Get to know Coach Heather Burroughs

January 15th 2020

According to Merriam-Webster, a coach is defined as 'a person who teaches and trains an athlete or performer.' But, as someone who has coached a variety of runners over the past decade, I can tell you this definition barely scratches the surface of what is involved with being a coach.

Being a coach is much more than just teaching and training athletes. A quality coach wears a multitude of hats. Coaching requires acting as a confidante, a friend, a monk, and a counselor.

It's a gratifying occupation, but one that comes with plenty of challenges. This is particularly the case if you're coaching at the collegiate or professional level. Coach Heather Burroughs is well acquainted with both.

Heather was Colorado's first female three-time cross country All-American and has been coaching at the University of Colorado Boulder for more than twelve years. Heather's worked with some exceptional athletes including Jenny Simpson and Kara Goucher.

Read on for some insight into the trials and travails of being a 'coach'.

1) Was there a singular moment or 'epiphany' when you realized you wanted to coach? Tell us a bit more about your coaching journey.

Until I was about 25 years old, I was totally resistant to the idea of being a coach. Many friends, family and acquaintances had told me, “You should coach some day” and my response was, “Never!”. Partly that was because I was so absorbed in my own training and racing whereas coaching requires one to be very invested in others.

But, I also didn’t believe I’d be any good at it. I thought that it was hard enough to figure out what works best for me. Now imagine doing that for a team of 20 or 30 or 40 other runners. Yet once I retired from serious training and racing, I realized I still wanted to figure out this sport and I really liked that challenge. For a few years after graduating, I worked in CU’s academic services center and still interacted with the team and followed their competitions. I was more excited about them than my actual job.

2) What is it you find most gratifying about coaching? Conversely, what do you find most challenging about coaching?

Coaching can be a roller coaster with big highs and lows. There’s always something to look forward to in the near future. Not many jobs are like that and it can be addictive. Also, in general, our athletes are highly motivated and excited to be at practice or the competitions. I can’t say they look forward to math class or chemistry exams with the same enthusiasm. I’m grateful to be in a profession where athletes and other coaches show up with that kind of energy. They aren’t moaning about showing up for work on Monday.

And yet, what’s most challenging is how hard one consistently has to work to be good in such a competitive environment. We work 6 to 7 days a week. College distance runners compete in cross country from August to November, indoor track from December to mid-March and outdoor track from mid-March to June. The only “off season” is about 6 weeks in the summer. And that’s when the new recruiting cycle begins.

3) Most of our runners have never trained at the collegiate level. What does a typical week of training look like? How many miles do your athletes log? What other activities do your athletes engage in?

At CU, our athletes practice 6 days a week and run on their own for the seventh day. That’s a Saturday unless we’re competing and shift that “day off” to a week day. We always meet on Sunday morning for our long run which most of the team feel is the most difficult session of the week.

Mileage varies depending upon age, training history, event area emphasis and durability. But generally, our women run 45-75 miles per week and our men run 70-100 miles per week. Besides training, our athletes have pretty typical lives – school, food, dating, video games, movies, social media and sleep. But being a serious, successful collegiate athlete definitely puts a damper on one’s social life, especially anything occurring after 11:00 PM!

4) It sounds like training at the collegiate level can be very demanding. As self motivated as your runners might be, I imagine there are times when fatigue (physical and mental) sets in. How do you help your runners fight through these 'valleys' and stay motivated throughout the course of a long season?

As I mentioned, college distance runners are in-season for 10+ months of the year. No other NCAA athletes have such a long competitive stretch. Frankly, I believe it’s too much.

Fortunately, we’re able to reduce the importance of our indoor season, largely because we’re one of the only major Division I schools that doesn’t have an indoor Conference championship. In addition, we schedule mandatory time off after the cross country and outdoor track seasons.

But, the most important way to avoid such fatigue is to orchestrate the training and racing with an understanding of these problems: know the benefits and stresses of different types of training and racing, create a logical, long-term plan and always be ready to adjust for individuals or the entire team based on empirical data.

5) In addition to working with collegiate athletes, you also work with some exceptional post-collegiate runners such as Kara Goucher. Is there a marked difference in your approach to coaching collegiate athletes as opposed to post-collegiate/professional athletes?

Yes, both Mark Wetmore and I work with a group of CU post-collegiate professionals including Kara. There are similarities and differences in our interactions with this group and the CU team. All of them are successes of the CU system, so we apply the same fundamental training philosophies to each.

Also, while the post-collegians aren’t technically a team, they have to function co-operatively as a group. We often meet up to 8 of them together so they still have to share our time. We don’t have any prima donnas!

Rather, they benefit from being in a group. Competitive running can be lonely and scary. Our pro women are so high energy and constantly impress me with how they can set aside their egos at practice.

Among them are 4 Olympians and a World Champion yet they interact like sisters instead of competing stars. Our relationship with them is more democratic now than during college; they have a bigger voice in training and racing decisions. They also have more day-to-day independence and meet us 3-5 days per week instead of 6-7 like the collegians.

And we expect more of them, both because they aren’t 18 years old and because that’s necessary to be successful at the next level.