Mark Coogan is an Olympian, earned silver in the marathon at the Pan-American Games, and was ranked top 10 in the U.S. from the mile to the marathon. As a coach, he’s produced Olympic and champion runners, including Abbey D’Agostino, who embodied sportsmanship and courage at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.

 In his new book, Personal Best: Coach Coogan’s Strategies for the Mile to the Marathon, he shares his formula for achieving your running goals. The key lies in establishing balance between your running and the rest of your life.

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Many runners believe that single-minded dedication to the sport is the secret to success, and early in his career, Mark wouldn’t have disagreed. “I always felt like there was like this pressure on my shoulders to make the Olympic team or to do well,” he recalls. “I always felt like there was this load I was carrying around.” 

That changed when his daughter, Katrina, was born. “I remember holding her for the first time, or the second time, or something. My whole outlook changed, and it wasn’t about me running fast anymore or making a team. It was like, ‘How can I be a good dad to this little person in my lap?’ And I felt like a lot of the weight was lifted off my shoulders when I went to races then.” It was after this shift in focus that Mark had his greatest running success; he made the Olympic and World Championship teams after Katrina was born. “I think maybe having something that you really care about more than yourself just kind of took the pressure away from me.”

Just as expanding his perspective improved Mark’s racing, he’s seen how exploring other interests benefits the runners that he coaches. “They’re not just runners, they’re people,” he observes, “and they need some other stimulus, too.” 

He believes that flexibility is crucial to training successfully while still devoting time to other pursuits. “Before you set off on a marathon training program or a half marathon program or something like that, just remember that running is not number one, right? Your family is number one and then probably your job or whatever. Running is probably not the most important thing. So if you’re doing this really hard project at school or something like that, and you’re really mentally into it, you’re not gonna have a great workout. You just can’t, because you only have so much willpower and you’re putting it into this other thing. So I would say, just try to get something in; be happy that you’re getting a run in on a busy day like this, and getting a little bit in is better than nothing. And in a few days you’ll be done with this project or whatever and be back on it.”

As coach of New Balance Boston, he doesn’t hesitate to adjust a runner’s training plan. “I can tell when someone’s doing strides, if they’re probably not gonna have a good workout or a good session. And I can say, ‘All right, I can already tell you’re a little tired; tell me how you’re feeling,’ and if they say, ‘I’m tired’, I’ll be like, ‘All right, well, let’s just skip the workout today and we can do it tomorrow,’ or ‘Let’s skip the workout totally and just run until our next scheduled workout and get your legs back underneath you.’ You know, so you don’t start digging a hole.”

He recognizes that most runners don’t have as much latitude in their schedules as the runners whom he coaches, which he accounts for in the training plans in Personal Best. “I think my book allows you to navigate a lot of the daily things. I know things get in the way for a real person. You don’t know if someone’s gonna be sick, or you’re gonna be sick or, I don’t know, just a project comes up. There’s a lot more variables in real life that you don’t know are coming.”

Mark is encouraged that more attention is being paid to general health and mental well-being than it used to be. “Some of our competitors, it’s like, win at all costs, and that’s just not the way I operate and that’s not the way New Balance operates. New Balance, you know, they want us to do the best we can, but they want us to do it in a safe, healthy, fun environment. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable going into a gray zone or little things that I don’t think are above board. We just don’t do that, and I don’t do that, and I think the sport has been going more in that direction in the last few years.”

Being open about mental health, he believes, is especially important. He cites a Zoom call in which speakers from the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee addressed the prevalence of depression among young people, especially since the Covid pandemic began. “The woman that was leading this talk said, ‘Well, what do you do if you know someone’s feeling a little bit depressed? You tell them to get out in the fresh air; you tell them to join a team; you tell them to have a schedule; you tell them to exercise; you tell them to eat well.’ Well, that’s what everybody on my team does.” 

He told some of his team members about the discussion, and afterwards, one of them came up to him to talk about his own recent struggles with feeling depressed. “It felt really good to me that someone shared that with me, and I could share it in an environment that was just easy,” Mark says. “I just said matter of factly, ‘Hey, listen guys, I did the Zoom call last night with the USOC and this is what they said,’ and boom, it worked.”

He makes a point of telling his runners not to place too much importance on their running. “Whenever we go to a big meet or a big race, I make sure I remind everybody on the team that you’re obviously gonna try to do the best you can, but the world doesn’t really change if you make the Olympic team or if you don’t make the Olympic team. Your mom and dad are still gonna love you; your best friends and boyfriends and girlfriends and siblings, they’re still gonna be there for you, no matter what. It doesn’t change who your friends and family are, and the love that they have for you. I think it gets you to relax a little bit and you can just say, ‘All right, well, I’m just gonna go out there and do the best I can, and whatever happens, happens.’  And I think that’s a healthy attitude when you go into a race. You don’t have to set the world on fire. Just do your best and see what happens, and everything’s going to be great, no matter what.” 


Personal Best: Coach Coogan’s Strategies for the Mile to the Marathon

Mark’s Instagram

Abbey D’Agostino at the 2016 Olympics

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