A few notes on distance training.

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A few quick notes that I did for Joel Smith months ago for his site www.just-fly-sports.com. I answered these questions a few months ago but now that we are in the heart of the XC season I felt it might be a good time to share some thoughts and ideas. Read and as always let me know your feedback.

What are your thoughts on mileage for high school distance runners in light of their physiology, as well as long-term collegiate/professional development?

As a coach, this has been a major point of contention among distance coaches in our area. I think one of the major issues that coaches should come to terms with is “what really is high mileage?” What constitutes high mileage varies depending on what coaches you ask. I know of coaches who run boys at over 100 miles a week on the high end and other coaches who run their athletes only 30 miles a week. My general rule is if you can’t get the mileage you want done within two and half hours of training six days a week your probably reaching a mileage number that could be considered high. Another way to look at this is if your athletes are running over 50 miles a week for more than 50% of your season for girls and 60 miles a week for boys, you are a high mileage coach in high school.Remember this means your athletes could be running up to 15 hours a week. Personally, I considered myself to be a middle mileage, coach.  The reasoning for this thought process on mileage is simple. My experience is when you add warm-up, flexibility, drills, energy system development, daily speed work, cool down, core work/strength training it means your practice is going to be very busy. The crowded schedule will limit your time available to run and your mileage will hit a ceiling. Athletes can only cover the distance with the time left for energy system development. Recently, I decided to throw out most of our cross country training program. I felt we needed to develop a system that would allow us to run an elite high school 5000-meter cross country race on and over hills. To do this, we have to do a lot more O2 development. The extra focus on aerobic work meant we had to take away from other areas of practice. Our goal suggested limiting a lot of the ancillary activities during training. Our average mileage for our entire team reached its highest since I have been the cross country coach. During last season our top group reached 48 miles a week for about three weeks toward the end of the season before our peak phase. To reach this number we had to run the one-two day session and run on the weekend. I believe the higher mileage helped lead our team qualifying four of our varsity seven individually to the state championship. At the sectional meet, we ran huge PRs, and I was having to pay up on a pre meet bet, jumping in the lake on the course. One kid even ran a 3 minute PR. The water was cold but well worth the extra motivation my kid had that day to see their coach embarrass himself. If our top group maintains those numbers year in and year out per my rule, I am no longer a low mileage but a “middle” mileage coach.

My highest mileage an individual athlete ran as part of our program was Diane Robison at 60 miles in a single week. The entire time I was holding my breath that she wouldn’t get hurt, and all of that running would lead to better times. She did end up running very fast peaking at the Footlocker Regional meet qualifying for the Footlocker national championships where she finished in the top 20. Now before you think I am jumping aboard the “higher the mileage the better the athlete becomes” philosophy you have to realize a couple of things. First, she had to run with our best boy on the team at the time to achieve these numbers (he ended up 5th in state as a senior) no other athlete was close to her talent in the school. Second she had to run twice a day, three times in that week, and trained both days over the weekend. To achieve the 60 miles we included all of her warm-ups, workouts, drills, and cool down as part of the total number. She did go on to set our school record in a cross country 5k running 17:37.0.

Obviously, not all of our runners are Footlocker finalists. Most athletes I coach come to me we modest talent and as a team we have to patient. Many of these young athletes have done very little running when they come to our program. In fact, two of our state qualifiers had a PR mile of 7:10 and 6:52 when they first got to us. Now their best miles are 5:22 and 5:25 respectively. Not a bad development for two kids that had great body composition but modest talent when they started. To keep from blowing up kids with limited training age, we have three different training groups. Our top group we call our “state/top” group. This training group is usually our most veteran group, with state series experience, and trained in the offseason. Our middle group we call “untrained veterans” these kids are those who have taken the offseason off and were out of shape. The third group is our “rookies” and their ranks are people new to the sport and do the lowest mileage. Even if the kid comes out for the first time as a senior, we treat them as rookies for the cross country season. Without preparation in lower training groups, these kids would be burnt out or broken before we start. If these rookies are freshman athletes, I never move them up a group as we want to keep things light and allow them to develop at a less drastic curve. I have seen the way too many coaches get greedy with young athletes before they are fully developed and burn these athletes into the ground before they have matured. Even with these choices in training design injuries are unavoidable. Early this season we had some freshman have shin issues, and we are reevaluating once again what we do with athletes who first enter our program. Current ideas we bounced around is starting the season rotating cross training with running the first couple weeks and creating an athlete profile before they commence training with our team. As the athletes move through the program, they know the added responsibility for not only leadership but training too. I want the kids to progress over four years and beyond. Some coaches treat their kids as prepubescent metronomes, and I question those choices.

In track speed and ancillary work become more of a focus. I strive as a coach who has teams good both in cross country and track. Your distance runners need to have sprint speed and the longest distance an athlete will run on the track is the 3200 meters. The question is “how much mileage do you really need?” Unless they are an aerobic machine, most distance runners don’t need more than 30 miles a week. If your athletes run only 30 miles, you do need to make sure that work is quality and stop all junk mileage. Now because of the variety of different events and speeds means you as the coach need to focus on individual needs of each runner’s biology. This point in planning a runner’s season is where Steve Magness’s discussion about fiber type training comes into play. In cross country, everyone runs the same distance. A distance runner can run everything from the 4×200 all the way up to the 3200. Training has consequences, and your practices need focus on what will be your athlete’s best event. Two track seasons ago we knew it would be difficult to get our kids out in the longer distance events. Our focus specifically targeted 4×400, 4×800, and 800-meter events? We had good performances out of these events leading to prs, grade level records, and state qualifying events. However, those same athletes were not able to achieve similar performances in the 1600 and 3200. This last season I knew we would have a chance to qualify almost all our events to sectionals and a large number of events to the state championships. Remember training has consequences and the new focus led to drastic improvements in the 1600 and 3200. Additionally, we had the deepest team I ever had the pleasure to coach also in the 800. The training plan was successful in creating a large number of qualifiers but, our top distance group did not achieve improved times in a 400 split or open 800. Their times were almost the same as the previous year just slightly slower, but these same athletes could handle a much larger load at big meets. As a team our improved depth throughout the year it allowed us to qualify the in the 4×100, 4×200, 4×400, 4×800, two in the 300 Low Hurdles, 400, 800, two in 1600, 3200, Shot Put, and Discus. We ended up taking third in the 4×800 with a tremendous season’s best and second in the 4×400 with some of the same distance runners.

In this season, it is important to mention I also did an experiment with two similar athletes of ability, size, and intelligence. Both I suspected were of the same fiber type. I believe they were a mix of slow twitch and quick twitch oxidative with the quick twitch oxidative being the dominant fiber type. Now in high school we can’t do a biopsy on kids, so we have to look at best events to figure out where these athletes land on the spectrum of events in track and field. One athlete, I continued to train in our program we established two years ago and the other athlete we trained more with a traditional track distance training program. The athlete that was trained as we did two seasons ago continued her progress in the 400 and 800. This particular athlete ran a 57.2 split as an anchor at sectionals in our 4×400 from a 59.5 the previous season. In the 800 she made a much larger improvement from 2:41 all the way down to a 2:18 in a single season. The other athlete running the longer distance program ran a huge PR in the mile from 5:43 to a 5:22. In the 800 she ran 2:20.2 this season and last season she was able to run a 2:19.4 along with a 2:18.5 split. In the 400 she ran a 60.5 this season and last season she ran 59.9. Training has consequences, and it is important over the time you have the athlete under your charge figure out what is their best event. So each year when you set up their annual plan you can train toward the best event properly. In the time since the season ended the athletes, and I have counseled about what direction we will go in the upcoming months.

What types of strength and power work do you do for mid-distance events?

I have discussed this before in previous blogs on this site. So if you permit me, I would like to go in a different direction. Distance runners need to have the speed endurance or special endurance to cover these distances in an enormous amount of discomfort. As I explained previously training has consequences and believing it as a coach, it is important to put the runners through training what they experience in the meets. Research has shown that training just above or below the race distance in practice has the highest correlation to improved sports performances. Frequently training near the desired race distance gives a runner the “strength” to cover the distance in a meet. Additionally, these athletes in high school and college must have the power to repeat these efforts many times to run multiple events or relays. Some coaches have bought into low volume type of distance training middle distance runners. Training volume should accumulate to the point that a middle distance athlete has a chance to improve and handle the number of events/rounds they might see in competition. Interestingly, in the recent USATF world championship trials some the winners in post-race interviews talked about the need to peak at the right time or how their coach had given them the training to handle the rounds.

All of this means at least once every microcycle the middle distance runners needs to complete a speed endurance or special endurance workout. Typically, we do these workouts in our program on Monday. This workout placement is done because Sundays are our one day of passive recovery. The body, mind, and CNS is probably the most recovered it will be for the week. Philosophically, if this is the key to our training, it should be given the respect of having the athletes be able to give the most of themselves in this training session. Early in the year we will train at a relatively high volume but when we reach our peak phase we reduce the volume but dramatically increase the recovery time between the intervals. The increased recovery is built in to simulate what athletes will experience in a track meet without keeping a kid in practice all day. Depending on the circumstances, some of my middle distance athletes could have up to twenty minutes between repeat intervals. The longest interval we run in track season is a 1600 meter interval. However, middle distance athletes will have shorter intervals that fit the particular needs of the 400-800 runners. More on what these specific workouts look like in the following question.

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