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How Dylan Capwell Is Winning With Science

The Monmouth University junior is a national-title contender on the track, thanks to a new training system based on lactate testing and heart rate monitoring.

Watch Interview with Dylan Capwell after his 2nd place NCAA finish:

Dylan Capwell went through his high school career as something of an outlier. Although a gifted athlete who excelled at events from 400-meter hurdles to cross country, Capwell hadn't run fast enough to attract national attention until his final outdoor season at small Hopatcong (New Jersey) High School.

But Chris Tarello, Monmouth University assistant coach, recognized a serious talent in Capwell. That became apparent in the spring of 2013 at the final competition of his career, the New Jersey Meet of Champions. Then 17, Capwell first claimed the 400-meter hurdles in a personal best of 52.43, the nation’s No. 9 prep mark in 2013. Forty minutes later he returned to the track in the 800 meters, finishing third in 1:51.66. Tarello knew he had gotten lucky.

In the fall of 2013 at Monmouth, Capwell focused on base building. He dropped his 800-meter PR to 1:49.39 during the indoor season. Outdoors, the freshman zipped to a 1:47.68 PR to qualify for NCAA nationals in Eugene, Oregon. (Capwell didn't run well, and Tarello blames the infamous Oregon pollen that “kicked his butt.”). The disappointment stung, but Capwell enjoyed the experience. “NCAAs was like, shocking,” he says. “I mean, I'm from a Group 1 high school where we might have 35 people in the bleachers at meets. And then I go there and see thousands and thousands of people around. It was like, ‘Whoa.’”

A New Approach

Tarello spent time last summer thinking about Capwell's performance at regionals and decided to overhaul his training. “I said to myself, ‘I have a really special athlete here, and I'm not willing to chance his success with basically guesswork,’” Tarello says. “You're always struggling to find the right balance and the right mix. And when you have an athlete like Dylan, you don't really have time to do that. I needed to make sure we got it right.”

Villanova coach Marcus O'Sullivan advised Tarello to contact exercise physiologist Shannon Grady.

A former All-American runner at Florida and current elite triathlete, Grady has training in physiology, biochemistry, and nutrition. She began the company GO! Athletics in 2001 and today consults with nearly two dozen prep and collegiate teams—including Villanova—using her trademarked System Based Training (SBT).

The cornerstone of SBT is what Grady terms Physiological Profile Testing (PPT), an evaluation Grady has performed thousands of times over more than a decade. Grady says PPT evaluates nine biochemical systems, ranging from purely aerobic to purely anaerobic, through periodic blood lactate testing during workouts specifically designed for each athlete.

For Capwell, Grady has a testing protocol based on repeat 800s, which he does every eight to 10 weeks. He starts with the first one in 2:50, and each interval gets 10 seconds faster, so Capwell usually finishes the testing having done seven repeats. The only rest after each is about 10 or 15 seconds, when Grady takes a drop of blood from his finger.

With the data she gathers from the blood testing, Grady gives coaches types of workouts and velocities that the athlete should be hitting during training.

Grady does the testing and provides training recommendations, but it's Tarello who comes up with the specific workouts. During this year's track season, Capwell's workouts were more varied, with a small increase in volume, to a maximum of about 40 miles per week, and he used a heart rate monitor during all non-workout runs to ensure optimal recovery. “Those were totally new for me,” Capwell, 19, says. “I just run for minutes in the zone I'm told and don't keep track of mileage.”

Capwell continued to improve during 2015 . In February he claimed the Metro Atlantic 800-meter title in 1:46.82, breaking the previous New York Armory collegiate record held by Robby Andrews. The next month, at indoor nationals, Capwell ran a 1:46.70, finishing second to Iowa State's Edward Kemboi, who won in 1:46.05.

Better Days Ahead

After indoor nationals in March, Grady tested Capwell again and found that with his emphasis on top-end speed to peak for NCAAs, his aerobic capacity had been weakened. He returned to longer, slower intervals.

A typical workout was 5 x 1,000 meters in 2:47 to 2:53 with three minutes recovery. “This phase really made his races flat, but we knew it needed to be done, and we were willing to endure some subpar races to address this area,” Tarello says. 

Given that Capwell is starting his junior year, his aim of winning an NCAA championship seems possible.

“Running is so mental, especially the 800 meters,” he says. “To be one of the best, you have to have the utmost confidence—almost cocky, but at the same time humble about it. [The blood testing] is scientifically telling me where I'm at, and that's a huge thing for confidence. I want to win NCAAs and that's a big goal. But I'd say it's in reach.”

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