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Posted: April 20, 2006

Athletics: There is no Right Answer – Only Guiding Principles

What I learned from 11 of the best cross country coaches

Part 1 of 3

It was a typical hot and humid July afternoon in Washington, DC. Despite the heat advisories I went for a run through Rock Creek Park. Big mistake. Ten minutes into the run my heart was racing and I was sweating profusely. My skin was burning from the heat and humidity! But I trudged along running at a much slower pace than normal - a pace that allowed my mind to wander. When I run hard, I don't think well. Deciphering what pace equals a 2:18 marathon or how many points I accumulated in my fantasy football league is next to impossible when running at high-speed. A slow pace permits my brain to work better, especially the creative side. This is when my crazy ideas are normally hatched - a running magazine, a running television network, a professional running league - and today was no different. Today was the day I thought about chasing tradition.

Almost five months following that fateful July run, I am back in Washington, DC. My last 11 weeks have been immersed in the culture of the nation's top distance running programs, and I now possess an invaluable wealth of running knowledge. I ran, ate, slept and hung out with today’s elite distance runners, picked the brains of the most renowned coaches, and soaked up the tradition that brought these teams to the top - and keeps them there. For one week at each school, I documented the 2005 collegiate cross country season – I chased their tradition. My journey included the following schools: University of Portland, Adams State (DII), Colorado, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Wisconsin - LaCrosse (DIII), Iona, Dartmouth, William & Mary, Georgetown, and Virginia Intermont (NAIA).

The project started with a trip to Portland. I wasn't sure what to expect. I assumed that I would uncover some secret training philosophies, special workouts and cutting-edge recovery regimens. I imagined there would be a "right" answer to training theory, that the answers would be complex with multiple variables such as a scientific formula is, but always leading to one concrete, undeniable solution that was universally implemented. I was wrong. I learned there isn't one right answer, but there are several guiding principles that every elite coach seems to follow. In this article - Part 1 of 3 - I'll lay out those principles which I discovered to be deeply entrenched in each of the prestigious programs I visited. In Part 2 we'll look at how each coach adapts those principles to fit within their specific training environment (athletes, terrain, available time, goals, etc). And in Part 3 I'll evaluate the different techniques and styles and combine the knowledge of the colleges’ top coaches into a sample training plan for high school coaches looking to prepare their athletes for a collegiate running career.

The Guiding Principles

There are four principles that I observed at each of the eleven programs I visited. The specific training regimen varied, but the overriding principles remained constant. First, though, let's take a minute to consider "training environment" and "training time"; these are important concepts that will reoccur throughout the article. Training is a stress to the body. Exercising too hard and too often will cause your body to break down. So when we look at training always consider your own training environment and your athlete's training time. There isn't a "one size fits all" training plan. Georgetown can't copy what Colorado does and Colorado can't copy what Notre Dame does.

Why? Because they're in different training environments. I'm not talking solely about geographic location or climate. I'm talking about all the variables that make each program unique - altitude, training surfaces, individual ability levels, schedule, coaching staff, goals, etc. On top of the training environment you also have to consider training time - how much time the athlete can devote to training. Remember, training is a stress, but so is studying, writing for the school newspaper, belonging to a fraternity, traveling to a meet, etc. At the high school and college level you're dealing with student-athletes and have to take into account the entire day - not just the 2-4 hours that you're with your athletes. So the question that coaches and real world runners face is, "How do I adapt certain training philosophies to my own training environment and my athlete's training time to optimize performance?" Consider the four principles coached and preached at each program: aerobic fitness, race-pace intervals, psychological training, and recovery.

I. Aerobic Fitness

Cross country running is ultimately about aerobic fitness. Even the most talented runner can't "gut" their way through a cross country race. Maximizing aerobic fitness is the top priority for every coach. Without a solid aerobic foundation an athlete will never reach their peak. The top programs maximize aerobic fitness by running hard and often. It starts in the summer and continues right up to the National Championship. Mileage and pace vary, but the key is to include as much aerobic running as possible within the allotted training time. Specifically, there are three types of aerobic running that I observed: Recovery Running (easy running to help speed recovery), Maintenance Running (a harder run, but still short of threshold pace) and Threshold Running (running at threshold pace). The majority of the aerobic work was done in the Maintenance range. How each program incorporated these types of runs varied, but for the most part they did one threshold run per week, one long run (at maintenance or faster pace), several maintenance runs of varying distance, and a few recovery runs.

Aside from threshold runs (where the pace was very specific), the coaches didn't dictate the pace for each run. Instead, they dictated an effort. This is an example of how good coaches adapt to their training environment. We know scientifically that heart rates and lactate levels are the most specific variables we can use to direct training effort, but no college coach has the resources necessary to train 15-40 athletes with that type of equipment. The cost and logistics are overwhelmingly prohibitive. Instead, they use the underlying physiological principles to guide their training - "I want you to run easy this afternoon" or "Start out easy, but gradually increase the pace to where you're running hard, but controlled; maybe 5:50 effort."

Today's running culture seems to have adopted a "don't run too hard" mentality. But the truth is, aerobic running is the least stressful type of running. Sure, if you're constantly running right at your threshold (~85% of MaxVO2) your body will break down. But if you focus the majority of your aerobic running in the Maintenance range (~70-80% of MaxVO2) you should see gradual improvement and recover quickly.

II. Race-Pace Intervals with Short Rest

When we think of intervals we tend to envision fast 400's on the track. While there is a time and place for that type of work, the majority of interval training during the cross country season - mile repeats, kilometer repeats, 400 repeats - should be done at or close to race pace with short rest. The goal of this type of interval training is very specific - to get as comfortable as possible running race pace. Many times coaches try to disguise interval training with ladders or other varied-distance segments in an effort to take the athlete's mind off of the work. That's counterproductive. One of the main reasons race-pace interval training is effective is so the athlete can feel exactly what it will feel like during a race. Take that away and you're missing a key element of interval training. Coach Wetmore of Colorado instructs his runners to "pay attention to your sensory data" while Coach Gibby at William & Mary stresses his runners to feel the "sensation of the interval."

Aside from pace and rest, the other important variable for interval training is volume - total distance covered in the session. Excluding the last few weeks of the season when teams were tapering, the volume usually equaled race distance. So for the men a common interval workout was 5-6 x 1 mile. For the women it was 5-6 x 1000m. Depending on the time of year and pace of the interval, the rest ranged from 90 seconds to 3 minutes. Of course there were plenty of variations - such as Colorado's 2 x 3600m, Virginia Intermont's 25 x 400m with "hammers", and William & Mary's race-simulation workout. The specifics of these variations will be covered in Part II of this article.

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III. Mental Toughness

Cross Country is mentally tough. Aside from the myriad variables not in your control (weather, course conditions, number of runners, etc), there is a point in every race when you're faced with a decision - do I push harder or just try to hang on? This is where races are won and lost. This is the point where - when two athletes of equal ability are battling each other - the athlete who is tougher mentally breaks their opponent. Great coaches know this and use different techniques to try to teach race-specific mental toughness.

I've already mentioned one tactic - same-distance intervals. Why attempt to mask the pain that a runner will feel in a race by disguising intervals? As a coach you want your athletes to know exactly what to expect when that gun goes off. If they can focus and push through the fifth of six mile repeats, then they'll be able to do the same in a race. In every sport we practice skills specific to the game - running should be no different.

This aspect of coaching takes some creativity and a good understanding of what motivates certain athletes. The same approach won't work for every athlete and I noticed that each coach implemented athlete-specific variables into the training that were aimed at building mental toughness. For example, Alex Gibby (William & Mary) doesn’t tell his athletes the workout until right before it starts. “I want them to be mentally flexible and prepared for whatever I could potentially throw at them.” Although every coach doesn’t use this same strategy, they all give credence to the mental aspect of running.

IV. Proper Recovery

Physiology tells us that adaptations to training (i.e. improvement) occur during recovery, not the actual workout. This concept wasn't lost on these coaches - proper recovery was a focus of the training week. Unfortunately for our athletes, resources oftentimes dictate the degree of recovery aids available, but let's look at the basics. Aside from sleep, nutrition is probably the most important recovery aid, yet it's often overlooked. Replenishing your body within 30 minutes of a hard effort is vital. Portland and Ohio State would always take large coolers of Gatorade when they traveled off campus for practice, and Colorado offered Powerbars and bottles of Gatorade in their weight room. At Dartmouth and Adams State, athletes would bring their own preferred recovery drink and energy bar. While not every coach adhered to the same nutritional recovery products, they each encouraged their athletes to bring something to eat and drink to every workout.

Icing is probably the easiest recovery aid to provide. An ice bath or cold pool is ideal, but bags of ice, or even ice cups, work just fine. A more recent trend is the contrast bath - rotating between ice and heat in an effort to flush the muscles of waste products. Proper nutrition and icing are easy ways to speed recovery between workouts.

Massage and/or active release therapy are two other tools that coaches are starting to implement into their program. I was lucky to get a few massages and some active release work at Ohio State and William & Mary, two programs that utilize these treatments – and swear by their effectiveness. If these therapies are outside of your team budget athletes can compliment their recovery routine with The Stick, foam rollers, or dynamic rope stretching.

Lucky Number Four

There are many factors that make a cross country team successful, but they vary depending on your training environment and training time. I have found, though, that the four key principles outlined above are essential in every great coach’s training philosophy - aerobic fitness, race-pace intervals, mental toughness and proper recovery. How these principles are incorporated depends on many factors (personality of the coach, team goals, school location, etc.), but these pillars provide the foundation for all successful cross country programs.

Matt Taylor is a running entrepreneur who recently completed an 11-week project called “ChasingTradition”. He has coaching experience at the high school and college level and is USATF Level I and II certified, but his passion is providing unique and innovative coverage of the sport. Taylor is in the early stages of a new venture that he hopes to announce early in the New Year. For more information, go to www.chasingtradition.com or email him at matt@chasingtradition.com.


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