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The Sheehan Approach

George Sheehan was a cardiologist who took up running again after entering adulthood. He was a prolific writer, father of 12 children, speaker at large running events, and a sports philosopher. But the core of what he became as he aged was this: a runner. He had a philosophical approach to running that some would argue bordered on the nutty side. A good chunk of his personal philosophy could be boiled down to sport being an important thing for its own sake. It allowed us to get in touch with a deeper part of ourselves, put ourselves through the wringer, distill ourselves, and find out what we were really made of.

Image and quote borrowed from This quote beautifully sums up the Sheehan philosophy towards racing.

I will admit, there is a certain romanticism to this approach to running. The idea of intentionally pushing our bodies as hard as they’ll go, for no other reason than to see if we can. This idea was part of the approach Steve Prefontaine used. His objective wasn’t to win, it was to have the winner have to earn the win. Pre was known for running his guts out, from the very second the gun went off. There wasn’t a lot of strategic chess style racing for Pre. He went out with the goal to make the entire field puke their guts out if they wanted to win. He was tough as nails. Unfortunately, from a competitive standpoint, if the goal is to win, we’re strategically better off letting someone else take the lead and then out-kicking them in the final portion of the race. It’s simply a more energy efficient than being the wind break for the rest of the pack.

Pre was such a Sheehan style runner that he famously went out full bore in the 5000m finals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich. Against the best runners in the world, he decided that he was going to put the screws to his competitors from the very beginning. One of these was the great Lasse Viren, who had previously beaten Prefontaine in the same event at another meet by staying on his shoulder, letting Pre do the work, and then out-kicking him in the final stretch of the race. That is, Viren didn’t really care what their final time was (it was still outrageously fast because of Pre pushing from the start), but rather only cared about finishing in the best place possible. If we jump back to the race at the Olympics, Pre led for almost the whole race, and then was passed by 3 others in the final stretch to get the heart wrenching 4th place. Reportedly, he approached Viren after the medals ceremony and told him simply “Chicken-S*** then, chicken-s*** now, chicken-s*** forever.” To which Viren simply raised the gold medal hanging around his neck and wiggled it back and forth while smiling. Pre though Viren was a coward for not going as hard a possible from the start. Viren thought Pre was dumb for not racing a tactically sound race. Fundamentally, they had two different views of what the race was about.

What it really boils down to is asking ourselves why we run. Do we run to place first at a race? Are we chasing a particular time standard/PR? Are we doing it to get in touch with those demons that hide deep within us? Or are we doing it to see how tough we are when the chips are down? Sheehan’s approach is for those of us who want to see what we’re made of. If we want to find out how tough we are when we’re really uncomfortable, then running our guts out from the start is one way to get there. This approach really is for those who are on the spiritual quest associated with the mystics of the endurance world, and not necessarily those looking to “win”. Note: this doesn’t mean that some of the more competitive folks can’t be in it to suffer, but rather they have a different overall goal than those who simply want to place first.

Personally, there are aspects to the Sheehan approach that appeal to me. But I try to save it for the long hard races that I do once or twice a year. In my opinion, it’s not the best way to approach training. For me, and most of my clients, the point of training is to be able to perform at our best capacity on race day and continue getting better (faster, more technically skilled, etc.) over time as runners. And if that’s the goal of training, running your guts out every day isn’t the best way to get there. Applying the Sheehan approach to every workout is a good way to get hurt. But there is something to be said for getting in touch with those inner demons and facing them down every now and again. As Sheehan would say: “It builds character”.

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