Modern Profiles in the Craft of Coaching: Jack Daniels

He’s coached some of the biggest names in distance running and underpinning a large amount of his success was his capability to be versatile.

Now in his late 80s, Jack Daniels has been around the sport of running for a long time. His depth of knowledge comes from firsthand experience and a doctorate in exercise physiology, not to mention five decades of successful coaching. It’s no surprise, then, that Runner’s World magazine named Daniels “The World’s Best Coach” in 2005. In 2019, he was inducted into the US Track and Field and Cross-Country Coach Association’s Hall of Fame. As with many who become so highly acclaimed in their fields, he has always seemed to be at the right place, with the right people, at the right times throughout his life. He is a well-established leader in his field and has been for decades. 

A Process-Driven Coach

There is no doubt that Jack Daniels is a versatile and process-driven coach. His 1998 book, Daniels’ Running Formula, is one of the most methodological tomes on how to train ever published. Having read his book many years ago, a book with an obvious love for tables full of numbers, I had always assumed that coach Daniels was an authoritarian coach. But I’ve since discovered that this was Daniels applying his wealth of knowledge in a smart way, not a dictatorial way. He is a soft-spoken coach, famous for saying, “Don’t do anything stupid!” And by that he simply means don’t train too fast, stick with the rather conservative paces of the tables in his book.  

For runners who want to produce faster workout times he adds, “We’re not trying to run fast workouts. We’re trying to run smart workouts that lead to fast races.” It’s apparent that if an athlete follows his disciplined guidelines they have an excellent chance of succeeding, as evidenced by his athletes’ performance records over several decades. His coaching philosophy also summarizes this: “Impose the least stress that produces the maximum benefit.” 

He has produced fast runners by holding them back and training them to realistic and achievable numbers. If the athlete makes a mistake, according to Daniels, it should be in training too slowly. He’s certainly not a whip-wielding authoritarian.  

Early Life

Jack Tupper Daniels was born in 1933 in Detroit, Michigan. But his family moved West at an early age and he spent most of his childhood in the San Francisco area. After high school and trying a couple of other universities he eventually graduated from the University of Montana. While at Montana he was in the ROTC, shot on the rifle team, and was also on the swim team. Since these were also war years, ROTC got him into the Army before graduation and included time in Korea during the war. While there he became more interested in competing in shooting, swimming, and running. He was pretty good at the first two sports but was a slow runner. “I won the shoot and swim” Daniels later recalled, “and got last in the run.”  

Following his time in Korea he returned to Montana where he graduated in 1955. But due to his three-sport competition in Korea he decided to try his hand at Modern Pentathlon (horseback riding, shooting, swimming, running, and fencing). This would eventually lead to his qualifying for the US Modern Pentathlon teams for the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. In 1958 he won the US National Championship in the sport. He had found his calling—but it was always endurance running holding him back. The event called for running four 800-meter bouts alternating with pistol shooting. Running continued to be his nemesis: “I always wanted to learn to run better, so I studied a year at a sport school in Stockholm.”  

While in Sweden he worked under Per-Olof Astrand who was becoming a renowned leader in exercise physiology and continued to produce sport research for several more decades. Astrand would later receive a Nobel prize in physiology. Astrand would have a big impact on Daniels’ studies. On returning to the US, he landed in a job at the Federal Aviation Agency working with a German exercise physiologist by the name of Bruno Balke who was doing altitude research for the Army. He became one of the leaders in the field of exercise physiology in the 1960s and 1970s. Balke proposed that exercise, especially walking and running, was the best way to treat those with heart disease. As it turned out, Daniels had a couple of the world’s best exercise physiologists to learn from. With such role models, Daniels decided to make exercise physiology his career and returned to the States to write his Ph.D. thesis on exercise and altitude. He got a doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Wisconsin in 1969.  

Interestingly, his time spent studying altitude physiology with Balke also played a big role in his becoming known to elite endurance athletes, as the 1968 Mexico City Olympics would be held at 7,200 feet. At the time, there was little known on the effects of altitude on endurance performance. He was a rare US coach who knew what altitude preparation involved. According to Jim Ryun, who won silver in the 1500 meters in 1968: “Everyone else said the altitude was all in our heads. Without Jack, we couldn’t have performed as well as we did.”  

Coaching Career

In the early 1960s Daniels’ career focus was on research, not sport. But in 1965 he was asked to be the national track and field coach for Peru. He fell in love with coaching while there, but in 1966 returned to research. His next coaching assignment took him to the University of Texas from 1969 to 1980 as the head coach of the women’s track and field team. He went on to be an assistant coach at the University of New Hampshire from 1980 to 1982. But it was in his next coaching role at the State University of New York in Cortland that he started becoming well known in the sport.  

Over nearly two decades Daniels built a track dynasty at SUNY as the head coach for track and cross country. From 1986 through 2004 his track and cross-country teams won eight national titles, were runners-up four times, achieved 31 national titles, and produced 131 All Americans. He had become one of the most successful running coaches in collegiate history. But in 2005 he decided he needed a change after more than 35 years of coaching teams.

In 2005 he took on the role of managing the Center for High Altitude Training at the Northern Arizona University campus in Flagstaff. Besides the general public who could use the facilities at the Center, which is at 7,000 feet, it also offered services to U.S. elite athletes and international teams in training for major competitions such as world championships and the Olympics. In 2009, funding for the Center provided by the State of Arizona was terminated, ending the program. In 2013 he went on to be the head cross country coach at Wells College, a division 3 NCAA school, in Aurora, New York. He left Wells in 2019.  

Legacy

While primarily known as a collegiate coach, he has also coached some of the biggest names in 20th Century distance running including Jim Ryun, Joan Benoit Samuelson, Ryan Hall, and Mary Slaney, among many. With such a broad and deep background in running he founded an online personal coaching company—V.O2—with assistant coaches.  

For most endurance runners and coaches he is best known for his 1998 book, Daniels’ Running Formula. He had been developing and refining the mathematical concept throughout most of his coaching career and formalized the model of “VDOT,” the heart of the book, by the late 1970s.  

VDOT is a simple method for determining a runner’s performance capability and training needs and is based on a recent race time at a standard distance. The concept assumes that all athletes who run the same or closely similar times have holistically similar physical and psychological fitness. In other words, each athlete’s unique mix of aerobic capacity, lactate threshold, economy, and mental toughness, even though there may be significant individual differences in any of these, when combined produce common run performances.  

The basis of the book and his methodology is a table in which runners are assigned a “VDOT Value” based on a recent running performance. It gauges athlete performance levels from novice to elite. Each value predicts the athlete’s probable race times at common distances based on a recent race time at any standard distance. The range of VDOT Values is from 30 (novice) to 85 (elite). For example, an athlete with a recent VDOT Value of 58 would be expected to run the following times for certain distances: 

1500m – 4:44 

Mile – 5:06 

3000m – 10:08 

2 Miles – 10:56 

5000m – 17:33 

10,000m – 36:24 

15,000m – 55:55 

Half marathon – 1:20:30 

Marathon – 2:48:14 

An important component of his method is that the VDOT Value table may also be used to predict what an athlete’s time would be at another race distance. For example, a Value of 58 as a result of having run  36:24 for a 10,000m race predicts the athlete could also run a marathon, with the proper training, in about 2:48:14. 

Not only does this table predict running performance, it also provides the basis for the athlete’s training regimen. For example, all workouts, such as long runs or intervals, intended to improve certain aspects of fitness are based on what the athlete is currently capable of running. 

The most common advice he gives to coaches he talks with is always the same, “Be able to answer this one simple question: What is the purpose of the workout?” That’s a basic concept we should always have uppermost in our minds—and it is one that has clearly worked for Daniels (and his athletes) over the course of an outstanding coaching career.