By Jeff Arbogast
Distance running training seems predisposed to allowing a variety of ideas, philosophies and theories all to be considered in vogue or correct at various times. National magazines devoted to the sport have published monthly for decades about an activity that is among the most simple or elemental, detailing endless variations of training programs. It seems that anyone who has completed a 5K before the timing system is shut down possesses the requisite expertise to advise on any aspect of running from diet and nutrition through exercise physiology and ending at microcycle design.
Yet with all these tweakings of training, adjustments in intensity and duration of mileage, and shifting around of protocols for speed work and speed-endurance, we are competing at relatively similar levels overall to 10, 20 or 30 years ago, particularly at the adolescent level. The favoring of the “new” methodology has supplanted the “old-school” philosophy. In a few instances, research, science and creativity have given us fresh and positive directions unheard of 30 years ago; but in many more cases, our insatiable desire to cut corners and gain instant training gratification has led us down training paths from which mediocrity is the only escape.
Always beware of those mentors and coaches who avoid all things new. If we accepted as training gospel the counsel from purely “old-school” coaches, we would all be picking cinders out of our knees and drinking bicarbonate of soda. On the other hand, if we avoid the lessons of the past, we will certainly lose decades of valuable lessons and repeat mistakes ad infinitum. The proper balance obviously lies in between.
As athletes, parents and coaches, the trick appears to be identifying those training principles that are inviolable. If we can all start with and adhere to the basics of training that really mean something, the end result will be much more consistent. Instead of relying on random training luck or freak talent, shouldn’t we identify the basics of training that decades of experience have taught us to be true?
So, what are the lessons of the past 30 years? Let’s examine a list.
1. Year round training is mandatory for optimal success.
The best advances in performance come when a “macro-consistency” is applied. An athlete has to allow a long period of time for training to develop. The body does not follow the new millennium philosophy of “I want it now!” Plan out a yearly set of objectives and evaluate your progress often.
2. Training builds momentum.
Workouts have an inertia all their own. Once you start stringing together workouts with consistency, they develop the inertia of a snowball rolling downhill. They pick up momentum and ultimately become a huge motivator. If you have put together an entire week of training without missing anything, you accomplish something that helps with getting out of bed in the second week. One month becomes two, and two becomes a season, and a couple seasons become a yearly plan. Do what you can to keep the string of training alive so it helps to drive you.
3. We can’t do it all (at least we can’t do it all well).
In many areas of the country, adolescent athletes are expected to “try everything.” The unfortunate aspect of that is we have developed a generation of adolescents who can take fourth in the Pinewood Derby, play the piano well enough to accompany the family in a Christmas carol and can get their orange belt in karate – all at the same time. The problem is that none of these things have tested the limits of excellence of the adolescent. Experiences are great, but every distance runner has to make a choice: Am I happy with mediocrity, or would I like to explore my potential? Finding your own limitations in something in life should be a priority. The cure for cancer or secret of cold fusion will not be discovered by the myriads of adolescents who only learn to do everything halfway.
4. Train with others.
You learn while mutually exploring the sport and sharing ideas. Training with others allows more than one to learn from any single mistake. Distance running can be boring at times, and the friendships born out of mutual suffering for a goal are strong ones. There are very few better types of people to associate with other than fellow distance runners who share your desire, dedication and perseverance. Gain from the synergy of 1 + 1 = 3 and stay together.
5. Train with others faster than you.
You improve by associating with higher-caliber individuals. Whether you are golfing, playing tennis or competing in cross country, you do not improve by hammering lesser competition. The most recent phenomenon in the “ball” sports is sending your child up a level to play with better and bigger athletes. We can and should adopt this philosophy. You won’t improve by slowing down for lesser runners. You also won’t improve by emulating those who don’t have goals as high as yours. Improve by training “up.”
6. Set a priority on running and running with your team.
Many of those unfamiliar with running at higher levels will just comment “It’s just running.” They use that to justify the myriads of activities that take an athlete away from the team and runners of faster pace. After all, you can run anywhere, right? Wrong. You can jog anywhere, but running for improvement happens with your teammates, on specific workouts, at high speed, with stated training goals. Pilgrimages over the summer, cruises, extended campouts, a plethora of church activities, and reunions for every clan you are remotely connected with may be perceived as necessary, but close examination will reveal that the football team, the drill team or even the tennis team does not sanction or permit excessive absence, nor will parents say “It’s just football.” Those athletes are playing and practicing for a starting spot, and there is no way Dad is going to schedule a vacation during two-a-days in August. However, every other priority takes precedence over distance training because “It’s just running.”
7. Go hard on hard days and easy on easy ones.
One of the more difficult concepts for an adolescent to understand is the principle of recovery. Recovery is the most critical aspect of training and cannot be completely accomplished without a separation of effort from hard to easy days. Whether the hard day is a race or a hard workout, it needs to be scheduled into a microcycle so that an easy effort follows it on a normal microcycle plan. There are a few exceptions, but in general, adolescent athletes decline to give their hardest effort on hard days, then feel guilty and go hard enough to preclude recovery on easy ones.
8. The hardest part of training is diet, rest and hydration.
True distance trainers want to hammer the “event-specific” training and look upon all other things as next to worthless. But, the more dedicated the adolescent athlete, the less willing he or she seems to be to accomplish the peripheral items of training that allow recovery. If you fail to provide the proper fuel at the proper time (food), you won’t be able to recover for the next hard day. If you do not rest well and often, you don’t provide the body time to recover. If you do not hydrate well enough, the body won’t perform at a maximum level on hard days and will not have a high enough blood plasma volume to efficiently metabolize oxygen.
9. Distance runners must lift weights.
Although lifting weights is imperative for female adolescents, it is always helpful for males as well. A complete circuit-type lifting program, completed year-round, allowing 48 hours between bouts and lifting to fatigue but not failure, will provide the distance athlete the critical upper body strength to drive the arms as levers and keep the legs strong at a full range of motion. Physical form breakdown will be delayed or eliminated in a race if an athlete is strong enough to maintain form and relaxation under stress.
10. Distance runners must do core abdominal work.
The central core of the body holds form together as the peripheral levers (arms and legs) get weaker and build up lactic acid. Core workouts that include sit-ups, crunches, leg lifts, resisted sit-ups and leg lifts, and other types of abdominal work are critical to maintaining form and keeping the body erect and transporting oxygen during the latter stages of a race. Core that is done with body weight alone can be done daily. Why not do it while watching TV or as a break from homework?
11. Start with strength and move to speed throughout the yearly plan.
Strength is a precursor to holding form in speed-endurance and speed work. If an athlete misses the strength component of a yearly plan, his or her goals should be commensurately lower all the way through the macrocycles until the next strength cycle (summer) is completed. No athlete can run his or her fastest in the track season if he or she hasn’t built up the required strength in the summer and the speed-endurance in cross country. The bottom line? Summer is critical to every facet of success throughout the year. An inadequate summer cannot be made up. Yes, you may run fast in cross country, indoor or outdoor, but you won’t run what you could have. Everything builds from a challenging and consistent summer.
12. Start with good shoes and stay in good shoes.
Parents think nothing of paying $125 per karate tourney, $600 for a football kicking clinic or $450 for costumes for dance, but when a set of running shoes (perhaps the only expense) is needed for a distance athlete, we seem to do all we can to avoid the expense. Buy good shoes from a reliable outlet that is familiar with running, keep them dry and inside out of the sun, and rotate them often. You should always have a new pair and a fairly used pair. Shoe life is variable according to weight and running style of the athlete, but in most cases averages around 400-500 miles.
13. Your most important days are race days.
When you put on the uniform for your school, you also need to put on an attitude with it. In most cases, many athletes have gone before you and you carry their history, their accomplishments and their “ghosts.” Races should be the highest priority in your competitive and athletic life. Plan and prepare for them meticulously. Allow nothing to disturb your best effort on those days. Be a credit to your school or team and its past.
14. Plan on dealing with discomfort. It’s what you do.
Anyone in the halls of your school can run a part of your race. That isn’t what distance runners are all about. The dividing line between average and excellent runners happens when discomfort appears in a race. You must expect it, plan for it and embrace it. Take pride in the fact that what you do better than anyone else in your grade, your school, your region or your state is process pain. Those who learn to accept it and embrace it deal with it better. The measure of a runner happens not at the start of a race, but in the final 400 meters when every last bit of your aerobic efficiency is used up and you are pounding toward the line side by side with your bitter rival. Take pride in doing this thing well and process the pain as part of the race. You will recover instantly from the pain, but you will carry the power forever.
15. Avoid any and all things or people who promise a quick fix.
Supplements that do not work are just expensive. Supplements that do work are immoral and illegal in competition. Oxygenated waters, pills, radical training theories and training aids are designed to prey upon our desire for a quick fix. Distance training is a lot of consistent hard work. It is the opposite of a quick fix.
16. Don’t forget to train the mind with the body.
Seek sports psychology help. Continually surround yourself with positive and supportive people. Visualize and complete relaxation drills. Dream big. See yourself accomplishing all the goals you set. Don’t limit yourself arbitrarily. The mind will drive the body in a race long after the body wants to quit. Train both sides of the equation.
17. We don’t work hard enough.
Do not listen to those who wish to bring you down to societal mediocrity. We can and should do a lot more in our training but we are continually assaulted by people, advertising and education that diminishes our goals. We get better as athletes by training harder than those around us, and we experience even better success when we do that consistently. Society will want you to be average. You must decide you want to work harder than what society expects. If you train like those around you, you will race like them as well. You do not want to race like anyone at all, you just want to explore your ultimate potential and that won’t be prescribed by society.
18. Leadership is the most important factor in a team championship.
Talent, training and opportunity play a role in how well a team of distance runners will do, but nothing seems to determine a championship more than leadership. A team with a solid team leader always has an advantage in a championship meet. A leader should be the example in all ways: training, personal code and race performance. The leader doesn’t have to be the fastest on the team, but the leader should be the one who gets 100 percent out of whatever talent she or he has been given.
It is easy to discount the lessons of the past, but those who desire success will take every opportunity to ensure it. These distance lessons form the basics of training that all dedicated racers follow. To excel, learn them well and then incorporate new energy into your desire to succeed.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Arbogast has been the boys and girls cross country coach at Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, for the past 31 years and the boys and girls track teams for 29 years. He has led his teams to 10 state championships and annually has one of the nation’s top cross country programs. He has served on the NFHS Coaches Publications Committee since 2003 and currently serves as chair.