High School and College Running Periodization
From Jason Karp creator of the REVO₂LUTION RUNNING™ certification program
“although throwing many interval workouts and races at runners can improve fitness quickly, long-term progress should not be subordinated to short-term results.”
“There are two schools of thought,” the college coach said to me, as I watched the 800-meter runners run 200-meter reps on the track at 800-meter PR pace in November. She was referring to how to train middle-distance and distance runners—either with high-intensity training or high-volume training. “You’re right,” I responded, “the right school of thought and the wrong school of thought.”
Let’s discuss those schools of thought so we can understand why one is more effective than the other.
Growing up a runner in New Jersey, my high school had three competitive seasons: cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track. We raced all the time. When we weren’t racing, we were doing interval workouts around the school’s grass fields, on the track, and even inside the school’s hallways during the cold, snowy winter.
Needless to say, I didn’t run many miles in high school. Along with my teammates, I ran a lot of intensity, all the time. Cross-country season consisted of two 5K races per week—a dual meet on Tuesday and a multi-team invitational race on Saturday; indoor track season consisted of two or three races during all-day Saturday meets; and outdoor track season consisted of several races per week, between a weekly dual meet and a multi-team invitational meet on Saturday. As a senior, I remember the first time my cross-country coach told the team we were going to run for an hour around the school neighborhood. I nearly flipped; I thought it was such a long time to run. Training is often a matter of perspective. We should have been running that long all the time.
The high school and college cross-country and track environments present a unique training problem. Between the emphasis on racing and the desire for immediate results, runners’ aerobic development is often sacrificed for the sake of intensity. And that’s not ideal if the goal is to become a better distance runner. Runners and coaches need to adequately prepare for many races, sustain motivation and desire, and train with an optimal strategy.
On one of the high school track teams I coached, there was an athlete who got a stress fracture from playing soccer in the fall. He missed half the track season because of it. When he was finally cleared to run, he wanted to join the rest of the athletes on the team at practice for their interval workouts. “I’m glad you’re able to run again,” I told him. “Let’s start by doing some easy runs around the school neighborhood.” He didn’t like my answer. In fact, he didn’t like my answer so much that I got a call from his father the next day. After spending 30 minutes on the phone explaining to his father that there is a method to training and that his son shouldn’t jump into faster workouts without first doing the aerobic training, especially since he was just coming back from a stress fracture, his father said to me, “My son needs a track coach, not a life coach.”
“Well, with me, you get both,” I responded.
There are no shortcuts. If I had this athlete jump into what everyone else was doing halfway through the season, not only would that have been irresponsible because I would have been putting him at severe risk of reinjury, but it also would have taught him that it’s okay to take shortcuts and not do the preparatory work that everyone else on the team had already done. This is a life lesson, not just a running lesson. If you want to be successful, you must do the work. All of it. Of course, the teenage athlete just wanted to run with his friends.
Imagine that you’re sitting in an empty room at a table with a plate of cookies and are told you can have one cookie now or two cookies later. Which option would you choose? Such a scenario was used in the 1960s and 1970s by psychologist Walter Mischel, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Stanford University to examine the psychology of delayed gratification and self-control among preschool children., In a series of experiments, they tested under which conditions children would give in to temptation and under which conditions they would delay gratification and wait for a preferred reward. The children waited the longest time when neither the delayed nor the immediate reward was available for the children’s attention while they waited. They waited the shortest time when both the delayed and the immediate rewards were on the table in front of them while they waited.
Many years later, as teenagers and as adults, the preschoolers who showed self-control and delayed gratification longer were more self-reliant and confident, earned much better SAT scores, were better able to pursue and reach long-term goals, and had reached higher educational levels, and even weighed less. Individuals who had lifelong low self-control experienced problems with their behavior when they were faced with attractive temptations.
Being a successful runner requires a lot of self-control, delaying gratification now for the more desirable reward later. People can wait for something without frustration if they expect that they really will get the deferred larger outcome later, and, in the meantime, shift their attention elsewhere and occupy themselves with distractions.
While running slow miles around the neighborhood may not be as glamorous as fast interval training on the track, aerobic training volume is crucial for runners during their developmental high school and college years, if they desire to be good runners. While there is no magical number of miles to run per week to be successful, the best high school and college runners tend to be the ones who run the most, although it can take years to safely reach a higher level of mileage. Many high school runners who run in college go from a low-mileage high school program to a high-mileage college program, which often leads to injuries. If a high school runner doesn’t run a lot in high school, he or she can’t just jump into running a lot in college. There must either be a bridge between high school and college training, or better volume preparation in high school to handle the college training. College coaches who train their athletes with high mileage also need to be careful recruiting high school runners who run low mileage in high school, lest they get injured in their freshman year of college from the much greater training load that awaits them. In this case, the runner should spend his or her entire freshman year of college adjusting to the higher volume, rather than follow the volume, intensity, and racing schedule of the rest of the team.
Aerobic development takes a lot longer than anaerobic development.
Although volume has a significant impact on every runner’s success, high school runners need to increase their mileage slowly and methodically, matching the training to what they can handle each year. Injuries like shin splints (medial tibial stress syndrome) and stress fractures are common among high school runners, who are subjecting their bones to new stress. It’s easy to go overboard with volume for youngsters, but we risk losing too many potential good runners if we start off stressing mileage when they are in high school (or in middle school). From their current starting point, whether zero, 20, or 50 miles per week, slowly increase the mileage from the beginning of cross-country season until it’s time to back off to taper prior to the most important end-of-season races.
Plan the cross-country season as one macrocycle, decreasing the volume during the final mesocycle. After the short transition phase following cross-country season, start increasing the volume again through the macrocycle of indoor track season, and finally again for outdoor track season. If there is no indoor track season, combine the winter and spring seasons into one macrocycle, and increase the volume after the transition phase following cross country until the final mesocycle of outdoor track season. All of this requires a methodical approach, focusing on aerobic training, and sprinkling in just enough speed work to improve speed and elicit performance peaks.
Perhaps the biggest training mistake that runners make is running too fast during their easy runs. High school (and, to a lesser extent, college) runners may be the epitome of this. Between the natural immaturity that accompanies young age and the competitiveness that accompanies the team environment, young runners often like to race each other, even when the run is supposed to be easy. If young runners always push the pace on easy days and do a lot of interval training and races, they can’t also do a lot of volumes. So in order to accommodate and progress with volume, the intensity of easy runs must decrease, at least until the runner gets used to higher volume. College runners who are used to high volume can spend more time getting used to a higher intensity at their already high volume.
Not only are interval training (or race) days of low volume, but the day before and the day after are also typically of low volume because those days often serve as easy, recovery days. Few runners are going to want to sacrifice a race by running a lot the day before. If a high school runner has a track meet on Tuesday and Saturday, that leaves Thursday as the only day of the week to focus on volume. If it’s possible to run longer the day after a cross-country or track meet, that still leaves only Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday to focus on low-intensity volume.
This is the problem that high school runners (and their coaches) have, with many cross-country and track meets scheduled throughout the school year. College runners also encounter this problem, albeit to a lesser degree because of races typically scheduled only on weekends. With all those races on the calendar, how do you train for them all? The smart thing to do is to not train for them all. If high school and college runners race often, not all those races should be dealt with the same way. Not every race is so important that you must be tapered for it. Train through early-season races, even using those races as workouts to meet the purpose of the mesocycle or microcycle. For example, a cross-country 5K race or a 3,000/3,200-meter track race can replace a VO2max interval workout; a college 8K/10K race can replace an acidosis threshold workout, and an 800-meter/1,500-meter/mile race can replace an anaerobic capacity workout.
Many young runners do a considerable amount of intensity (zones 3, 4, 5), much more than the 15 percent that elite runners do. Part of this difference is due to the fact that young runners do considerably less volume than elite runners, which shifts their training intensity distribution more toward intensity. The other part of this difference is simply that young runners do more intensity—they race much more often than elite runners and do more interval training.
Although throwing many interval workouts and races at runners can improve fitness quickly, long-term progress should not be subordinated to short-term results. As a high school and college coach, I have had many challenges with this. Young runners want immediate results; they don’t want to train now for next year’s races, or even next season’s races. It is often difficult for them to see the long-term picture, regardless of the coach’s attempts at helping them to do so. Like the compromise I had to make for that teenager on the track team who wanted to run interval workouts with his friends after a soccer-induced stress fracture, training volume must be balanced with enough intensity to keep the athletes interested and competitive.
In the developmental years, training intensity needs to be carefully controlled, with the major increase in training from year to year coming from volume, sprinkling in just enough intensity at the right times to get the job done and keep the athletes interested and motivated. The more aerobically fit runners are, the more they will ultimately get from their subsequent speed work. At a young age, training should focus on general skill acquisition and general conditioning, which can be used as a springboard to specific skill acquisition and specific conditioning as the athlete physically and psychologically matures. One of the confusing problems is that runners (and their coaches) get results when they run fast workouts. This is true. But hammering through more and more interval workouts is not how to keep getting faster. This is true for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that anaerobic fitness is limited (you can only increase speed by so much). In contrast, aerobic fitness is virtually unlimited, at least up to the point that genetics will allow for further adaptation.
“So you see,” I said to the college coach who was observing the 800-meter runners on the track, “that’s why the aerobic approach is more effective for younger runners. It’s like the chocolate episode of I Love Lucy.”
There are exceptions to the methodical, aerobic-volume approach. For example, if a high school student comes out for the cross-country and track teams because he or she wants to have fun, hang out with friends, or simply as a way to get excused from physical education class, then, by all means, take the short-term approach and don’t worry about six months from now. Likewise, if the student-athlete is a senior, with no plans to run in college, then the training should also reflect that circumstance. If, however, a freshman comes out for the team and wants to find out how good he or she can become, then a long-term training approach that focuses on volume and carefully controls intensity is necessary. There are many reasons to run cross country and track; the student-athletes goals must always be of primary importance.
Training Program Design
In some ways, the design of a high school or college runner’s training program is easier than that of other training programs, because the structure is already provided as four distinct seasons (macrocycles): cross country, indoor track, outdoor track, and summer. (If there’s no indoor track season, then the outdoor track becomes a larger macrocycle, with perhaps a slightly longer recovery/transition period following cross-country season.) All you have to do is divide those macrocycles into mesocycles, working backward from the end of each season, and factor in recovery/transition phases following the final race of each season. Each macrocycle begins with a general preparation phase, followed by a specific preparation phase, competition phase, and recovery/transition phase. Repeat this pattern for each season, and you have an annual high school and college training plan. The duration of each phase (general prep, specific prep, competition, and recovery/transition) can be shortened or lengthened to accommodate the competition schedule of each season. Races during the general prep and specific prep phases should be trained through, using those races as workouts, so as not to sacrifice the aerobic training that needs to be done to be able to race fast during the competition phase.
Training Female High School and College Runners
I once inherited a women’s college cross-country team on which half the athletes had experienced a stress fracture. One athlete had had seven stress fractures! It didn’t take long to find out that there had been no communication between the athletes and the previous coach about the athletes’ menstrual cycles, and there was no screening done of the athletes’ bone density. (Ironically, faculty in the exercise science department at that university had a history of conducting and publishing research on the relationships between bone density, menstrual cycle, and musculoskeletal injuries in adolescent female athletes.) As a result of this neglect, no one knew that there was an injury risk or who on the team was at risk.
If training high school and college runners present a unique problem, training high school and college female runners presents a really unique problem. Unfortunately, the situation I encountered as the new coach of that college team is a common problem among high school and college cross-country and track teams. An irregular or absent menstrual cycle, which often occurs in female runners with a low percentage of body fat, is the most significant factor affecting a female’s bone density. When a high school or college runner doesn’t menstruate regularly or hasn’t yet started having a menstrual cycle, and that runner increases the training load, it increases the likelihood that she will get a stress fracture.
With a normal, regular menstrual cycle, high school and college female runners can train in concert with their cycle. In the case of menstrual irregularity or amenorrhea, however, you need to take certain precautions. To prevent adolescent female runners from getting injured, coaches (and athletes, and the athletes’ parents) need to be diligent about communicating with each other in a supportive environment. This can be a difficult conversation for female athletes to have with male coaches, so a female may need to act as an intermediary between the coach and athlete. If it is learned that the female athlete’s menstrual cycle is irregular or absent, the athlete should get a bone density scan. It is only when the coach and athlete have this information that a stress fracture can be prevented. Female high school runners (and their coaches) need to be aware of the factors of the female athlete triad (which has recently been renamed Relative Energy Deficiency in Sports, or RED-S)—decreased bone density, menstrual irregularities, and disordered eating—and how each can be dealt with so that they can train and compete healthily. As the name RED-S suggests, female runners need to eat appropriately for the amount of energy they expend through training so that they don’t experience decreased bone density (osteoporosis and osteopenia) or menstrual irregularities. If they do have menstrual irregularities, that doesn’t mean they need to stop running, just that extra care needs to be taken in planning the training so as not to increase training volume or intensity too quickly. They may also need to do some targeted strength training to increase bone density and increase calcium and vitamin D in their diets or through supplements.
As with adult female runners, anemia from an iron deficiency is also a common issue among high school and college female runners, which can result from losses of iron in the blood from menstruation and/or inadequate iron in the diet. Young female runners must ensure that they consume enough iron or take an iron supplement if their iron storage (ferritin) is low.
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