Monday, February 3, 2014

Yearly progression in training for high schoolers



Your training schedule is perhaps the most important determiner of your long-term success as a runner in high school, college, and beyond.  Well, that and your consistency—how well you are able to adhere to your training schedule.  The running career of a talented young high school runner is often determined by his or her long-term training structure: not just the workouts he or she runs this week or this month, but the progression of those workouts and the overall training structure each successive season and each successive year.  Today, instead of writing about specific workouts, I'd like to talk about how you can progress your training from season to season and from year to year. 

Just as you grow wiser, stronger, older, and more sophisticated as a person over time, so too should your training.  In general, as a runner becomes older, he or she should aspire to run more mileage, more volume in workouts, and have a schedule that is more complex. The most obvious application of these principles is in coaching high schoolers who aim to progress from complete novices to state or national-caliber runners in only a few years.  This progression necessarily continues in college, and beyond if they continue to compete as a post-collegiate runner.  Though we'll use the example of a high school runner below, many of the same principles about progression in training apply whether you're thirteen or thirty.

 Below, we'll look at the kind of overarching career training plan that a talented young (8th or 9th grade) male runner might lay out.  I'm not so interested in the training you do during the season, since that's pretty self-explanatory: most weeks should have one high-end aerobic workout, one race-specific workout, and a race or a lighter tertiary workout, with the other days filled in with easy mileage.  Besides, in-season training is largely out of the control of high school and college athletes.  Where they should focus, and where the big gains in fitness happen, is training during the "off season," or the summer and the winter.

Each season, you should have an "ideal" schedule that you gradually work your way up to during your base training (usually summer/winter), then maintain for several weeks.  The real key to long-term improvement is good, consistent training.  I'd much rather see a boy who's a rising high school junior string together four or five weeks of 55 miles than go all-in on one week of 80 just for bragging rights. 


Starting Out

It's unrealistic to expect a complete novice to competitive running—even an extremely talented one—to be able to handle more than about 50 miles per week in their first year of training (and even that's really pushing it).  Some young runners might have injury problems even with volumes as low as 25 or 30 miles per week, and they'll need to address the causal factors for those injuries before they are ready to push up their volume.  The "base" phase of the first season of a young runner's career should be constrained to less than fifty miles per week, and usually only six days of running.  Most days should be runs at an easy effort, though there is some benefit in including a structured session or two. 

The primary goals for your first season of running are to begin to establish a very foundational base of aerobic fitness, adapt to a schedule of consistent running, iron out any serious running form deficits, and learn a bit about racing.  Notably absent from this list are the kind of immediate fitness concerns that most runners worry about—threshold, VO2 max, race specific workouts, and so on.  As you progress through your running career, these more concrete goals can take a more prominent position.

So with this in mind, what would summer training look like for a talented and enthusiastic young runner? The schedule below illustrates the type of weekly summer training we're talking about.

Freshman year

Mon
Tue
Wed
Thu
Fri
Sat
Sun
5mi progression run
4mi easy

+drills and 5x120m strides
5mi easy
4mi easy
5mi easy
60min (~8mi)

 on trails
Off



Total: ~35mi

Monday's progression run helps accustom the runner to the high-end aerobic style workouts that lead to long-term improvement.  I value progression runs as beginning high-end aerobic workouts because they are difficult to screw up too badly and because you get to work through a range of paces vs. trying to maintain some predetermined speed; this makes it less mentally taxing, which is a good thing.  In this first year of training, the benefits of doing progression runs are mostly in learning how to do high end aerobic running correctly—i.e., going fast, staying relaxed, and having fun, not "forcing it" by straining and struggling—so you can do it well later in your career: it takes several tries and several "bad" workouts before you really get the hang of it.

The only other "structure" in the week (i.e. something outside of just "go for a run") comes on Tuesday in the form of sprint drills and strides.  Like the progression run, new runners are apt to be very, very bad at doing sprint drills and strides.  All the more reason to start now, not later!

You might argue that Saturday's long run is another form of "structure."  I prefer doing the long run on trails vs. on the roads, as the rolling hills and varied terrain make it more challenging but less stressful in terms of repetitive impacts on your legs.  Even if the speed is similar to that of your normal easy run, doing a long run on trails also ups the aerobic effort, since going up and down hills is effectively a miniature fartlek workout. 

It's important to note that schedule this is from the end of the summer—in previous weeks, our runner should work his way up to this volume, starting at more like 26 or 28 miles total and moving up a bit each week.  The 5mi progression run, for example, can begin as a 4mi progression run, and the 60min long run on Saturday can begin at more like 45 minutes. 

Now, the next year our young runner returns to summer training again—how can this schedule evolve the next year?


Sophomore year

Mon
Tue
Wed
Thu
Fri
Sat
Sun
6mi progression run
5-6mi easy

+drills and 5x120m strides
7-8mi easy
5-6mi easy
5-6mi easy
70-80min
(9-10mi)

on trails
Off  or

3-4mi easy

Total: 40-50mi


The obvious answer is "more mileage": depending on how our runner handles more volume, the "ideal week" for the season can be scaled accordingly.  Running seven days a week can also become the norm, assuming our runner has stayed relatively healthy in the past year. 

The progression run gets a bit longer, but more importantly, the focus now is on actually reaping the benefits of the high-end aerobic running.  With a year of racing track and cross-country, we'll also have a better idea of where our runner's aerobic and anaerobic thresholds are, which allows us to set some more specific guidelines for pacing during the progression run.  A rising sophomore who ran a 10:30 two-mile in track might aim to descend to about 6:15 or 6:20 pace (aerobic threshold) throughout the first five miles, then dip down to near six-minute pace (anaerobic threshold) or perhaps a faster in the last mile.

Aside from that, the bulk of the week remains easy mileage.  I don't think you should worry too much about the exact pace of easy runs, or whether they are always 100% "easy."  It's inevitable (and in fact, desirable!) for some runs to move into the moderate to quick effort range on days where you feel good, but intentionally hammering runs on a regular basis is not constructive.


Junior year
Mon
Tue
Wed
Thu
Fri
Sat
Sun
6mi progression run
7mi easy

+drills and 5x120m strides
8-10mi easy
7mi easy

+drills and 5x120m strides
7mi moderate


80-90min
(11-13mi)

on trails
4-5mi easy

Total: 50-60mi

As our runner begins to mature, he is capable of handling a more complex schedule.  Drills and strides, which should now be almost mastered after two years of practice, can become a twice-weekly feature of the schedule.  The progression run is joined by a designated "moderate" run on Friday, which can be done significantly faster than a normal run, but still backed off from your true aerobic threshold.  If our (recall, talented!) runner had clocked a 9:50 two-mile as a sophomore, this run could be in the 6:20 to 6:30 range.

The week also contains two reasonably lengthy runs on Wednesday and Saturday which help build basic endurance and lay the foundation for being able to handle high volume workouts during the season and next year.

Assuming our runner has progressed through the previous years without too many major mishaps, he is now ready for a mature and advanced training schedule which can provide a huge stimulus to aerobic fitness, which translates directly to success in distance races.

Senior year

Mon
Tue
Wed
Thu
Fri
Sat
Sun
AM: 4mi easy*

PM: 7-8mi progression run
8mi easy

+drills and 5x120m strides
AM: 4mi easy*

PM: 9-11mi easy
8mi easy

+drills and 5x120m strides
AM: 4mi easy*

PM: 6mi aerobic threshold run or
6-8x1000m at anaerobic threshold
90-105min
(12-15mi)

on trails
4-5mi easy

Total: 60-80mi

*Optional


At this point, the appropriate mileage is largely dependent on the individual runner.  While I usually approve of high schoolers running fairly high mileage, I wouldn't compel anyone to run more than about 60 miles per week.  Morning runs and fifteen-mile long runs through hilly trails are great, but only if you want to be doing them.  High schoolers who have had chronic injury issues should also focus on sorting those out before adding these high-mileage elements to their training program.  High schoolers who have the opportunity to get solid base training in over the winter (instead of doing indoor track or another sport) will also be able to run more mileage as they get older, as they've effectively had twice as many base training phases to gradually increase their overall volume. 

Friday's run can evolve into a true high-end aerobic workout, and as our runner is now quite experienced, he should be able to run the proper pace for an aerobic threshold run, a cruise interval workout, or any other type of relaxed, high-end session.

If I had presented this schedule as the first thing in this post, it would look quite intimidating, especially if you were an 8th or 9th grader who hadn't even trained for an entire summer before!  But with gradual progression over the course of several years, adding only five, ten, or fifteen miles per week per year, it's not so bad.

While the schedules for sophomores and juniors would be pretty easy to jump into if you were a latecomer to distance running, this senior year schedule would be much more difficult to manage.  Hence, the benefits of taking a long-term approach to your training don't really pay off for at least a year or two.  But small advantages in training snowball over time; the next summer, our rising high school senior can transition directly into even higher mileage and higher volume workouts, which will make him supremely well-prepared for 8k and 10k cross country races in college. 

Other Considerations

The specific examples above are from training schedules I've designed for high school boys training over the summer.  Circumstances will of course be different when those variables are changed.  High school girls would usually work up to lower mileage overall and be more cautious with yearly mileage increases, and if you are preparing for winter training in a snowy area of the world, you'll likely have to scrap the long runs on trails and the timed workouts, replacing them instead with road running and effort-based workouts.  These schedules are also only samples, and good coaches should know how to tailor training to suit the strengths of an individual runner.  But no matter who or where you are, the principles above still apply: though the advantages of carefully-planned yearly progressions may seem small at first, they compound over time and lead to a well-balanced and very impressive training schedule as you mature as a runner.

If you want to read more about training for high schoolers, you should check out my book!

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