Thinking like a coach

One of our annual Montana Moves challenges asks you to create your goals for the year. These goals could be personal, professional, or wellness related. (If you haven’t done so yet, this challenge runs until March 4th.) Every January, I must admit I get the most excited to write down my athletic goals for the year. Writing down my big goals gives me a framework, strategy, and plan for the year. For me, I know that in the absence of concrete goals, my exercise is less focused, less consistent, and less effective. As I went through my yearly practice of goal setting and planning this year, I was thinking about the process, and I wanted to share some of that process, because I believe it can be a tool for bridging the gap between having a goal and making it a reality. This is a process that coaches use to build programs for athletes, teams, or clients, but I think many of the concepts translate to goal-setting and planning regardless of the type of goal.  In other words, this process can be used to set personal, professional, or financial goals as well as physical.

Step 1: Begin with the End in mind

This is where your initial goal-setting will come in. I won’t spend much time talking about goal setting here—if you need a refresher, check out this post. The main thing is to begin with the end in mind.  What’s at the end of the journey? What are you trying to accomplish? Is it a big event? Is it something on your bucket list? Is it a personal best? Is it just to look smokin’ hot before your June vacation to some place warm? Be specific, write it out, and put these events on your calendar.

Once I have dates on my calendar, I like to figure out how much time I have to prepare for each event. I even have an app on my phone called “Days Until”. It’s a free, simple app that let’s me know exactly how many days I have until certain events. I even know how many days until my hundredth birthday (20,589 days, so there’s plenty of shopping days left for you to get me something nice). I also like to count how many weeks until these events, because a week is a nice, neat unit of training measurement that many coaches use, and is often referred to as a microcycle.

Steps 2 and 3: What’s the Big Picture? How does today’s workout fit into that?

Once I know how many weeks I have to train, I start thinking about the big picture. What are the general concepts I’ll need to work on over large chunks of time in order to reach my goal? One thing that I’ve done the past couple of years that’s worked for me is to divide my year out by the month–once again, a nifty, pre-made training unit. For me, I often use a month as a macrocycle. Anything from 4 to 8 weeks is common for a macrocycle.  It’s long enough to see a training effect before changing the emphasis of a program. This consistent varying of a training program allows for specific results, and is the best way to avoid the dreaded “training plateau”.

A couple of years ago, I made a marcrocycle spreadsheet that keeps me dialed into my training goals, and focused on upcoming events. Here’s what it looks like: 2018 Macrocycle (Neal) If you like it, feel free to copy it, modify it, and use it for yourself.

Let’s break down a few month-macrocycles from this spreadsheet as examples. Right now, my training focus is to build my aerobic base through cardiovascular training and cardio-strength training. My next event on the calendar that I’d like to be ready for is Run to the Pub, on St. Patrick’s Day here in Bozeman. So my microcycle (week) is structured to includ two running days, 2-3 resistance training days, plus cross-training days with things like skiing and swimming. Next month, I’ll bump the running up a little. In the meantime, each cardiovascular training session is designed to build up an aerobic base (nothing fancy, just building up volume) and each trip to the gym should focus on driving my work capacity (the ability to do high quality work while warding off fatigue). In this case, what I’m doing for resistance training is a complement to what I’m doing with my cardio exercise.

If you’re wondering, “Ok, Neal, you’re training for a road race, but you’re only running twice a week? Shouldn’t you be running more?” Perhaps. But alas, I’m not 23 anymore. I know my body, and these days I have to build the road miles slowly. Also, I like to ski, and XC skiing is great cardio. And finally, I’m not trying to hit my peak fitness until this summer, so I build up slowly to that, which helps me stay healthy. Showing up to a starting line healthy is always my first goal when designing a training program.  If you’re injured, you can’t train, and you can’t race–at least not well anyway–and the quickest way to get injured is to do too much too soon.

There are two events highlighted on my calendar this year. Those are the events I want to peak for and perform my best: the Bozeman Triathlon in June and the Montana Cup XC race in late October. My training goals and focus are designed to get me to those events fit and healthy. If I feel like doing something different, or I’m having a low motivation day, a quick look at my macrocycle calendar helps me re-focus. It’s on the wall behind my desk, along with my written out goals.

Now let’s look at October and compare it to February.  October is a peak month. My aerobic base will have hopefully been built.  So I’ll be free to do more intervals, tempo runs, and speedwork in preparation for the Montana Cup XC race. To me, this is the fun stuff, but it has to be earned. I can’t start with it. My microcycles (weeks) in October call for four runs per week, plus a bike and endurance lift for cross training.  That leaves a rest/recreation day for other fun. Perhaps some fall hikes.

After the Montana Cup, my racing is done for the year, and I switch gears to off-season strength, hitting the gym three times a week and lifting pretty heavy stuff (for me). This change is good for my body and my mind.

In summary

Start with your SMART goal, write it down, and get it on the calendar. Begin with the end in mind. Then, if it’s helpful, write out some training focuses–perhaps chunking them into macrocycles. Finally, write down your plan for the week (microcycle), making sure it fits into the big picture of what you’re trying to accomplish. On low motivation days, look at your goals. Ask yourself why you are going to exercise today.

Finally, always be able to answer these two questions:

“What is my goal for today’s workout?” (Now)

“What am I working toward?” (Big picture-future)

Happy training!


P.S. For more on training goals and how to manipulate exercise variables to reach goals faster, check out today’s webinar Sets, Reps, and Such.

Wellchat Episode X: Mountain Bear Expedition.

Episode 10: Special guest Lisa Verwys from the Museum of the Rockies talks about her upcoming Mountain Bear Expedition, an all-female ski traverse across Yellowstone National Park.

Learn more at:

The Montana Moves & Meals Wellchat is available on Itunes podcasts! Subscribe and take us with you for a walk, run, or drive!

Ridge Laps and The Law of Specificity

I had my spring training plan all laid out. After an off-season of strength training and skiing, I had begun to slowly add some running mileage back to the routine. The Run to the Pub was 9 weeks away. Plenty of time…

Then a friend asked me to be on her team for King & Queen of the Ridge, an annual Bridger Bowl event in which you see how many “Ridge Laps” you can do in a meager five hours. A ridge lap involves a nearly 500 foot vertical bootpack from the top of the Bridger ski lift up to the top of the ridgeline, and then you ski back down. Sounds fun right?

This is one of those events that I’ve heard of, and in the back of my mind thought, “Hmm, I wonder how I’d do in that? Maybe I’ll try that out someday.” It reminds me of a time in my younger life when I thought I’d really like to skydive. And then I got an opportunity to go skydiving, and it got real, and I thought—do I really want to skydive? Maybe I’ll just save that for later. (I’ve yet to go skydiving.)

Last year, the same friend asked me to be on her team, but I had a race the same day as the event. A fine and good excuse. This year, I had no excuses, and I agreed to join her team before I could think the better of it. This left me two-and-a-half weeks to prepare. No problem right? [Insert “freaking out” emoji]

scream emoji

So I’ve hurriedly modified my training for the past couple of weeks, and I’ve done some very specific training to prepare for the event. The most specific training I could do is to actually hike the ridge and ski down, which, luckily, I’ve been able to do a few times. But since I’m not to the point in my life where I can go ski everyday, I also have to supplement with other types of exercise.

The first sport-specific workout I did in preparation for this event, was hauling sandbags up and down a stairwell in the MSU Fitness Center. I did 10-minute intervals of stairs, while practicing different carries: front, suitcase, on the shoulder, under the arms, and overhead. Then I would do a one-minute ski drill followed by a three minute rest. I structured the workout to mimic the event itself: a long hike under load, a short ski run, and short break in between.

Then this weekend, in my garage, I did loaded step-ups on a box, except this time I wore my ski boots. Who needs ankle weights when you can just slap on a clunky pair of ski boots? Again, the theme is to mimic my movement and feel as closely as possible to the real thing.

The reality is, I’m not going to gain that much physical or cardiovascular fitness in two weeks. However, two weeks is enough time to have an effect on my neuromuscular system, the connection between brain and body—how the body moves and how the nervous system recruits and fires muscles. This in turn can lend a little mental edge and the confidence of knowing I have had a bit of focused practice for the event. If the training is challenging and specific, the actual event seems much easier mentally.

All of this has to do with what exercise scientists refer to as the Law of Specificity, Specificity Principle, or SAID Principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). This principle states that the body will make specific physical adaptations depending on the type of stress, or demand, placed upon it from physical activity. In other words, you get what you train for. This holds true for general adaptations like greater strength or cardiovascular fitness, and very specific adaptations like the ability to hit a golf ball, serve a tennis ball, or ski moguls.

What makes this concept important for us? Well, let’s start with the assumption that most of us aren’t professional athletes, and don’t have professional coaches figuring everything out for us. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have goals. There are still reasons why we exercise (or there should be). Let’s also assume that we don’t have all the time in the world to exercise. Between work, social and family life, and the rest of life’s responsibilities, most of us have a limited window of time to exercise, so those precious minutes need to count.

While it’s perfectly fine to squeeze in a short bout of exercise just to get us moving and make us feel good if that’s all there’s time for, if you have a specific goal such as losing 15 pounds, running a half marathon, or improving your pickleball game, you should spend the majority of your allotted exercise time doing things that will lead to the specific results you desire.

If you need more help, there are always personal trainers and coaches who are excellent at creating programs to fit your specific needs. You can also tune in to next month’s Montana Moves webinar, Sets, Reps, and Such, which will get into the SAID principle as it relates to resistance training.

But in general, if you want to be a better swimmer, spend most of your exercise time in the pool, and when you’re not in the pool, condition and strengthen the muscle groups and movement patterns that help you swim. If you want to lose weight, choose more intense exercise that burns a ton of calories, and promotes lean muscle development. If you want to be a better downhill skier, strengthen and condition your lower body, core, and do sport specific drills. Then hit the ski hill as much as you can! Or if you want to do King and Queen of the Ridge, hike the ridge, and when you can’t hike the ridge, carry sandbags up stairs, or do step-ups in ski boots. And if possible, do it longer than 2 weeks.

Be specific. You’ll discover specific, and hopefully favorable, results.

We’ll see what kind of results I get this weekend. Honestly, I just want to challenge myself and have fun. Whatever I do will be a personal best.

You can check in on twitter @montanamoves or at the bottom of this page to see how it goes!


bridger pano
On the 6th or 7th lap, I’ll try to remember to enjoy the view.

Wellchat Episode VIII: Injury Prevention

Episode 8: Neal shares some tips on how use exercise to reduce the risk of common injuries, and also how to exercise without getting injured.

Topics include:

  • Overuse Injury
  • The 10% Rule
  • Volume, Impact, and Surface
  • Warm ups and Cool downs
  • Self-Myofascial Release
  • Resistance Training
  • Rest & Recovery

For even more info on injury prevention and recovery, click here to watch one of our past webinars.

The Montana Moves & Meals Wellchat is available on Itunes podcasts! Subscribe and take us with you for a walk, run, or drive!

Basic Lifting Techniques: The Deadlift (Video)

Pop Quiz! What do the following things have in common?

  • A small child
  • A box of stuff
  • A barbell
  • A pencil
  • A suitcase or travel bag

Pause to think…

Did you get it? All of those things could be something we need to pick up off the ground at some point in our lives, or perhaps, quite often. Whether or not you go to the gym, we’re all weight lifters. It’s  something our bodies are designed to do. Unfortunately, a lot of people do it wrong, and doing it wrong leads to a lot of injuries every year. And believe it or not, yes, people have blown out their backs bending over to pick up a pencil off the ground—literally the straw that broke the camel’s back.

So check out the latest video from Montana Moves! In this video, I talk about a fundamental movement pattern, the hip-hinge, which everyone should practice and perfect. Then we move on to lifting things off the ground and putting them back down properly. When practiced in the gym setting or at home, it’s great for building strength and confidence.

One of my goals as the MUS Exercise & Fitness Specialist is that all of our employees know how to properly do a squat, and lift things off the ground properly. When we lift properly, not only do we minimize the chance of an injury, but we feel stronger and more functional as well.

Enjoy the video!

P.S. For those of you participating in our MUS Wellness Incentive Program, this video will be posted as a challenge on Friday!



Here at MUS Wellness, we certainly don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all concept of wellness. We’re all different: different goals, different interests, different motivations, etc. Variety is the spice of life right?

That’s why one of our favorite annual Montana Moves challenges is the Wildcard challenge. It gives our participants a chance to play their fitness wildcard. For some, it’s a chance to go to their wheelhouse, and be rewarded for doing their favorite things.  For others, it’s a nudge to get out of the box a bit either by trying something new, or setting a specific goal they’ve been thinking about for a while.

I always enjoy reading how creative our MUS population is, and I find the wildcards to be very motivating. Here are a few highlights. Way to go MUS!

  • Rain, sleet, wind or snow didn’t keep me from achieving my October goal of walking or hiking outside every day in the month. And I maintained 10,000 steps or more each day in October. Yippee! Also, I went to yoga classes every week in October at least 2 times a week. My body and my future self thanks me.
  • 38 day streak of 10,000 steps or more.
  • Have been working on strength training and am now able to squat more weight than I ever have and increased my 1RM by 20%!
  • I kayaked a 24 mile section of river!
  • I’m playing volleyball again! I’ll be attending every week and bringing my A game! I haven’t played for about 10 years, but it’s all coming back to me!
  • Agreed to dance in the Nutcracker. Strapping the pointe shoes back on and rehearsing 3 days/week.
  • Yesterday I had my first consult with my new personal trainer – a first for me is having someone who is keeping me accountable on lifting.
  • After months of walking and building my strength back up, I made it to the ‘M’!
  • Did 4 great hikes in Zion and Bryce Canyon over the weekend, which has been on my bucket list for years!
  • Registered for a half marathon!
  • Doing a 30 day squat challenge. Some form of squats every day for 30 days.
  • I hiked the Wonderland Trail around Mt Rainier – 96 miles in 6 days
  • I am going for a 15 x 15 challenge. 15,000 steps for 15 days. Wish me luck.

Streaks, bucket-list items, registering for new events, or resuming an old activities seemed to be repetitive themes this year.  Hopefully the streaks and new habits are still alive as we head into the holidays!


Seasonal Change

Phew. I’m back in the office for a while now, after eight consecutive weeks on the road. I almost beat winter home, but not quite. Let’s just say it was a long drive home from Kalispell yesterday. My knuckles were as white as the road at a few points.

The weather this year has at some times been extreme, and other times, unpredictable. We seemingly went straight from summer to winter in September, and then fall mercifully appeared in October.  November wasted no time declaring its wintry intentions as soon as it began.

Back in mid-September we received our first snowfall here in Bozeman. An overnight storm, it was enough to cover the ground. My 5-year-old came running downstairs with excitement, hopped into bed with me and said,

“Daddy, it snowed! Can we go skiing?”

I loved the enthusiasm. It was a little heart-breaking. So with empathy, I told him that despite the snow, ski season was still a long way off.

This time, it feels different. Ski season is close. Winter is coming. There’s a change in the air, that familiar change of seasons. I recently ran my last important race of the year, and by my own tradition, it’s time for a seasonal change in my training as well. I like to do an off-season strength and conditioning program during the winter months, and for the past couple of years, I’ve also incorporated sport-specific ski drills into the mix. After months of propelling myself around via running shoes, hiking boots, and bicycles; getting in the gym, getting strong, and getting ready to ski is a breath of fresh winter air.

Now might be a good time for you to think about changes to your exercise routine as well. Winter is a great time to build a base of strength and/or cardiovascular fitness in order to tackle those 2018 goals on the horizon. I always get a kick out of fitness magazine covers that come out in May saying things like, “Get that beach body now!” Nope. Too late. Those magazine covers should really be in the grocery store shelves today.

For all of you who share my and my son’s excitement for ski season, here’s a re-post of our ski training video we put out last year. With opening day at most ski hills only weeks out, and snow piling up on your favorite XC trails, sprinkling in some of these exercises will have you ready for fun on Day 1!


P.S. For those of you who are MSU Bozeman employees, just a reminder that the MSU Fitness Center has discounted employee single-day tickets to Bridger Bowl on sale through November 14th.

ski tix 17

Embrace the change!


Climb On!

For those of you who participate in our MUS Wellness Incentive Program, one of our annual challenges is called “Climb On!”, and the challenge is to climb 70 flights of stairs or more per week, which is the default goal setting on many wearable health trackers like Fitbit™.

There are several reasons to climb. First, it’s fantastic for our metabolism. Climbing stairs or hills utilizes the strong, large muscles in our legs and hips, which drives our metabolic rate over 200% of its resting rate, and that’s at a walk. At the same time, climbing develops strength, balance, and coordination in those same muscles, which comes in handy in many parts of Montana, especially when recreating outdoors. So don’t miss an opportunity to take the stairs, it’s an easy way to gain fitness!

Last year, we interviewed one of our employees and learned how she customized this challenge in a way that made her, dare we say, step up.

Jocelyn Larson is part of the MSU Bozeman Recreational Sports & Fitness Staff, and we interviewed Jocelyn last year shortly after the “Climb On” challenge had ended. We waited to post this video until now, to give a little extra motivation to those participating in the challenge, or getting back into a regular exercise routine now that school is back in session. This is a great example of how to take one of our Wellness challenges and tailor it to fit your goals and schedule. Enjoy!

Training Seasons

“I’m always training for something.”

My dad told me that when he played sports as a child and adolescent, there were four distinct seasons: football, basketball, track, and baseball.  He, and many of his peers, played all four all the way through high-school. The sports just changed with the seasons.

These days, this kind of sport rotation is less common, with many competitive sports lasting almost the entire year. There is also more pressure for kids to specialize in a single sport at an earlier age in order to be competitive or perhaps even win a scholarship in college some day.

However, there is some evidence in the scientific literature that suggests that this paradigm has some potential pitfalls, and that the most important thing for youth sport development is not specialization, but rather proficiency in the more broad aspects of athletics such as sprinting, jumping, agility, strength, power, and cardio-respiratory fitness. Sadly, athletes that specialize too soon are often at higher risk of burnout and injury before they even reach their prime. Above all, it seems that having fun and developing an appreciation of the games we play might have the most bearing on longevity in a sport.

I think the same concepts can be applied to adults when it comes to physical fitness and exercise. Keep in mind, when I talk about training, I’m just using a word that means preparing. You don’t have to be a professional athlete to be in training. I’m always training for something, and personally, I feel mentally and physically best when my training seasons rotate.

For example, this year my training seasons have looked like this:

  • January/February: Training for MSU Master’s Mile. Training focus: strength and speedwork.
  • March-June: Training for Ride Across Montana. Focus: lots of bike volume.
  • July: Rest, recovery, and play.
  • August-October: Training for Montana Cup, my favorite cross-country race, and a couple of big hikes. Focus: trail running, hiking, speedwork, and strength.
  • November-December: Off-season/Ski Prep. Focus: general strength and conditioning plus sport-specific ski training.

For me, changing the training focus and stimulus every few months (with the seasons) keeps me fresh and motivated. I’m seldom bored or stale with my training. To be fair, it helps that I enjoy a lot of different activities, and I look forward to preparing for each one.

If you’re really into a single sport, that’s fine too. You can still change things up with cross-training and strength training. Athletes that play one sport usually divide their year into distinct categories each with separate training focuses:

  • Off-season: general strength and conditioning. High volume, low intensity.
  • Pre-season: Sport specific conditioning and skills. Moderate volume, higher intensity.
  • In-Season: Skill development, sport specific practice, competition. Low volume. Moderate to high intensity.
  • Post-season/recovery: rest, restorative activities.
    • Here’s a good example of a post-season phase from an elite athlete. One of my peers in grad-school was an Olympic distance runner. Every year, after his last track meet in the late summer, he would do nothing but play basketball for a month.  He was still being active, but he wasn’t in formal “run” training. He was just having fun and staying fit. After his month of play, when his cross-country season began in the fall, he was refreshed and ready to resume formal training.

I’m always training for something because it keeps me motivated and focused. What are you training for? Remember training=preparing. Pick your next season or event, put it on the calendar, and get after it. If you’re a hunter, you can start training now! If you’re a skier, you can start training now! If you want to drop ______ pounds by Thanksgiving, you can start training now! If you want to run a winter marathon in a warm location, you can start training now! The freedom to choose our goals and go after them is one of our greatest gifts.

Best wishes for your next season!




Running Relaxed.

I just put the final touches on tomorrow’s “Running Relaxed” webinar, and I can’t wait to share it! One could make an easy argument that my involvement with this whole Wellness thing has its roots in running. Finding a passion for running at a young age led to much self-discovery, many life-lessons, and certainly an interest in how our bodies work and perform.

During the webinar, as the name implies, we’ll be focusing on how to run more relaxed. I believe that a relaxed runner is a better runner, for several reasons. More relaxed runners:

  1. Waste less energy
  2. Run more comfortably
  3. Run faster, farther (because they’re comfortable and conserving energy—see #1 & #2)
  4. Inspire others to run, because they look good doing it

The neat thing is, many of the tips and principles we’ll discuss are applicable at any speed, so whether you’re sprinting or running a 12-minute mile, you can learn to be more relaxed, more efficient, more comfortable, and just plain good-looking. I hope you can join!