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5 takeaways from coaching high school distance runners in 2023

Year-End Reflection

2023 was a memorable year for my high school team. We had an out-of-this-world talent (Simeon Birnbaum), kids striving for their first “Sub 6” and everything in between.  I did a better job of documenting training from the season as I had a hunch I’d want to take a look back on it later on.  

Here’s a summary of things I’d trash along with items to recycle and use again.  

Trash: Strict Pace Guidelines

The JV kids that improved the most didn’t listen a lick and ran way faster than I wanted on their easy days.  They ran with the kids they wanted to become (the varsity group) and there was value in that. 

What I learned from the improvement on these kids was the value of moderate days; days neither hard nor easy, but somewhere in the middle.   I recently started to program these and could tell it was definitely a new stress; even though the runs weren’t “fast”, they embarrassed the current fitness of my runners.  It was a missing piece of training. 

Now, once a week, I’m programming about an hour of moderate-intensity running with just the verbiage ”steady”.  I don’t care how fast, but it’s a pace that ends up between easy running and what we would use for a Tempo Run. 

Trash: Workouts with a Singular Focus

In the meat of the season, kids were starting to predict almost exactly what the workout days would be, down to the reps and sets, which meant I wasn’t including enough variety or creativity in our workout days.  What I’m talking about is something like 5-6x1k and that’s it.  

I think there’s some value in daily consistency.  For example, I have days each week that look exactly the same each week.  Monday’s were always an easy run plus drills, skips and speed.   

However, my “workout days” started to get too predictable, which I didn’t like and neither did anyone else.  Races aren’t predictable and the primary workout days shouldn’t be either. 

When I was a younger coach, I was way more creative and I want to get back to that. 

Recycle: Limit Speed Endurance Work

In early May, Simeon hurt his hamstring in a 400 leg of a 4x400 relay.  He was able to train, but anything faster than threshold effort aggravated the injury.  So, instead of moving into more specific Mile/800 type work, we continued a focus on Long Runs, Tempo/Progression Runs and Threshold-type fartlek work as that was really the only option to continue training.  

Although we were only able to sprinkle in minimal amounts of speed-endurance work, he was still able to run some of the best middle distance times in high school history in June, including 8:34 for two miles, 3:37 in the 1500 meters and 1:47 in the 800m. 

The lesson was that you don’t need many (or any if you’re racing a normal high school schedule) gut-busting speed-endurance sessions to kill it in the middle-distances.  Middle distance races will always be primarily aerobic.  

It’s a reminder I got this year and everytime I try to specialize an athlete as an “800 runner”. 

Recycle: Experiment like a Mad Scientist

I don’t have any special benchmark workouts, or anything like that, rather I have some go-to tendencies that I rely upon: 

  • A variety of threshold-type work that’s slower than race paces

  • A “Short to long” approach in work that’s faster than race pace

  • Lining up ancillary training (speed, strength, skill, suppleness) with the running workouts

With these loose guidelines, I’m able to experiment with things like weekly structure and the “order of operations”.  

In 2023, I primarily used a rotation that looked like this: 

Day 1: Easy + Speed & Plyo

Day 2: Workout + Strength

Day 3: Medium Long or Long Run + Core & Mobility

In 2024, I’ve already experimented with 

Day 1: Plyo + Workout + Strength

Day 2: Easy + Core

Day 3: Medium Long or Long Run + Mobility

Recycle: Be a Sponge

I’ve been coaching and studying training for nearly 20 years and I still feel like I don’t know anything about anything. 

I have literally changed bits and pieces of everything I do as a result of learning from all of the D-Crew clinicians.

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