Track mastermind Lyle Knudson coached elite and local athletes
June 3, 2017
A powerhouse in the world of track and field, Lyle Knudson trained Olympians, took the University of Florida to new prominence and, perhaps most notably, authored a results-based training system in the 1980s that fundamentally changed the way running is done and remains in use across the country today.
After his career as a high-profile Division I coach, however, Knudson would make his way to Frisco, where he spent the remaining years of his life, often hiking or skiing in the mountains. A figure with national prominence, he is likely best remembered here for helping to develop local track and field talent, athletes like All-American and Summit High School grad Whitney Anderson.
"If I could come up with three things to describe him, he was very simple, matter-of-fact and methodical in his thinking," she said. "He was like a scientist."
Knudson died April 13 after suffering a heart attack. Never one to make a fuss or impose on anyone else, Knudson drove himself to the hospital, his son said, adding that his father had been on the slopes only two days earlier, working as a ski instructor at Copper Mountain Resort.
"He was always analyzing and breaking things down scientifically," his son, Lt. Jason Knudson, said. "People may not have known it, but they were getting Olympic-level training from an Olympic-level coach every time they went skiing."
Knudson was 75 years old.
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Tall with light blonde hair so memorable it was referenced in almost every piece written about him, Knudson is credited with creating a training style that's not easy to describe but has seen great results and is praised by many.
Developed over decades in the sport, Knudson's training methods, most basically stated, favored workouts as demanded by the events and supported by research — going for speed intensity, if speed was what was desired — rather than piling on the miles.
His son said that his father was always at odds with long slow distance training — often called LSD training — and instead thought athletes should run for shorter amounts of time at more intense intervals.
It isn't about the distance or times so much as it is about training one's body to run fast for a set period of time.
"Runners were able to blow through their barriers because they never had a distance goal; they had an effort goal." Jason said of his father's training methods, adding that his father believed the more time you spent running long distances at slower speeds, the more you're training your body to run slowly.
For Lyle Knudson, this often meant having athletes like Anderson, who was training at high altitude, run downhill, to simulate the speeds she would reach at lower elevations.
Altogether, Anderson won five state titles for Summit High School and owned the seventh-fastest 5K time ever run by an American high-school girl before the All-American accepted a full-ride scholarship to run for Duke University. In high school, she spent two years working with Knudson.
"It was a short while, but it got me so far," Anderson said of her time with Knudson. "His type of training program — quality over quantity — that's what helped me get to the top and get a scholarship."
Injury would limit Anderson's collegiate career, but the lessons she learned from him have extended far beyond the track.
In May 2009, a writer with Runners World sat down for breakfast with the longtime track coach, who was living in Frisco and working as a high school math and computers teacher, ski instructor and private track coach at the time.
The article that came out of it, "Lonely Heights, Lyle Knudson: Running's Forgotten Coach," listed a number of his accomplishments and suggested Knudson could have been not just a coach, but "the coach" for Olympians, if only politics and personal conflicts hadn't gotten in the way.
In the track and field world, Knudson was called "the best America had," and according to the article, he helped train seven Olympians, including two before his 30th birthday.
His son puts that number much higher, saying that his father worked with well over a dozen Olympic athletes during the course of his coaching career — including Wendy Koenig, a middle-distance runner who competed in the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games and whom Knudson later married. The couple had three children together before they later divorced.
Knudson also launched the women's program at the University of Colorado, and he was named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year while he was at Florida. He also served as head coach of the women's Pan American team "when the Pan Am Games still mattered."
The first in his family to go to college, Knudson began coaching high school track after his graduation from the University of Northern Iowa. He later earned a master's degree at CU and a Ph.D. in mechanical kinesiology and sports medicine from Northern Colorado University, a study that would dovetail nicely with his coaching career.
A storied career
Knudson would coach track and field at CU, Colorado State and Utah State before taking the Florida job in 1982.
"He arrived in Gainesville to find a program with no direction," according to Runners World, but would become "the first women's coach in program history to build any type of sustained success in the Southeastern Conference," stated to Scott Carter, senior writer at FloridaGators.com, in a piece he wrote after Knudson's death.
According to Carter, during Knudson's tenure, the Gators finished second three times at the SEC Indoor Championships and never below fourth at the SEC Outdoor Finals. Also under Knudson's direction, 30 Gators earned All-America honors, and the team finished in the top 10 at the NCAA Outdoor Finals three times in 1982, 1984 and 1986.
During his six years at the helm, Knudson also gave Mike Holloway, a graduate assistant at the time, the chance to work with the team as an assistant coach in the 1980s. Now a legend in the sport, Holloway has since made the men's and women's programs perennial contenders for the national championships.
Knudson's tenure at Florida ended over a disagreement about the direction of the program, according to Carter, who cited news reports from the time. In the interview with Runners World, Knudson described the disagreement as a spat with a booster who wanted more control over the program than Knudson was willing to give him.
Regardless the reason, Knudson left Florida for Colorado and never went back.
Returning to Colorado, Knudson took a job as a biomechanics professor at the University of Denver, while he also focused on running the U.S.A Track and Field junior elite camps, which Knudson directed from 1978-2005.
That too ended amid a disagreement, this time with a high-ranking USATF official, and Knudson moved on to Frisco.
In addition to his work with USATF, Knudson was also one of the founders of Colorado Gold back in the early 1970s. It was an elite group of cross-country and track runners, and a good number of the people who came out of that program went on to compete nationally and internationally, Jason said.
One important piece of his father's training that Jason thinks often gets lost in the mix of research and results centers on how his father helped young athletes get into college.
"If you had an elite athlete, part of that was getting them their education," Jason said, and his father "did that for thousands of kids … I think the impact is not only on the athletes he trained, but all of the people who were educated and got scholarships because part of their training pipeline was college acceptance.
"(My dad) wasn't just training athletes to win competitions," Jason said. "He was training athletes to go out and better themselves in life."
'Go run fast'
In the track and field world, Knudson is easily best remembered for introducing the training model he based, in part, on his studies of European and African athletes and his belief that focused, results-based training could maximize muscle recovery and reduce injuries.
Knudson wasn't the kind of coach who ever coddled anyone, Anderson said, and his matter-of-fact, get-down-to-business style is one that she will always appreciate.
"Before a race, he'd always say, 'Go run fast,'" she said. "Those were his go-to words, so he was really simple with that, but it reminds of life in general … You prepare for the race you're given, and there's not much more to it than that. We just need to make the decision to get there, and not be so emotional about things."
Jason said his father didn't want to make a big deal out of his death, but did say before he passed away that if anyone wanted to do something to honor him, they should go out into the mountains, have a celebration and enjoy life.
"That was all he wanted," Jason said, adding that the family plans on honoring his father's wishes by spreading his ashes somewhere in the mountains in the near future.
Jason also said that his father was so passionate about giving female athletes the chance to compete at elite levels, that if anyone wants to make a donation, Jason suggests giving either time or money to some kind of program that helps women in sports.
Knudson is survived by a brother and sister, who both live in Iowa; his three children, Jason, Kristin and Karin Kundson; and six grandchildren. Jason is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, while Kristin owns her own law firm and Karin, with a Ph.D. in immunology, is doing cancer research at the National Institute of Health.