At the heart of the 12-week run clinic is Lara Penno, a Vancouver personal trainer with over 25 years of experience coaching running, cycling, and triathlon. Her athletes have gone on to compete in prestigious events like the Boston and New York marathons, as well as the Hawaii and Canadian Ironmans. Her success speaks for itself, but we had the opportunity to sit down with Lara to learn more about what makes the PFL leader so special.
Could you tell us a little bit about your history with running and other cardio sports?
LARA: I've been an athlete all my life. I started competitive gymnastics as a young kid in Montreal, where I grew up. I competed at the provincial level starting at age seven and eventually quit at age 14. Even while I was a gymnast, I loved running; I did cross country in elementary school and a bit of track. I returned to sports at 18 and started running casually before joining the triathlon team at Concordia University (where I studied exercise science). I fell in love with triathlon, although I didn't have a bike and couldn't swim that well. The tri-club coach also became the track and cross-country coach, so I joined that team and loved it. I was rookie of the year in my first year, MVP in my second year, and then I kept training in triathlon under the same coach even after I graduated. I mainly trained as a triathlete and ended up doing Ironman Canada in '98 before I moved to BC. While I was still in Montreal, I started coaching a women-only run club at the YMCA for a couple of years, which was my first foray into coaching. I loved coaching, so when I came here, I started a personal training company called Momentum Fitness with a couple of partners.
What made you want to become a coach?
LARA: I think I just naturally fell into it. The woman who coached me in Montreal was basically my mentor; I looked up to her and soaked up everything she had to teach. Training for a triathlon was more or less the practical application of everything I was studying. Then when I started up as a personal trainer, I loved the one-on-one work. I always felt like being a coach was something I wanted to do. I loved sharing my knowledge with other people, especially women, so they could learn about running and feel confident about it. It felt like a natural fit for who I was.
Lara has a personal experience with running that goes beyond the years she has competed, and to the core of her interest in learning. She's passionate about sports and has been a keen student rather than a mere participant from the beginning. At every step in her career, she's used her personal experience and lessons from others to form the trainer she is today.
Sports can be intimidating to people with little experience. How do you make beginners feel more comfortable when starting?
LARA: I always have a "learn to run program," and I encourage people to take their time. Running can be effortless if you give yourself a long time to build up. I am always as supportive as possible; my policy is a "no drop run club," so no one ever gets left behind, and we will always support each individual. I also try to be inclusive. I bring all the pace groups together, so everyone is doing a similar run. That way, anyone from any group can feel supported and feel like they are part of the run club as a whole rather than a specific group.
We all react a bit differently to various styles of coaching. Do you like adapting your coaching for different types of people?
LARA: Yes, for sure. You quickly see that some people are more gung-ho about achieving what they set out to do. I can bring my personality and coaching style up to that attitude, but I can also see when people are more subdued and need a guiding hand and TLC. Adapting to an individual is key. I'm always available and tell the runners that the program may be a "general program," but if they ever feel like they need more specific instructions to suit them better, I am here to help.
During PFL, you'll have three levels of coaching (beginner, intermediate, and advanced). What do you hope to accomplish for each level?
LARA: The first thing I'll do at the clinic is asking each person to think about their goal for the clinic. Everyone will have their unique goal, whether to complete the run, get faster, or get a good result. I hope that each person can achieve the goal they set on the first day, even if it is just to come out and meet people! Of course, seeing someone succeed in reaching their goal is amazing, but I also love seeing how these clinics and clubs can help build a community. I've seen lifelong partners and friends come out of some of these clinics, and I absolutely love that.
To improve in cardio sports, you'll eventually have to push yourself to a certain level of discomfort. How do you coach people who might not love that idea and teach them to appreciate it?
LARA: People who start running usually do it because they have certain goals to achieve. One of the most important things to communicate to those people is that they'll have to push themselves through difficult steps to achieve those goals. Once people understand that they will have to go through certain levels of discomfort to accomplish performance gains, the discomfort is almost welcome. I also do a lot of mental fortitude and mindset training, teaching them to manage that discomfort when training and racing. More or less teaching them to get comfortable with the discomfort. Yes, it can be described as suffering, but it always finishes on a positive. Cardio is hard, and because it's hard when you accomplish something, the feeling is incredible. That's why we love to push ourselves.
Lara's vast experience has made her a fantastic coach both on a group and individual level. She understands people and can vary her coaching to get the best out of each student. I also wanted to ask her about the more technical aspects of modern training. Numbers, data, nutrition, and recovery have come to the forefront of research into athletic performance. But they can quickly become too important for many people.
Nowadays, it's becoming more and more important to use numbers and data in training. How much work do you do with those technical numbers?
LARA: I'm not a super-stats person, but I understand their value and like to strike a balance. I encourage runners to get a pace-tracking device to use those numbers, especially for people with very specific training goals. I also work with Canadian Sports Institute Pacific (CSI) and send some of my higher-performance athletes to do VO2 Max and lactate threshold tests and to see what training zones could best build performance based on their power, pace, and heart rate data. With my athletes that don't have access to a lab, I do a field test to determine threshold and heart rate. So yes, I like using data, but I also like to coach based on how the individual feels.
Nutrition is important in improving athletic performance. Will you be discussing nutrition during Project Finish Line?
LARA: Yes, but at a basic level. I'm a big fan of Canada's Food Guide and eating healthy. Nutrition is important to fuel activity and feel strong in training and racing. I'll share with the participants what a typical day could look like in fuelling for their evening activity so that you feel great for their run. I receive a lot of feedback from my participants, telling me they feel much stronger during their activities when they eat healthily.
Striking a balance between too much number crunching and calorie counting is important. While technical data can be key in optimizing training and performance, it can also lead athletes to forget what's important in their training. Enjoying, improving, and generally feeling better should always be the driving forces for cardio training!
Lara, I'll leave the floor to you to make any final comments!
LARA: The last thing I want to say is that I've walked the walk. I know what it's like to start in a sport, compete, and continue for many years. I think that's part of what makes me such a good coach; I can relate and empathize with most of the athletes I'm working with at any level. I'm excited to start, and I'll see you all in January!
Mark your calendar: The Project Finish Line 12-week spring clinic starts Apr 5.