From Average to Spectacular: The Story of Brenna Donovan’s Improvement

Junior cross country runner, Brenna Donovan, ’18 (photo by Larry Levanti)

As a freshman, Brenna Donovan (Youngstown, N.Y. / Lewiston-Porter) finished her first 6,000-meter race in 26 minutes and 59 seconds. It was her first competitive “6K,” never having been a cross country runner in high school. 

Just fourteen months later her time was down to 21 minutes and 55 seconds, finishing her sophomore year as Fredonia’s second-fastest 6K runner of all-time, and a Fredonia Athlete of the Year nominee. She’s now ten seconds away from breaking the school record (Laura Morrison – 21:46).

I wanted to find out how Brenna improved so much in such a short time. My practical takeaways follow the interview:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: What led to so much improvement from freshman to sophomore year?

Brenna Donovan: I think it was building muscles that I didn’t have before. Being a soccer player in high school I didn’t have the structure built for longer running. Freshman year my body hurt all the time. My muscles were constantly sore. Over the summer after freshman year I had more time to stretch out, go for runs, and take care of my body — to let it rest a little more. Freshman year, after workouts, school, and homework I would just lay in bed. I was so tired I couldn’t even move.

JRM: What are the important parts of taking care of yourself?

Donovan: Before you run you don’t do static stretching; you do more dynamic stretching. Last summer I did that every morning. I would do high knees, butt kicks, lunges, and toy soldiers. I would do all that before I ran. Then I’d go for my run, come back, do abs, and I would stretch out. I was actually able to cool down. I felt my body actually be able to function normally — my muscles weren’t in pain at that point. Freshman year it was just constant pain. Sophomore year, after my first 10K I didn’t feel that bad. I was expecting a lot worse. I realized then how much better I felt than freshman year. My body had adjusted to it. I didn’t change that much of what I was doing, because I’ve always been pretty hard-working, but I took the training from freshman year and carried it into the summer. I never even knew how to train over the summer. Going into the fall I felt more prepared, and my body didn’t hurt. I would go for a run and it wouldn’t be painful. I would go for a run and feel good about it.

JRM: It’s amazing that it took a year. That’s probably a lot of frustration.

Donovan: It was so painful all of freshman year — constant soreness. Running the 10K my sophomore year I realized that my hamstrings weren’t as strong. That’s what’s cool about the 10K — after I run it I can feel every part of my body that needs improvement, because those were the parts that hurt. I felt my hamstrings break down first when i was running, so that’s what I had to work on.

JRM: How do you work on that?

Donovan: It’s more about strengthening the hamstrings. I looked up exercises that I would do after our normal lifting workouts. I did a Swiss ball exercise where you bridge up and roll out, and I did single-leg deadlifts. By my second 10K it felt a lot better.

JRM: Do you have an explanation for why you’ve improved so much more than everyone else? You went from average to nearly a school record-holder.

Donovan: I think the drive was always there, but my body wasn’t ready for it. Once my body was ready, the emotional side of running brought me to where I wanted to be.

JRM: When you say drive and emotion, can you describe that more? That seems to be what was there the whole time.

Donovan: My coach from high school used to say that running is 99% mental, and that you need to get over the mental barriers to know that your body can carry you through it. Sophomore year my body was strong, so I could go further and faster. It was just getting myself to believe that. People have endured worse than what I do. Have you ever read Night, by Elie Wiesel? It’s a book about the Holocaust, written by a survivor. The whole premise of the book is that they (Nazi soldiers) would make them (Jews in concentration camps) run through the night to different camps. These people were not given proper nutrition, they were starved, they were worked almost to the point of death, then they were told to run. They were still able to run, because if they weren’t then they’d get killed. So when I’m running, I think, “If these people could still run, then I can run.” These people had no food, and no energy whatsoever.

JRM: Why did they make them run?

Donovan: When the Germans were being caught at the concentration camps they needed to evacuate, so they would take everyone and make them run through the night. They didn’t want to be seen during the day. There was no stopping. There was a point in the book where a man stopped to go to the bathroom, and he was shot. They were running no matter what, even if their bodies were at the point of exhaustion.

JRM: What makes you want to continue running?

Donovan: I know it’s a privilege to be able to run because there are people with physical conditions that don’t allow them to. There are also people who feel that they can’t because they’re overweight, or they don’t know how to get into it, or they have some other mental barrier to running. Then there’s the privilege of running at the level that I am. Coming into college I didn’t know if I’d be able to run. I’m very grateful that Tom (Head Coach, Tom Wilson) let me on the team, because that’s not a privilege everyone has. I have this privilege to run, I have abilities far greater than many people have ran in the past. I have support behind me, and strength behind me to run, so there’s no excuse not to in my mind.

JRM: Are there other areas of your life that you bring that sort of attitude to?

Donovan: I think everything, even in school. I need to study every day for every class, I need to do assignments at a certain time to do them correctly. It’s funny, too, because I improved academically a lot from freshman year alongside my running. I saw that during high school too. Seasons where I was in better shape I did better academically. In high school I didn’t do a winter sport and my grades were always a little lower in the winter. It seemed to correlate that the better I was at my sport the better I did with my academics.

JRM: How do you think about nutrition, particularly being a vegetarian?

Donovan: I think nutrition was a big part of improving from freshman to sophomore year as well. I’d always thought that I might be lactose intolerant. Now I know that I am, but freshman year I was still consuming dairy. I wasn’t supposed to be. Being a vegetarian I was always told that I needed to be consuming milk to get my protein that I’m not getting from meat. That’s what I was doing, but I was hurting myself more than helping myself. Now I’ve cut it out almost completely. I’m also eating better than I did in high school. In high school I would have cereal for dinner and call it a night. I have more time now to plan out my meals, to go shopping on my own, and it’s all under my control.

JRM: If someone asks you where you get protein from, what do you say to that?

Donovan: Beans are a good source, and nuts are fairly high in protein. I drink protein power and protein bars. I can tell when I’m low in protein, I get headaches and feel drained. I know when I’m not having enough protein, so I can eat a bar or have a drink at that point. Other than that I don’t feel depleted in any way.

JRM: What does breakfast, lunch, and dinner look like for you, particularly around your running?

Donovan: Tuesdays and Thursdays I get up at 5:30 a.m. and run before lifting. We have lifting 7-8 a.m., then I shower, then I go to class. If I ate dinner at 7 p.m. the night before, I’m going from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. eating nothing. At that point, depending on where I am in the season, it’s a big breakfast if I’m at my high mileage, or a normal breakfast if I’m at a normal mileage. Other than that it’s pretty normal, because during cross country season we practice at 3:30 p.m. I have a normal breakfast, a light lunch, and a big dinner. That’s the difference between track (and field) and cross (country). For cross you’re lighter in the morning, heavier at night, but for indoor and outdoor track I practice at 6:30 a.m., so it’s a bigger breakfast and a lighter lunch and dinner.

JRM: What do you most commonly eat during those meals?

Donovan: This summer I’ve been really into avocado toast. That’s really good for after runs in the morning. For lunch I often have salads, which is really good during the school year before running because they’re light on the stomach. I eat a lot of hummus wraps. Dinner is usually either a salad or sandwich. I have a lot of overnight oats for breakfast during the school year. It’s a good thing to eat after you run. Meet days are different depending on when I race. I don’t like eating a lot before I race for cross country, so if it’s in the morning it’s just a bagel. If I’m down a little bit I’ll have sips of Gatorade, but that’s about it.

JRM: What would advice would you give to a current freshman coming in this year?

Donovan: Know that freshman year doesn’t define the rest of your career as an athlete. You’re going to experience a lot of adjustment. You’re going to have pain, you’re going to have tiredness, and soreness. You’re going to have to adjust to academics. Everything is at a different level. You’re going to have to learn how to study differently, you’re going to have to learn to plan. I have a running agenda, a normal agenda, a journal, and a food log.

JRM: How do you organize that?

Donovan: I have my school agenda for general appointments and meetings. I have my running agenda, which I take from the compliance meetings, where I keep track of all my mileage. I try to put how I feel in those dates too. Then I have a journal for general thoughts. Between running, school, and work, you have a lot of time slots. There’s times where you’re only thinking about running, then you get a fifteen-minute break, then you’re in class. In class you’re thinking about that subject, then you go to a different class and you’re thinking about that subject. I have to devote all my energy to one task at a time. If it starts mixing I lose focus on what I need to be focusing on in the moment. That’s what my journal is for — the in-between periods where I’m thinking about everything. I need to remember those things but I can’t constantly have it in my head or else I’m going to lose focus on what I need to be focusing on.

JRM: Can you give me an example?

Donovan: Last night I was making bullet points: I eventually need to make a doctor’s appointment, I need to pick up my check in Gregory for one of my jobs, I need to pick up the check for my other job.

JRM: It’s sounds like a form of stress-release. You need to do these things, but by writing them down you can put it aside for now.

Donovan: Yes, and I’ll write down goals too. Goals for today, goals for the week, and goals in general.

JRM: And that’s in the journal?

Donovan: Yes, it becomes a little bit of everything. If I’m feeling overwhelmed it becomes a list of things that make me happy. It helps me de-stress. Or it becomes a schedule of my day. I go through the day and list what I did — what I did when I woke up, after that, and so on, until I get to the present moment. Then I start listing the things I still need to do and try to check them off after. They carry over to the next day if I don’t check them off.

JRM: What other advice might you have for incoming freshmen?

Donovan: Remember that freshman year doesn’t define your career as a runner, or an athlete in general. Even though you might not be feeling your greatest, or doing everything you want to be doing, it doesn’t mean that you have to stop there. You can push through it even though it’s not what you want. Just know that summer training will come, and you’ll have more time and more knowledge of what you need to do. Take that summer to reflect on your freshman year and plan for the years ahead.

JRM: Is there anything else you’d like to say in relation to what we talked about?

Donovan: Don’t let other people get you down. If you’re improving there are going to be people that won’t like it. There are going to be people that, even thought they love you, are not going to say the nicest things. Don’t take that the wrong way, because sports are competitive. The only person I’m really competitive with is myself, but some people strive to compete with others. If you strive to compete with yourself, don’t let other people influence what you’re doing. It only tears you down. I’m very hard on myself, which is how I improve, but when you have other people on top of that it can tear you down. If you know in your mind that it’s right, don’t let other people influence you. Just keep going with what you know to be right, and keep striving to better yourself.
Practical takeaways:

  • Importance of recovery — Freshmen athletes are often overwhelmed by the combined demand of athletics and academics. This is normal — Brenna didn’t start to blossom until her sophomore year after she got used to the higher work load. She noticed more progress the summer between freshman and sophomore year when she had time to do a dynamic warm-up before each workout (video here), stretch after each workout, and pay attention to what she ate. It’s also worth nothing that there are tremendous recovery benefits to sleeping seven to nine hours each night.

  • Gratitude — In response to my question, “What makes you want to continue running?,” Brenna’s answer demonstrates a deep sense of gratitude, both for her ability and for the opportunity. Two years ago I asked 6K school record holder Laura Morrison the same question and got a nearly identical answer. Research indicates that daily gratitude training results in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, optimism, and energy. It results in experiencing less depression and stress, and making more progress toward goals (1). Grab a journal and write down five things you’re grateful for every day.

  • Organization — Brenna describes an intensive practice of planning, scheduling, and journaling. Her running agenda serves as a reminder of her athletic goals and progress, her academic agenda to remember appointments and meetings, and a personal journal as a form of stress-release.



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