Coach Mike Mead

October 2008

The Need for Speed

Perhaps we’ve been doing it all wrong these last 20-plus years? That was the question I posed myself and my assistant Hugh Toro as we stood last month watching the boys’ 5K race at the “Battle of Atlanta” high school cross country meet at Nash Farm Battlefield near Hampton, Ga.

As we watched the frontrunners pass by us in the final mile of the race, the thought hit me that maybe young runners are not being trained correctly. There are faster high school runners these days than when I was coming up through the running ranks. But unless my brain is maxing out on memory, I sure believe that the quantity of kids were faster 30 years ago than they are today.

The intent of this column is to throw out some ideas for consideration in the development of high school runners. I do not have any facts to back up my musings, just a hunch that maybe the training needs to be retooled.

There are many more kids who run cross country, track and road races these days. But unfortunately, there are not as many qualified coaches out there giving proper instruction. I know this from my 13-plus years of coaching at the college level. We have had student-athletes, as well as prospects that did not come into our program, who were not getting properly coached at the high school level (another issue for another time perhaps).

In some cases – even at the college level – you’ll find someone coaching whose background is limited. They might have been a runner for a few years with some road racing experience, but did not compete at the high school or college level. This type of coach relies on their limited experience and the latest running gimmick found in the latest issue of their favorite running magazine.

The documented “running boom” of the 1970’s produced some great runners, but the boom may have also created our current shortcomings with more emphasis on distance running. Most young runners need base mileage, but perhaps they need more speed and pace training than slogging through long, slow runs.

Most high school kids – boys and girls – race the 5K distance. For the metric-challenged, that is 3.1 miles. From what I remember of my high school training, we tended to do a lot of intervals – like 3 x mile, 6 x 800, or 12 x 400 at goal pace -- and racing (15-18 meets) than much in the way of distance – that is runs over six miles.

We were expected to get in our “distance training” during the summer, but the average high school runners I knew back then ran four or five miles a day, 3-5 days per week. But as a runner matured and got better, they tended to do more summer training and worked up to 50-70 miles a week during the summer of their senior year.

Today’s high school runners do not do enough summer training. The distance runs they may do are too slow. I don’t think they are getting enough turnover workouts that develop their endurance speed or race enough in the summer to work on their pacing. They come into the season, whether it is cross country or track & field, not in shape and by the time they begin getting into shape, the season is over.

The toughest coaching challenge is getting a runner to get out of their comfort zone. Running is going to involve some pain; otherwise everyone would be doing it. Many runners fail to push themselves through their comfort zone to advance to the next level of running. The result is usually inconsistent finishes.

So, maybe today’s high school runners should be getting more speed training and less distance work. Running a 5K requires speed and endurance strength, but not as much distance running as we might think. Give them a chance to mature and gradually increase their annual mileage as they gain more experience. Running a bunch of distance in-season – like three or four runs per week over eight miles per run -- isn’t going to properly prepare the runner for their racing if their not doing tempo runs or faster than race pace training. Training at or a little faster than race pace is optimum. That’s where progress will come.