Distance Running Training: You can't just run and expect to be successful.
People generally don't understand what it takes to train distance runners. Competitive distance running is more involved than recreational jogging. Because just about anyone can jog, people assume anyone can be a distance runner. It is comical when people assume all we do as coaches is tell our athletes to go for a run. I smile and allow what people say about assuming to be true- for them.
The best endurance athletes do more than just run and the best coaches incorporate training to develop a balanced, complete athlete. This is reached by training a variety of energy systems through workouts like: long runs, Vo2 Max workouts, tempo runs, strength training, anaerobic/lactate threshold workouts, intervals, recovery runs, absolute speed development, anaerobic glycolytic runs, progressions runs, aerobic threshold runs, flexibility work, neuromuscular training, biomechanical drills, speed endurance… and the list goes on. Volume, intensity and focus vary depending on the needs of the individual but all workouts fall into one of these categories. The athletes who perform the best have coaches who understand and train multiple facets of being a distance runner.
Doug Soles, coach of Great Oak high school in California believes in doing all their different types of workouts throughout the entire year. They are always working on trying to develop each category for improvement. The focus for summer and fall is on strength and endurance while winter and spring focuses more on speed and Vo2 Max repeats. Mileage ranges from 65-85 miles a week, except during major meets, and pure speed is done every day in the form of 50 yard sprint variations. Attention to lactate threshold runs in the fall is a key determining factor for his team's fitness and confidence. Paces for these "tempo runs" are either 80% effort or 88% Vo2 Max. They will do 3 x 2 mile tempo runs, or a 5 mile tempo, or 2 x 3 mile tempos. Never do they have a day where they simply run 3 miles and go home. His focus is always on working some category of fitness for improvement. Strength training, biomechanics, speed all have a daily place in this system in addition to structured workouts a few times a week. Soles says, "if you can get your workout done in an hour in the heart of the season, as a coach, you are probably not doing everything you can to develop your athletes long term." It is the job of the coach to set up a program to develop each category of athleticism. Rarely, will an athlete post "elite" times doing low mileage and little to no supplemental work. With two girls being invited to the Brooks PR Invitational meet this year and one running the Dream Mile; it is obvious coach Soles overall approach develops athletes to be able to run on the national level.
Above: Coach Doug Soles and the Great Oak girls winning another CIF championship
Lars Porter and Tom Esslinger of Homewood high school, both believe in the same approach. Homewood attempts to include a training session geared toward developing one of each of the energy systems in each 14-day microcycle. While there may be a different emphasis from month to month, nothing is left out or ignored for a long period of time. Speed work, strength training and biomechanics are a critical part of their program. Esslinger states, "Pure speed is undervalued on the distance side and biomechanics are essential. Watch any elite race. A distance runner must be able to sprint at the end of the race." Homewood distance runners lift to be strong enough to run fast. Porter states, "I have noticed that many biomechanical issues are not a result of not knowing how run properly, but rather not having the ability to run properly due to strength discrepancies. I believe that running at max speed is a huge benefit to those with biomechanical issues." While speed work and strength are obviously important to their training design, volume is also an integral part. Both coaches agree that mileage needs to be appropriate to suit the needs of the athlete. Both coaches agree that the intensity and the mileage need to be increased at the high school level in order for athletes to be competitive on the national level. While the mileage differs for individuals, the staple workouts remain the same. In August and September, their primary workout sessions are- 5 x1000m with a 2-3 minute recovery and then 12 x 400m with a 1 minute recovery. These heavy interval sessions lead to October November session, one of Porter's favorite repetition workouts, 3 x mile with 5-7 minutes of recovery below race pace. Throughout the year, they have a lactate threshold run at least once every microcycle in addition to rep work and interval work. Paces vary based on ability level and training groups are established based on goals, ability and training age. This system is working well in Homewood as they continue to find success.
Above: Homewood Success
Devon Hind, of Hoover high school, leaves a lot up to his athletes. A lot of what he uses to determine how hard to push his athletes is based on their effort. He establishes a mindset with his team that you get out of his program what you put in. The routines are set up to build over-all fitness and strength. From videos to biomechanical drills every day, the responsibility is on the athlete to glean what they can from each activity. They rely heavily on two interval sessions a week which are on back-to-back days on Tuesday and Wednesday. Monday is a mileage day. Tuesday's interval session begins with a fast mile followed by long intervals and general strength work. Wednesday is comprised of short intervals. Thursday is an out and back run, out in 13 minutes and back in 12 and a video workout. If there is a Saturday race, Friday is simply some 200's. Hoover takes Sunday off. Paces for these workouts are again based on the athlete's individual. While training volume is relatively simple, intensity is critical for coach Hind. Coach Hind "hates to lose." He states, "If you are going to be on my team then you'd better be ready to give it all you've got or we won't get along too well. He says he is more concerned with their commitment level than their talent level. He states, "show me guts in practices and in races and you've got my full attention and dedication no matter how fast you are." Coach Hind's "non-scientific" approach does incorporate all aspects of improving fitness for the athletes willing to buy in and do what it takes to improve.
Above: Coach Hind with his team after their 2-day 51 mile "test"
Kevin Kelly of Henderson high school in Pennsylvania structures his training program 8-weeks away from the peak meet of the season. He says, "We start the real workouts 8 weeks before our peak meet which makes early season meets difficult." Rarely do they work out on a track or do a measured loop. Everything they do revolves around running for a set period of time. An example of quality workouts are, one day will be: 3 x 7:00 with 2 minute rest followed by 4 x 5:00 with 1 minute rest. The next quality day will be something shorter; 12 x 1:00 with 1 minute rest, followed by 8 x :90 seconds with 1 minute rest. They also lean heavily on lactate threshold runs in order to give athletes the ability to finish races strong. Long runs build up to around 1 hour 40 minutes to build aerobic capacity. They do drills to emphasize biomechanics and lift weights to build overall strength. Mileage depends on the group ability level and they do doubles two times per week. The peak mileage for his team was about 65 miles a week. Pace for the workouts is based on perceived exertion with the ultimate goal of getting his athletes to, "run hard and stay relaxed." His philosophy is to, "Have fun, don't over complicate things and don't worry about what anyone else is doing. Obviously, hard work and commitment fall in there somewhere also." Having 9 guys at one time under 4:20 for the mile proves this system is effective for his team.
Above: Henderson boys packing together
Training an endurance athlete to be successful requires an understanding of developing athleticism beyond merely running. Strength, flexibility, aerobic capacity and speed must be considered. For too long, distance runners have been viewed as athletes without speed. For too long, distance coaches have ignored the speed and strength required to run the longer distance races fast. If we are not training our athletes to be able to run fast- they will never run fast. In order to run fast, these athletes must be strong. Everything works together and coaches and athletes should understand how and why these components make elite athletes.