We met Mary Johnson last summer when she wrote a personal essay for our Lane 9 Project (L9P) community, “Enough”. The sentiments resonated with so many in this space. The journey she has faced in recovery and finding her identity as an athlete is one many of you know well, no matter where you are on your own path.
The pure grit and determination in her words and on her face were motivating alone. But meet her in person, and you’ll immediately receive a warm smile and a tight hug. (Girlfriend is STRONG.) You’ll sit down for a meal and could stay to chat for hours. You’ll want to learn from her, soak in the old-age wisdom she has as a young, fierce, boss-lady athlete and coach. You might even want her to coach you, starting right then and there! (Hand-raised. She’s responsible for coaching me back to running shape for a potential marathon later this year.)
I was thrilled to pick her brain about coaching (as a fellow coach, knowing there’s always so much to learn), how she evolved in her approach to sport and competition, and what she wants her athletes to know about the big picture.
Tighten your laces and get a good warm-up in. This is a long one…
9 Miles with Running Coach and Eating Disorder Awareness Advocate, Mary Johnson (of Lift.Run.Perform.)
What (or who) inspired you to start a coaching business for runners?
Coaching is something I’ve wanted to do since I was in college. It was one of those “that would be a really cool job, but you can’t actually make a living doing it, right?!” dreams. So, I played it safe and got a regular 9–5 doing fashion marketing. After about 6 years of doing the fashion thing (and realizing it totally wasn’t for me), I started thinking about changing my career, and was thinking of either getting into coaching or going back to school to become a Physical Therapist.
I ended up getting laid off from my last job in marketing. It was such a blessing in disguise, and I realized it was an opportunity to completely change my life. I spent the entire summer of 2015 asking questions to people in the industry, understanding my options, and figuring out what I wanted to do next.
One of the first people I spoke with was someone named Todd who was a coach at the local strength & conditioning gym by my house, Ranfone Training Systems. Todd and I grabbed a cup of coffee and I picked his brain for 45 minutes…and then he asked if I wanted to intern at RTS for the summer, to see if I liked it. I was SUPER intimidated because I honestly knew nothing about strength training or lifting. I think my exact words were, “haha, I can’t do that, I don’t know anything. That seems really scary.”
He responded with, “See, the thing about fear, Mary, is that you just have to do what makes you scared. And the more you do it, and the more experiences you put yourself in that make you uncomfortable…the easier it gets.” I still think about this quote all the time.
So, I gave it a try and interned for the summer. It was humbling to start from scratch at the age of 27,but eventually, Todd was right, and I did start to feel at home at the gym. My internship ended and Mike Ranfone hired me as a part-time staff member that fall, and then eventually full-time in the new year.
From there, I started coaching runners under McKirdy Training in the spring of 2016, with James McKirdy. I was a little nervous at first, but virtual coaching came pretty naturally to me since I’m a big communicator and communication is essential when you rarely see your clients face-to-face.
The concept of my business, Lift.Run.Perform, actually came to me this past summer at the NE Oiselle Bird Camp. I did a presentation at the camp (my second year doing it) and at one point, I brought the group through the fundamental movements of lifting: push, pull, squat, hinge, carry.
In the middle of the squat section, I told everyone to stop and raise their hand if they thought they were doing it wrong. About three-quarters of the group raised their hands; yet the funny thing is that almost everyone was squatting correctly at that point. So, then I said, “What makes you think you’re squatting incorrectly?” And the resounding answer was that they just never had anyone helping them with their squat before, so they lacked confidence and understanding of what they needed to do.
I came home and knew immediately I wanted to offer a lifting service to runners that also helped with form and programming. A few weeks later, I built a website, asked my co-worker at the gym if he would help with programming, brainstormed a couple business names…and LRP was born. At first, I actually wanted to make the business a partnership with Ranfone Training Systems; but Mike (Ranfone) encouraged me to incorporate myself, and just dive in. I took his advice and never looked back. I wouldn’t say that Mike necessarily inspired me to start my business, but we definitely had a ton of heart-to-hearts in the beginning. Mike helped point me in the right direction and helped me stay confident in my decision.
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How has your college athletic career influenced the way you coach? And how you compete?
My novice (freshman) coach taught me the importance of buy-in, and how significant mental strength is. Our team was poorly funded, and we were a scraggly crew: all but one person was a walk-on. But our coach drilled into our heads that we could do anything we put our minds to, and we all bought into it 110%. We worked our asses off, both mentally and physically, and we ended up doing pretty well in some of our major spring races.
Collegiate rowing also made me realize how important it is to have a coach who gives a shit about you. We actually went through quite a few different varsity coaches, as our team was in a transition period. But all of my erg PRs happened when I had a coach who actually believed in me and pushed me to be better. So, I really make it a point to let my athletes know how strong and powerful they really are.
I take an empowerment approach as opposed to being condescending and controlling.
As a competitor, collegiate athletics made me realize how incredibly important having a break from focused sport is. The summer after sophomore year, I went home and trained my ass off. I ended up totally burning out and hated training for a solid chunk of my junior year. Then the summer after my junior year, I decided to teach myself how to scull (which is when you row yourself, in one boat, instead of rowing with a crew of people). I spent the summer doing lazy, easy, therapeutic rows in the Saugatuck River in Westport, CT. When I went back to school, I thought I would be so out of shape because I hadn’t touched an erg in almost 3 months…but I ended up having a breakthrough year, and was in the best shape of my life, up to that point. So, clearly — having a dedicated break in training was not only helpful mentally — but physically as well.
Given your experience with disordered eating in college, what are your thoughts on how we could protect and improve the nutrition education that young female athletes receive during college athletics?
In college, I had zero idea how to feed myself, let alone how to fuel for my sport. Obviously, a lot of my oblivion stemmed from disordered eating that began in high school; but I don’t think I really understood how important different nutrients and foods are until well after college. I understood that food was fuel…but I had no idea about the significance of protein or fats, or how sugars or carbs worked, etc..
If I had received nutrition support and education in college, I would’ve realized that food isn’t the enemy.
That said, I remember trying to see my campus therapist as a junior and the experience was horrible. The therapist was nice, but she had no idea how to really help me. Truthfully, I needed to be in an outpatient program, but the closest available resource was over 40-minutes away. I tried going a few times, but I couldn’t juggle everything, so I stopped going.
I honestly feel like eating disorders are such an issue on college campuses that schools should have 1–2 dedicated eating disorder therapists. If eating disorder therapy was more accessible in colleges, could you imagine how many people it would help?
As someone who has recovered from disordered eating, what’s something you wish all young/developing female athletes knew about their health and performance?
Not having your period does NOT mean you are in shape!!!! In college, I would get so upset when I got my period, because I associated having my period with being out of shape. Now I know how wrong that is — I was in the best shape of my life a couple years ago, running consistent 60–70 mile weeks and setting Personal Records constantly…and didn’t lose my period once.
In some sports, the weight loss game can be effective in lowering PRs; but that only lasts for so long before you start breaking. And those PRs just aren’t worth the sickness. Luckily, I never experienced any major injuries in high school or college, but I know it’s something that a lot of female athletes struggle with, especially in running.
Coming off your 2017 injury, how has your perspective shifted?
I’ve had a bunch of injuries over the past few years, so I’ve learned how to really enjoy the process of training and not just the PRs. But this injury from 2017 has taken these sentiments to a whole new level. After a year away from the sport, I just feel so happy and lucky to run and lift with intention again. I feel strong, balanced, a little timid; but really ready to start a new chapter. I really hate the word “comeback” because I just feel like I’m in a whole new headspace about training right now, and it’s so different from where I left off. I love training and I’m excited to run fast again, but I never want to go through the year I just had again. That really sucked.
That said, I do think it’s made me a better coach. It’s made me realize how important it is to treat the body as a whole, and not just chase symptoms. For months I just kept trying to rehab isolated areas of pain, which varied on a daily basis — from my hamstring, to my glute, to my lower back. I didn’t start making progress towards recovery until I took a step back, chilled out, and focused on being a well-rounded athlete. So that’s the approach I try to take with my runners when they’re dealing with an injury or flare-up, or even feeling sluggish. I take a step back and really evaluate the athletes’ situation as a whole, and try to understand stress levels, psychosocial influences, sleep patterns, etc.
The big picture matters.
From an eating disorder perspective, this year has been, quite honestly, revolutionary. When I first started rehabbing my injury, I thought I was screwed. Running did not “save” me from my eating disorder, but it definitely helped guide me to a place where I stopped fearing food, and instead saw it as a means for performance. And initially, when I first started rehabbing, my body (and mind) were a bit out of whack from not running every day. But I just kept focusing on doing what makes me feel good: moderate exercise, portion control, etc. Today I feel the healthiest and happiest about food I’ve ever been, which is such a big deal for me. And I can finally say that I am confident, strong, and am so happy with my body.
What do you consider your most meaningful personal accomplishment as an athlete?
I think my most meaningful personal accomplishment was when I first realized that not every race will be a PR, and the point of running (and life!) is to enjoy the process and love the training.
I was coming off an injury before Boston 2015, and a few months before the race, I was being a huge snob and told my coach that I wasn’t going to run the race unless I’d run a guaranteed PR. He was SO mad at me, and pretty much told me he wouldn’t coach me if I didn’t change my attitude. So, I straight up abandoned any sort of time goal. I continued with training with my normal “all in” attitude, knowing that I probably wouldn’t PR, but I was fine with that.
Then fast forward maybe 2–3 weeks out from the race, and all of a sudden, all of my training seemed to come together. Somehow, it actually seemed as though a PR might be within reach. I ended up running a time that was just a couple seconds shy of my PR, but it didn’t matter. It was actually the first time I hadn’t PRed in a race, but instead of seeing it as failure, I saw it as an opportunity to see how far I had come. To be honest, I was in a bit of disbelief that I had run so well…so it really showed me to trust the process and really focus on the experience of training as a whole instead of being obsessed with one single outcome or PR.
What’s something you’re working toward now and why?
I’ve been saying I want to get want to get my CSCS certification (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist) for a couple years now– I’m determined to make it happen in 2018. I was actually working with a coach in 2017 (for cross-training and mental relief), and he passed away in December from cancer. One of our last conversations was about coaching and the CSCS, and when he realized I didn’t have it yet he said, “oh what? Just get your shit together and take the damn test already!” So I feel like I really just need to sign up for it, study, and take the damn thing. I can’t say I’m excited to study for it, but I’m going to feel SO freaking accomplished once I do it. Game on.☺
Check out Mary’s work and coaching business: Lift.Run.Perform.
Follow along with her, @itsamarython on Instagram and Twitter.
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