Coach Dathan Ritzenhein on Setting Goals, Facing Pressure and Tips for Beginner Runners
In just two short years, Dathan Ritzenhein has spearheaded one of the most successful professional running programs in the country. After retiring in 2020, he helped build the On Athletics Club from the ground up. While the On Athletic Club has just 11 runners, they sent five athletes to the 2022 World Championships and four to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Ritzenhein is no stranger to competitive running, having been a regular on the professional circuit since 2004. But before he was running in the Olympics and setting national records, Ritzenhein was a beginner runner sharing workouts with his dad.
We sat down with Ritzenhein to talk about the pressures of competing, dealing with injuries and his tips for beginner runners.
FF: You were a standout runner from a young age, winning two Foot Locker Cross Country national titles and setting numerous state and national records. Did you deal with a lot of pressure as a high school athlete, and how did you manage it?
DR: When I started running, I didn't know a whole lot about the running world. I just started training a lot because my dad had started running to become healthier. I just did it because he did it. It was a fun thing to do with my dad.
As I got better, I started to become more aware of what opportunities were ahead, what my peers were doing and how I could stack up against them. My senior year of high school is when I started to put a little pressure on myself. I was one of the best kids in the country at that point, so I realized I had a lot of potential.
The hardest thing was when I got to college and started to have injuries. That’s when I started to notice the pressure to come back from those injuries and fulfill the expectations I placed upon myself and that other people placed on me. I would always compete well in races, but dealing with pressure was something that didn't come naturally. I had to learn to deal with those emotions.
FF: You’ve experienced your fair share of injuries over the years. What kept you motivated through those moments?
DR: When I started having injuries, it was pretty demoralized at times. But I always had goals and I didn’t let go of those goals even when they seemed out of reach. Reiterating those goals to myself was so important.
Sometimes when you get injured it seems like you have to get back to your old level of fitness right away, but that’s not always in the cards. You have to take your time and be okay with the process. Maybe you can’t attain the goal you had originally set for yourself, but there's always another goal you can reach. Having that mindset took the pressure off of feeling like I had to make it to a certain start line in the best shape possible.
I think it’s hard as an athlete because you’re used to controlling certain things and pushing your body to certain limits, but occasionally it's just not going to work out.
FF: What was it like to build a new team from the ground up? What was your vision for the On Athletics Club, and has that vision changed as the team has grown?
DR: I was approached about two years ago about coming on as a coach. I really didn’t know a lot about the brand, so it was a bit of a leap of faith. We had a couple of key athletes we were hoping to recruit, but we were definitely starting from scratch. We didn’t have track spikes and we didn’t have a great racing flat. We didn’t have a gym, we didn’t have physical therapists. We knew we wanted to come to Boulder but it was the middle of the 2020 COVID shutdown. Our athletes were strength training in my garage when they first moved here. A lot of them were just out of college or still finishing classes online.
The leadership at On gave me a lot of free reign and responsibility to start the team, and they also gave me a lot of support. The first year was tough because we didn't even know what we needed. Now, we've grown so much as a brand and we've hired people that are really devoted to creating high performance products. That’s something that, in this day in age, is so important for runners. They've kept the team very involved in the innovation of those key products.
It’s hard for me to believe that it's only been two years. It’s been so much hard work and now we’re starting to see the results. We've grown as a team, we're up to about 11 athletes now and the infrastructure is starting to cement around the team. It took so much effort to get this going and the results speak for themselves. There's definitely been a lot of work behind the scenes.
FF: Are there any similarities between beginner runners and newly professional runners? Is there any advice you’d give to both?
DR: I find that whenever we get a new batch of athletes they don't know a whole lot. And that’s okay. There’s so much that goes into learning how to be a professional runner, like learning how to navigate agents and navigate meets. It's the same with beginner runners. There are things we may think everyone knows, but sometimes it's not common sense to someone else just because we know it. You don’t have to know everything as a beginner runner and you’re not expected to know most of these things.
New runners might not know to do strides before every workout or to get a new pair of running shoes every 300-500 miles. They might not know to bring throwaway clothes to the beginning of a cold race to stay warm.
As a beginner runner, you have to feel okay asking for help. There are no dumb questions. Asking questions and speaking up will help you make the best decisions for yourself and it will also help those around you. For example, if you’re just starting a marathon training program and you have your Sunday long run, you’ll have to let your family know so they don’t plan a big day filled with activities.
FF: What do you think is the biggest hurdle that prevents beginner runners from sticking with a running habit?
DR: Reaching any goal is a process, and beginner runners can get discouraged when it doesn’t happen within their time frame. I’m a believer in setting high standards and goals, but having benchmarks along the way is important. The timing for our big goals doesn't always happen the way we want it to, but along the way we can set smaller goals that help us know if we're on the right track.
Setting benchmarks gives us a roadmap to stick with it, even when we don’t accomplish the end goal in the time frame we think we will. Benchmarks help us know what we need to improve upon as well. If your goal was to run a certain time at the end of the season and you didn't get there, you can look back on your benchmarks and see what worked, where you fell short and where you need to improve.