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Dr. Joe Vigil’s coaching gems of wisdom (as told to Mario Fraioli)

A chance encounter with one of the world's most successful and beloved coaches made a lasting impression on a relative rookie

Coach Dr. Joe Vigil is a legend in the running world. His long C.V. includes coaching two US Olympic teams, coaching 20 different medalists at the World Cross Country Championships, and earning 19 national collegiate team championships (between the NAIA and NCAA), as well as coaching runners like Pat Porter, Deena Kastor, Meb Keflezighi and Brenda Martinez. Vigil holds a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology from the University of New Mexico. There is even a statue of him at Adams State College in Alamosa, Colorado, where he went to school, played football, and coached cross-country and track, with unparalleled success, from 1965 to 1986.

So when San Francisco Bay area journalist and coach Mario Fraioli happened to see the legendary Coach Vigil at Starbucks while covering the 2012 US Olympic track and field trials in Eugene, Oregon for Competitor magazine, he took the opportunity to introduce himself and ask for coaching tips. 

Dr. Joe Vigil (right) with Mario Fraioli during the 2012 US Olympic track & field trials in Eugene, Oregon. Photo: courtesy of Mario Fraioli

“I knew of him because of his reputation, and all that he had accomplished, especially at Adams State,” says Fraioli, who recently came across the notes he took that day in 2012, and tweeted them:

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Fraioli has been a successful coach for some time, with names like multiple UTMB medallist Tim Tollefson and US 50K and 100K champ Caroline Boller on his roster of clients. But back in 2012, his coaching practice was just starting to take off. He was living in San Diego, and coaching Costa Rican athlete Cesar Lizano for the Olympic marathon in August that year. “I’ve got my first athlete running in the Olympics a couple of months from then. So when I saw [Coach Vigil] at Starbucks, I went up and introduced myself, told him who I was and how long I’d been coaching, that I admired his work and his writing… and could I ask him a few questions, and he happily obliged. He spent far more time with me than I ever would have imagined.” 


What Fraioli wrote down that day offers a glimpse into the mind of a great coach, and regular runners can benefit, too:

  1. Coaching is an art and a science. The art is being able to apply the science.
  2. Never stop learning. I get up at 4:00 every morning to read the latest research.
  3. Train specifics. Everybody trains 100 miles a week. Know what you’re trying to accomplish with those 100 miles a week. Understand the physiological demands of each distance and design the workout accordingly.
  4. “You’re younger and smarter than I am.”
  5. 14 weeks. It takes this long to train someone to be in a position to perform their best.


We asked Fraioli which of Vigil’s tips had been the most valuable in his own coaching career. “The one that stood out the most was ‘never stop learning,'” Fraioli says. “He was 82 at the time, and he told me he still woke up at 4:00 a.m. every morning to go through the latest research and journals, and just learn. He’s lifelong learner. That really impressed me. He’s one of the smartest minds in the sport, and has taught me and others so much about how to coach, about physiology, about how the body responds to training and various stresses. And here he is telling me he still gets up every morning with that beginner’s mindset and how to be a better coach, and that has stuck with me.

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“Coach Vigil is a very smart man, with a scientific mind. He told me that coaching is an art and a science, and that the art is being able to apply the science. I had never heard this before, and it made a lot of sense to me.”

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