You Don’t Have to Be an Olympian to Run Like a Champion

Jefferson track coach Dave Thomas shares tips for beginner to experienced runners.

Dave Thomas knows running. In fact, he may be the most decorated runner in Jefferson’s history.

The 12-time CACC Coach of the Year has led the women’s and men’s cross-country teams to a combined 14 championships. He also doubles as track and field coach for the women’s and men’s squads, which saw the Rams set five new school records during the 2021 season.

Personally, Thomas has logged over 120,000 miles and competed in 800-plus races, including a whopping 76 marathons (17 of those being the famed Boston Marathon). Among his many other accomplishments, he trekked 133.5 miles in 24 hours and ran from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. Read more of his impressive running résumé here.

Coach Dave Thomas
Coach Dave Thomas has led the women’s and men’s cross-country teams to 14 CACC championships.

The Olympics will kick off July 23 in Tokyo, and millions will be fixated on the world’s greatest runners. Seeing these athletes in action will surely motivate some people to lace up running shoes for the first time and others to push toward their personal bests.

However, Thomas will quickly remind people that you don’t have to be an Olympian to run like a champion. The long-time Jefferson coach shares tips for beginner and experienced runners to improve their performance—and have fun while doing it.

For people who’ve never run before, what’s the best way to begin?
First, visit a running specialty shoe store. The salespeople have a vast knowledge of all the brands and will find the right one for you. Remember: Running shoes should be changed every 400-500 miles.

Man running in Philadelphia
Beginners should start at an easy level and slowly increase their duration, pace and number of runs per week.

Second, start low and build slow. This means to set goals and decide on a training program: how many times per week, how long to run for and the intensity (or pace). Start at an easy level and slowly increase duration, pace and number of runs per week. To help with motivation and direction, set concrete goals (for instance, compete in a 5K race) and keep track of your progress.

Start your running program on a 400-meter track or a measured course to chart your improvement. At first, consider mixing in some walking with your running until your overall fitness improves. An initial goal can be to run for at least 20 minutes without getting out of breath.

How can more experienced runners shake up their routine and improve performance if they feel like they’re stuck in a rut?
Try adding some workouts that are a staple of elite runners’ programs, such as intervals, hill repetitions and fartlek training. Intervals could be done once a week at a track or a course with measured distance markers. After a warmup run, run a specific distance (say 400 meters) at a faster-than-usual or specific race goal pace. Then, run at a slower pace for 400 meters to catch your breath. Repeat this four to six times and end with a cooldown.

People running up Art Museum steps
Training on steps or a hill can help to break up the routine and improve performance.

Hill training is done within a training run. Find a specific hill with a moderate incline (4-6%) and 150-200 meters long. Run at a moderate-to-fast pace up the hill focusing on a fast arm swing and knee drive to the top. Jog down and repeat five or six times.

Fartlek running (a Swedish word for “speed play”) is used during a normal steady-paced training run. Within the run, mix in various pick-up sprints from 1-3 minutes long. The fartlek process works on breaking up the steady-pace training run and allows you to handle different paces.

What advice do you have for runners to stay injury-free?
Start low and work slowly in increasing your training program. Spend 7-10 minutes before and after each run with a dynamic warmup and cooldown. Incorporate weight training twice a week with core exercises to increase strength and flexibility. Get 8 hours of sleep. Most importantly, listen to your body on when to take a few days off and step away from training.

man stretching
Runners should spend 7-10 minutes before and after each run with a dynamic warmup and cooldown.

Do you have any favorite pieces of equipment that will make running more enjoyable or improve performance?
I recommend a GPS watch that charts training run length and monitors your heart rate. Upload workouts to Strava, which gives you feedback on the route, elevation, pace and more. It’s great for guidance and motivation.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see runners make?
Increasing training too fast; not taking enough time to learn and practice proper running form and technique; and a lack of sleep and restoration. All these factors eventually will lead to injury and/or illness from too much stress on various joints or overtaxing the body.

woman running on a trail
Coach Dave Thomas says Belmont Plateau Park, the Valley Green Wissahickon Trail and the Pennypack Park Trail are some of his favorite places to run around Philadelphia.

What are some of your favorite places to run around Philadelphia?
Belmont Plateau Park offers picturesque views of the city skyline and is home to one of the most historic cross-country courses in the country. I also love running the Valley Green Wissahickon Trail (the main bridle path as well as the many side trails) and the Pennypack Park Trail in Northeast Philly.

Do you have any other running tips for beginner and experienced runners?
Train with others for motivation and to make running more enjoyable. Look for a club or team that fits your running level and goals.

Stay positive. Every runner will have subpar workouts and races, but the champions learn from their mistakes and setbacks and work to do better next time.

Finally, never give up. Runners come in all shapes, sizes and speeds. Running is one of the best lifetime activities for maintaining optimal mental, physical and spiritual health.

, ,
Health, Life at Jefferson