April 28, 2015
By Jane Horvat, `18
Breaking records, winning at elite meets and improving Notre Dame’s reputation as a strong track & field program are all results of the way Fighting Irish head coach Alan Turner structures his athletes’ training.
The importance that Turner places on balanced training groups alongside individualized training contributes to the success of his strong runners and strong program. No group represents his coaching strategy better than the men and women’s 400 meter group.
“The 400 is a very difficult event to train for yourself,” Turner says. “It’s going to hurt. It’s painful. So you need teammates while you’re doing the workouts to pull you at times and push you at times.
“About the older ones who’ve been successful, I say [to the underclassmen], `Look at them, try to emulate them, and try to keep up with them at practice. If you find yourself keeping up with the successful upperclassmen, guess what? You’re going to be pretty successful, too.'”
And this idea of progressive success is apparent in the current group of 400 meter runners.
Senior Chris Giesting and junior Margaret Bamgbose both hold school 400 meter records. Giesting can claim both indoor and outdoor distinction, having set both records as a junior. He set the indoor mark of 45.74 while finishing fifth at the 2014 NCAA Indoor Championships, while he followed with the outdoor record a few weeks later with a 45.53 at the Virginia Challenge.
Bamgbose ran a 52.10 at the 2015 ACC Indoor Championships in March to take the top spot among the Irish ranks, as well as set an ACC championships record. In fact, she, too, broke the outdoor 400 meter record at last season’s NCAA Outdoor Championships with a 51.72, though she sits at No. 2 on the record board as former teammate Michelle Brown also broke the record in the same race in 51.70.
Both Giesting and Bamgbose are two of the top 400 runners in the nation, but their success stems from the training they have received and their attitudes when they arrived at Notre Dame.
“When they came in as freshmen, they all had an open mind about my training,” Turner says. “I told them, `My training may be similar to what you had in high school or it may be different, but if you give 100 percent in everything you do, I promise you you’re going to run faster.’
“And once the first group of kids I had four or five years ago started running faster, the next crop that came along just fell in line with the group that had been successful and then they continued to be successful as well.”
For Giesting, both the individual and group aspects of training have groomed him to be the runner he is today.
On the individual side, Turner tailored Giesting’s training more specifically each year as their coach-athlete relationship grew.
“It’s changed every year really, the more I get to know him and the more he gets to know me,” Giesting says. “My freshman year we didn’t really know each other, so he was just going by the books on what type of training I should be doing.
“And so we tested that out for a year, and then as time goes by we tweak here and there. Now he’s going to know better than anyone what my body feels like at the end of the season. It really helps being able to know your coach so well that way he can individualize each workout and make you the best you can be.”
Turner individualizes these workouts by getting to know how his runners should best approach the event. There are two ways to look at the 400 meters, and individualization comes with understanding which aspect comes more naturally to each runner.
“The 400 is that event in the middle. It’s not an all-out sprint, but it’s also not an all-out endurance event,” Turner says. “So there’s a fine dance you have to dance between the sprint aspect and the distance aspect. Some people are more sprint-orientated, so then I emphasize the distance and endurance aspect and vice-versa with the endurance-orientated runners.
“I do have different drills for the different athletes but the majority of our workouts are the same. I just emphasize a little bit more if they are deficient in one specific area.”
Giesting and Bamgbose highlight the differences in how to approach this event. Giesting looks at the 400 as more of an endurance event. His long limbs allow him to approach the event with a different mentality than Bamgbose, who used to be a 400-meter hurdler and still thinks of this distance with a sprinter’s mindset.
After getting to know his runners, Turner can work with them individually on how to approach the event, but until he truly understands the way they think, their success comes from the training groups he puts them in.
“Besides the great coaching, the training group is how you get better,” Giesting says. “Every day, if you’re not feeling the best, someone else can help push you. That’s pretty much what we’ve worked towards. Everyone helps each other try to get better, and that’s what we’ve really done — improve everyone as a whole just by competition every day in practice.”
The work ethic of these groups goes all the way back to the original runners Turner inherited when he joined the Notre Dame coaching staff five years ago. That first group got the ball rolling and, since then, each year there have been runners who step up and lead within the group.Â
Both Giesting and Bamgbose owe some of their success to the runners before them who pushed them to be better, and, because of those now-graduated runners, they understand the importance of their own roles as leaders this year.
“It helps when you train with runners like Pat Feeney, who graduated last year and was a multiple time All-American in the 400 meters,” Giesting says. “Training with him every day, that’s how I got better and that’s how he got better. It helps a lot.”
Feeney now sits in second place on Notre Dame’s all-time performers lists, both indoor and outdoor, after Giesting took over the top spots.
“Last year, we had Michelle Brown who was really good at the 400 meters,” Bamgbose says. “She was always pushing me in workouts. This year, having [freshman Parker English] and some of the other freshmen who are all really competitive in workouts and in competition helps to push us all in our workouts and help us all run faster.”
After seeing how important the upperclassmen leaders were to their training, Giesting and Bamgbose have embraced their own leadership roles.
“It’s definitely different because in other years I haven’t had to be in that role, but I’ve been embracing it,” Bamgbose says. “I’ve been trying to help them and give them as much encouragement and advice as I can.”
English, a freshman runner who is turning out to be a main contender in the 400 meter running group, is in the position that Giesting and Bamgbose were in when they arrived at Notre Dame. She has entered into a strong, successful group with experienced leaders who are going to push her to attain the success that the 400 meters runners typically have.
“It’s definitely something to look up to,” English says. “When you see them in workouts, you try to stay close by with them. You know the kinds of times they run. You always strive to be that fast, you want to PR, you want to be able to stay with them in the workouts. It really motivates you because you know that if you can stay close to them then you can run close to their times.”
Already, English has cracked the top 10 on both Notre Dame indoor and outdoor performance lists in the event.
Combining the upperclassmen and underclassmen in the training groups contributes to Turner’s plans for his runners. No athlete is arbitrarily placed in a training group or in an event.
“My goal is to get those freshmen and sophomores scoring at the ACC and get them to nationals,” Turner says. “A lot of the freshmen when they first start, they’ll probably be a part of a relay to make it to nationals. So once they’re on the biggest stage for NCAA track and then the years going on after that, they’re not as nervous, they know what to expect and they know they deserve to be at that level.”
The group dynamic, in combination with the individualized training, has put Notre Dame’s 400 meter programs on the track & field map. Turner has built this program over the last few years, and now his runners are experiencing the kind of success that turns heads. For recruiting, the program’s success has only added to Notre Dame’s reputation.
“It takes years and years to build a reputation,” Turner says. “Still, when I recruit some kids they’ll say `Oh, well, [look at] Florida.’ And then I send them a video link from when we beat Florida at the [NCAA East Regional] meet a few years ago. I look at the national results and our kids were faster than Florida, whether guys or girls, and recruits realize, `Oh, wow, you guys really are one of the top schools for 400 meters.’
“So, again, it just takes time to get the word and reputation out there. But it’s slowly getting out there that if you want to run a good 400 meters, Notre Dame should be one of your top choices to come and run.”