Meet The Elementary School PE Teacher Who Is The Mastermind Behind America’s Greatest Prep Distance Runner

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By Jonathan Gault
February 4, 2016

When Joan Hunter, the mother of high school distance star Drew Hunter, first found coach Tom Schwartz in 2009 on the Internet, she wasn’t looking for someone to coach her son. She was looking for someone to coach her.

Hunter, who owns a personal best of 2:11 in the 800 from her days at West Virginia University, was 45 years old back then, a masters runner in search of help. Until that point, Hunter had mainly trained as a low-mileage 400/800 runner, incorporating many hard intervals into her training and minimal aerobic work. Though she experienced success with this approach — during the winter of 2009, she ran the 400 in 62 and the 800 in 2:24, collecting indoor national titles in the 45+ age group in each event — Hunter felt sore constantly and battled a series of injuries, from plantar fasciitis to piriformis issues.

A high school coach herself, Hunter was no novice, but she knew it was time for a change. She took to the Internet for answers and eventually stumbled upon the teachings of Schwartz, a guru who posted under the handle “Tinman” (a nod to the movie Tin Cup and the Tinman triathlon in Menomonie, Wis.) on messageboards like the ones on TheRunZone.com and this very site.

Schwartz’s beliefs were the antithesis of Hunter’s approach; in his view, hard anaerobic sessions were overrated. Too often, he had seen runners hammer through fast session after fast session only for their bodies to collapse under the stress. Instead, he preached a system based on developing endurance through higher volume and slower intervals. Hunter was impressed by the respect Schwartz commanded on the boards and the success of his athletes.

“I was intrigued by how different the approach was from what I had done with high schoolers and as a coach back in the early ’90s with my high school team,” Hunter said. “He was so successful that I said, ‘I’m going to try this.’”

Hunter began following Schwartz’s principles and by the fall, he was coaching her officially. He boosted her mileage to 35 per week (previously she had maxed out at around 20) and by following his system, she felt stronger and earned results immediately. Her times dropped across all distances, from 400 to 5k. Hunter was so stricken by her success that when she and husband Marc (a 13:36 5k runner who placed 4th at NCAA XC in 1977 while at Cleveland State) took over as coaches at Loudoun Valley (Va.) High School in the fall of 2013, she decided to incorporate what she learned from Schwartz into the training plans she devised for her own runners. Drew, currently the best high school distance runner in the United States, was a sophomore on that team.

***

Hunter made it look easy in his Foot Locker win in December

Hunter made it look easy in his Foot Locker win in December

By now, you’re surely familiar with Drew Hunter. Last year, as a junior, he became the first high schooler to beat two-time Foot Locker champ and sub-4:00 miler Grant Fisher in two years, handing him losses at the Brooks PR Invitational (2-mile) and USATF Junior Championships (1500). With Fisher off to Stanford in the fall, Hunter assumed the role of top dog during the cross country season, crushing the competition in every race he entered, including a course-record 14:26 5k at Foot Locker South and a commanding 12-second victory at Foot Locker finals. In his most recent race, a flat-track 3,000 at the Camel City Elite meet on Saturday, he became the first U.S. high schooler to break 8:00 indoors, running 7:59.33 to smash Edward Cheserek‘s previous HS best of 8:05.46.

Hunter possesses the kind of rare talent that draws praise from all kinds of different sources. Except for his coach.

“I don’t think Drew is especially talented,” said Schwartz, who helped the Hunters structure Drew’s training early in high school and assumed the role of his full-time coach late last spring. “There are lots of guys equally talented in America. I think far too many people think that it’s all about his talent and that’s ridiculous in my view. There are dozens of kids in America that can run under 9:10 that could be running in the 8:40s if they were trained properly; they just aren’t. Drew is probably equally talented to 15 other boys in America.”

Schwartz, 48, is an empiricist, and after over three decades of researching, experimenting and adjusting, he’s developed an unshakeable belief in his system. A native of the tiny village of Forreston, Ill., Schwartz ran in high school and in college, first at Southern Illinois University and later at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, a Division III powerhouse, where he transferred after his freshman year in 1986. Debilitating leg pain, brought on by compartment syndrome, limited Schwartz to a maximum of 35 miles per week and modest personal bests of 4:01 (1500) and 15:03 (5,000).

But in striving to overcome his own issues, Schwartz discovered a new passion. He became fascinated by the process of becoming faster and graduated with a major in exercise science in 1989, sticking around to earn his master’s in the same discipline in 1991. UW-La Crosse was the perfect breeding ground for Schwartz’s ideas. While injured, Schwartz helped coach the school’s distance runners and later became a graduate assistant. He also spent time working in the school’s Human Performance Laboratory, where he tested athletes’ lactate levels, oxygen consumption and ran through a host of other physiological data.

He applied what he learned in the lab on the athletes he coached, and by making note of which ideas worked and which didn’t he was eventually able to synthesize his findings into a philosophy, which he presented as part of a statistics class.

In humans, there are two types of muscle fibers, Type I (slow-twitch) and Type II (fast-twitch). Type II fibers can be subdivided into two categories: Type IIa (aka intermediate or fast-twitch oxidative) and Type IIx (fast-twitch glycolytic). Type I fibers use oxygen to produce energy and take a long time to fatigue. Type IIx fibers do not use oxygen, relying solely on glycogen to produce energy. These muscle fibers contract faster and more powerfully than Type I fibers but fatigue quickly.

Schwartz’s key postulation centers around Type IIa fibers. Type IIa fibers produce energy and sustained power — say the kind a runner would need during the final 400 meters of a mile — but because they can be trained to use oxygen to help produce energy (like Type I fibers), they are more resistant to fatigue.

But how to accomplish that? Schwartz had an idea. He called it critical velocity (CV) training. Schwartz calculated that the CV pace — which he calculated to be 90% of a runner’s VO2 max — was the perfect pace to train at to develop Type IIa fibers to use oxygen to produce energy. Go faster than CV pace and fatigue builds up too quickly in the muscles. Go slower and you start working the Type I fibers instead of the Type II fibers.

“[CV pace] is the hub, that’s the fulcrum,” Schwartz said. “I put training on either side of it for other purposes. To be a multidimensional runner, you have to have some speed, you’ve got to have some generalized aerobic endurance. But if you focus on the CV, which I call the center point of the stamina range, everything else will fall into place.”

A typical workout Schwartz assigns Hunter is five to seven 1k reps at CV pace (for Hunter last fall, that was about 3:00/kilometer) with 200 jog recovery. Hunter runs plenty of strides, and almost all of his workouts include something shorter and faster at the end — 4×200, for example. But those faster segments are never anything long or overly stressful, which means Hunter is able to recover from them quickly.

All the science in the world is useless if an athlete doesn’t buy into his coach’s training. That’s not a problem for Hunter, who hopes to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a coach one day as well.

“He is a genius,” Hunter said of his Schwartz. “He knows so much. I’ll be talking to him on the phone and he’ll just name off stories of runners of why they do certain things and why they don’t do certain things. The knowledge he has for the sport is awesome. It’s something I admire… I love the sport and I want to learn from it too, not just for myself, but if I can help other people one day in the sport.”

***

Hunter and Schwartz at Foot Lockers in December

Hunter and Schwartz at Foot Lockers in December (photo courtesy Tom Schwartz)

When Schwartz first began coaching Hunter, he would consult with Joan about workouts and strategy. Joan would apply his teachings and ask Schwartz when any questions arose. At the end of seasons, however, this approach could overwhelm Joan, as she’d have to balance Drew’s unique needs as an elite runner with the rest of her team. Last year, Schwartz took over completely for the final month and a half of the season, a time period which saw Hunter run a 4:02 mile and collect those two wins over Fisher. Heading into the 2015 cross country season, he and Joan decided that Schwartz should maintain full control of Hunter’s training. Now he communicates with Drew directly (sharing the information with Joan) and Drew texts Schwartz frequently with updates or questions. The two talk on the phone every other week.

“Tom can focus on just what Drew needs, which is nice, while I’m focused on our whole team,” Joan said.

Still, Schwartz has a lot more on his plate than just coaching Hunter, who is one of just 25 athletes that Schwartz coaches remotely through his private business, Tinman Endurance Coaching (other clients include Kevin Miller and Sweden’s Tore Axelsson, both champion masters runners). Schwartz does not charge the Hunters a fee — each year he offers to coach one athlete for free to give back to the sport. When he’s not coaching, Schwartz, who lives in Twin Falls, Idaho, teaches physical education at an elementary school. He’s also working toward his Ph.D in health and human performance at Concordia University Chicago.

Schwartz one day aspires to coach at the Division I level, but he knows at this point in his career it may be hard to get a shot.

“It’s a very close-knit situation that typically rewards people who were athletes at that level,” Schwartz said. “Many outstanding high school and small college coaches, who have proven record of developing runners and teams to high levels, cannot get an interview. Although I’ve been a consultant to university coaches many times over the years, I never been offered an interview — though I’ve applied many times. It seems unless you know someone, it’s really hard to get an interview for a university coaching position.”

Speak to Schwartz about training, and you better give him your full attention: topics can include anaerobic glycolysis pathways and nonlinear mathematics (which Schwartz uses to account for air resistance in calculating VO2 max). Schwartz speaks with the confidence of Donald Trump, and he has a slogan to match.

“I’m trying to make America a stellar distance country again,” Schwartz said.

Schwartz possesses this self-belief because he’s seen his system work across several different age groups. He’s consulted with high school, college and junior national coaches New Zealand, Scotland and Ireland. When UW-La Crosse won the Division III XC title in 1996, Schwartz was the one who wrote their training schedule. At the Olympic Trials in 2004, Schwartz was contacted by Whitty Bass, the boys’ cross country coach at Wilde Lake (Md.) High School (Editor’s note: Yes, the same high school that accused murdered David Eisenhauer attended). His team had finished eighth or worse at the Maryland 3A state meet in each of the previous three years. After consulting with Schwartz, Wilde Lake finished fourth that fall and won the meet the following two years. And Joan Hunter’s Loudoun Valley boys’ squad won the Virginia 3A state meet this year; her girls were second.

“The only time [my system] doesn’t work is if someone doesn’t apply it correctly,” Schwartz said. 

He knows there may be some people who doubt his approach. Between last July and Foot Locker finals, Hunter took just one day off, and even after Foot Lockers, his break lasted just three days. Assuming Hunter stays healthy for the rest of 2016, Schwartz may give him a couple of days off after indoors, but beyond that he’ll train straight through until the middle of June. Because Hunter wasn’t going to the well in workouts, Schwartz saw no need to take significant time off. Instead, he adhered to his motto: keep the ball rolling. (For a deeper explanation, see here).

“This year, I was just getting going at Foot Locker South and Foot Locker nationals,” Hunter said. “His training doesn’t burn me out, it doesn’t make me tired, so I don’t really feel like a big break is necessary.”

Drew Hunter’s Mileage Since
2015 Foot Locker CC

Week 1: 44 miles
Week 2: 58 miles
Week 3: 74 miles
Week 4: 78 miles
Week 5: 77 miles
Week 6: 51 miles
Week 7: 70 miles, including 3k race

Schwartz questions conventional wisdom. He won’t incorporate something into his athletes’ training unless he knows exactly how and why it will make them faster.

I’m not trying to rush people into top fitness by hammering them with VO2 max or so-called ‘goal pace’ training, which has really no physiological foundation,” Schwartz said. “Our body’s only where it is right now. But humans think, ‘If I just run at goal pace, I’ll automatically get there.’ Um, that’s not how your body develops. There’s no physiological basis for that.

“Now if you want to run some mile-pace 200s or something at the end of a workout when you’re a 5k runner to work on your turnover, your coordination, improve your running efficiency, economy, that’s a whole different game.”

Last summer, Nike invited Hunter and several of the nation’s top high school distance runners to its Elite camp in Portland. On the second day, the campers ran a hard three-mile effort, everyone finishing between 15:20 and 15:30. The next day, the group began to hammer again. Fifteen minutes into the hour-long run, Hunter and Aidan Tooker, a runner from New York, had been dropped; they were 100 meters off the back of the pack.

Hunter called up Schwartz. He was confused. Most of the campers there ran 6:00/mile pace on their easy days; Hunter’s easy days were usually at 7:00/mile. Why are they doing this, Drew wanted to know. Does everyone run this fast in college?

“They’re in the conventional mindset of America that you need to push, push, push, push all the time,” Schwartz said. “They don’t know what they’re doing and they have coaches that don’t even control them. Their coaches don’t understand that they should run slower.”

Schwartz knows that such statements can come across the wrong way, but they’re the product of a firm belief in his system.

“I am too blunt sometimes in my words,” Schwartz said. “I do not intend to remove honor from my colleagues or dismiss their contributions to our sport.”

***

Hunter signed an autograph after breaking Cheserek's record

Hunter signed an autograph after breaking Cheserek’s record

There is no universal blueprint for building a champion. Schwartz has found a plan that works for Hunter, and it’s one that he’ll follow all the way through the 2016 track season. The ultimate goal: run fast enough to participate in the 1500 at the U.S. Olympic Trials at Hayward Field, Hunter’s future home track (the automatic standard is 3:38.00). After that, Schwartz will pass the baton to Andy Powell at the University of Oregon. It’s a natural fit; Marc Hunter has a degree from Oregon and raised his children as Ducks fans.

“We’ve talked a lot with Andy about Drew’s training and Andy has been very open about what he thinks he would do with Drew and we’re comfortable,” Joan Hunter said. “I think Andy will take good care of Drew, I really do. Andy has some higher-intensity stuff in his training than maybe we have right now, but because Tom has increased Drew’s mileage and increased some of the intensity in some of the workouts, I think Drew’s going to transition nicely to Oregon.”

Indeed, Schwartz said that he could give Hunter more mileage than the 70 per week (including a 90-minute long run) he typically assigns. But Hunter’s still only 18, and he doesn’t see a need to push him hard at this point in his career.

“This is all buildup for the future,” Schwartz said. “I’m building him up to be a great collegiate and post-collegiate runner.”

There’s no telling how good Hunter will be in the future, but in the present, he’s pretty damn good. His 7:59 on Saturday will only add fuel to the hype machine, but Hunter has learned to tune the voices out.

“What everyone else says is kind of irrelevant to me,” Hunter said. “I just want to go out there, do my best, and if I have a bad race, everyone has bad races [at some point].”

Hunter is entered in Saturday’s Armory Track Invitational in New York, where the assumption is that he will chase a sub-4:00 mile against pros such as Chris O’HareDaniel Winn and Cristian Soratos (Alan Webb, at 3:59.86, is the only U.S. high schooler to break 4:00 indoors). Hunter will return to the Armory two weeks later, where he’ll race in a B heat of the professional mile at the Millrose Games. For her, part Joan Hunter is trying to keep things in perspective. She may be a coach, but first and foremost, she’s a mom.

“I don’t think Drew ever actually said his goal is to break 4:00 in his first mile on the track next week,” Joan said. “That would be lovely. I think Drew said ‘Oh, that would be great,’ but I don’t think he meant by that that [sub-4:00] is his goal necessarily. He would like to do it, but he’s only going to have two shots [indoors], I think.”

Indeed, Joan said that what excites her son most is being able to race people rather than the clock. He got that opportunity last week in Winston-Salem, and aside from his boyish face, it was hard to distinguish Hunter from the professional and college runners he faced. His six-foot, 145 lb. frame is sculpted, with arms and shoulders much larger than one is accustomed to seeing on a distance runner, perhaps because Drew’s weight training includes a few exercises that his mom admits are “probably useless except for aesthetics” like bench press and bicep curls (Editor’s note: poster “runthe8” is Joan).

Hunter is prepared for the scrutiny that awaits him at the professional level; the fans inside the arena certainly paid more attention to Hunter than anyone else in the men’s 3,000. Even as Garrett Heath and Lawi Lalang ran away from Hunter up front, the fans still screamed for the high schooler. The loudest roar came not when Heath crossed the finish line first in 7:48.48, but when Hunter’s record-breaking time popped up on the video board hanging from the ceiling just past the finish line. Afterward, he handled his responsibilities with poise. Hunter patiently answered reporters’ questions, signed the shirt of a young fan and chatted with Heath. It was hard to tell which one was more excited to talk to the other.

Two hours later, as the fans trickled out of the JDL Fast Track, Hunter ran some post-race strides, one more step in the plan mapped out for him by a man over 2,000 miles away. Over the next few years, Hunter will be met by question after question about sub-4:00s, NCAA titles, Olympic teams. For now, at least, he doesn’t have to worry about them. He’s happy to place his fate in the hands of Schwartz, a man whom he believes has all the answers.


More: Talk about this article on our fan forum/messageboard: MB: Get the inside scoop on Drew Hunter’s training – LetsRun’s feature on Tom “Tinman” Schwartz
*Drew Hunter’s Coach Reveals Hunter Only Took Three Days Off After Foot Locker and That “If He Runs Successfully, Then He’ll Probably Break the [HS 3k] Record”
*Drew Hunter Archives

Editor’s note: The section of this article dealing with Type IIa muscle fibers has been updated. Initially, LetsRun wrote that Schwartz said Type IIb muscle fibers could be converted to Type IIa muscle fibers; in fact, what Schwartz said is that Type IIa fibers can be trained to use oxygen to produce energy.


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