In the back of their mind they’re going, oh, I don’t know if this is the right thing for me to be doing.
So if the coach says runs 40 minutes, I feel like I should be running more, or I should be running harder. They’re second-guessing all the time. That’s the last thing you want to do. You need to place your trust in your coach and go, you know what, he knows better or she knows better. I’m going to sell-out 100% and follow this thing to the T.
DC: Yes, definitely, I agree with you totally. The athlete/coach relationship is solely based on trust and it’s a 50/50, it has to work both ways. You both need to trust each other.
BB: I’m going to ask you this because it must, as a coach, I’m not a coach, but I can imagine this must drive you mad as well. With South Africa being particularly such a Comrades mad country and marathons, there’s lots of people with lots of running experience. They’ve done lots of things, so you might be working with an athlete and you’ve done the assessment. You know what this athlete’s capabilities are and you’re telling them what to do.
Then they’re going and asking for advice from someone else. Because I see this quite often where they’ll be coached by one athlete but then they’re asking another coach or another athlete some advice. Using that advice, which could be conflicting to what you’re telling the athlete. It’s a fine line to walk.
DC: Yes, you know, coaching, I always say, I don’t re-invent the wheel, the wheel was invented by all the physiologists etc. Those guys back in the 50’s and that. But the way I approach training and the way I implement it, is different to the way another coach would do it.
Unfortunately, if you’re training with one coach and now you move to another coach, it actually takes your body a while to adapt to the new training methods. Bouncing around from one coach to another, getting information and input from varying different sources can actually be counter-productive to your performance at the end of the day.
The key to a better Comrades
BB: David, I know you’ve had some great success and you’ve coached athletes from all levels. But from a Comrades perspective, you’ve had some great successes of people really improving their Comrades times by a lot, I mean up to 3 hours I believe. What’s the key to getting better and faster at Comrades?
DC: The key to getting better and faster at Comrades is consistency and working one step at a time, one day at a time, one step at a time. Comrades is a very difficult race in that your actual race pace is a fraction slower than your normal easy run pace; like you would do a long run on a weekend, etc. Your Comrades race pace is actually slower than that.
It’s a fatigue that sneaks up on you from out of nowhere. I always say that Comrades is like – I can’t use the language I normally use for this – is like a 22 wheeler truck. You just think you’re happy and you’re going nicely and somewhere between 45-55 she’s going to ride over you. Look out the rear-view mirror and reverse back over you again. Then you’ve got to get up and carry on working and I’m sure you can actually relate to that Brad, having been there yourself.
BB: Absolutely! Please don’t remind me!
DC: I won’t.
BB: David, if people want to find out more about you and what you do and your coaching, can they get in touch with you? Are you taking on new athletes?
DC: I’m always happy to take on new athletes. There’s two ways to get hold of me. On Facebook there is a Facebook called Running Junkies, my contact details are on there. Or you can look up runningjunkies.net on the internet and that’s my web page.
BB: It’s as simple as that. David, thank you so much for joining us here on Old Mutual Live today, best of luck in the build up for the last run-in to Comrades, for you and your athletes. We look forward to catching up again soon.
DC: Cool, thank you very much Brad and I appreciate the opportunity to chat to you, have a great one.