Training Notes

Note: I borrowed this from Neuqua Valley High School Cross Country Coach Paul Vandersteen.

Mental Conditioning

There is an old saying that “running is 75% mental and 25% physical.” I am a firm believer in this saying.  I believe in this saying, for I have seen many talented runners not possess the desire and commitment it takes to be successful.  I have seen many talented runners lose to less talented runners because they are not as mentally tough.  It is also my belief the mind can be conditioned to overcome the mental obstacles runners must face to be successful.

Joe Newton, the coach at York High School, breaks the mental requirements for cross-country performance into four main categories:

  1. Sheer courage.
  2. Ambition and pride in performance.  Do your best at all times - practice included.
  3. Pace judgment.
  4. Confidence.

Mental fatigue usually occurs before physical fatigue.  Even the greatest of athletes thinks he is tired before his body is really physically tired.  Through workouts we can work on pace judgment and confidence.  Sheer courage, ambition, and pride in performance is more up to you.  It is more important to me that I see progress in these areas rather than what place you got.   A runner who has courage and gives the best effort within, will eventually be a success.  In other words, with the concentration on what you are capable of doing, the place (and winning) will take care of itself.

Running Form

I am a firm believer that running form takes care of itself.  The more you run, the body will find a way to do it more efficiently.  However, there are some things a runner can work on to speed up this process.

  1. Relaxation.  The whole body must remain relaxed while running.  Relaxation starts with the face.  Your cheeks should “feel like jello” while running.  Tightening up the facial muscles will eventually result in tight shoulders and arms.  The eyes should be looking ahead at the ground. Looking at the ground 10 feet in front of you keeps the neck relaxed.  The thumb should be placed on the index finger and the other fingers and wrist should be loose.  Arm swing is analogous to pulling a gun out of a holster with a medium swing.  Relaxation is made possible by concentration.  To tie up means you are not concentrating on the task at hand.
  2. Foot plant.  The most common mistake in form I see in distance runners is hitting heel first. If you take too long a stride, you are actually braking, for you are hitting heel first.  You want to land on the ball of your foot, then set the heel down, and push back up on the ball of your foot. Ball-heel-ball.  To correct over-striding, do our paw-back drills well. If you do these drills correctly and consistently, it becomes engrained into your nervous system.
  3. Breathing.  Breath through your nose and mouth.  A study was recently done which compared runners who breathed through just their mouth to when they later learned to breath through their nose and mouth.  The study revealed a 10% gain in performance for the runners after they learned how to breath through their nose and mouth.

I will be reminding you on a consistent basis about running form and relaxation.  It is up to you to implement what I teach you. 

Hill running

Races can be lost or won on hills.  A runner can gain a great advantage by not only knowing how to run up a hill, but also how to run down one.  When running hills it is important to remember form andstrategy.


When running up a hill you want to remember three things:

    a. very slight lean if at all
    b. slightly higher knee lift
    c. shorter stride
When running down a hill you want to remember three things:

    a. relax
    b. lean slightly forward
    c.and paw-back your stride.

    Let the hill help you (let it go!)

Hill Strategy

Running up and down hills takes some brain power along with physical adjustments.  You never want to try and speed up while going up a hill. Attacking a hill will only put you into oxygen debt - and in a hurry.  The secret of running up hills is to do it with as little energy as possible while maintaining your position.  Incorporate the form techniques listed above and you will be running up hills with efficiency.  A great strategy is to increase your pace once you reach the top of a hill. Psychologically, this is a great move against your opponents.  If the hill is steep enough, your opponent will reach the top only to see you much farther ahead. 

The strategy for running down hills is the opposite of running up them.  You want to let go and run down the hill as fast as possible while still maintaining control.  I have seen more races won (or lost) going down hills than going up them!

We will be running hills in practice to increase our running power. However, we will rarely run down them all out.  I have seen many runners injure themselves by running down hills repetitively in a practice situation.  I have never seen a runner injure himself running down a hill in a race.

Pacing and Maintaining a Rhythm

The number one mistake I see in cross-country runners is going out too fast or having too much left at the end.

Going out too fast:  I have seen various sources estimate a runner will run 1-3 seconds slower for every second they run too fast in the beginning of a race.  Therefore, if you go out like gang-busters and run 2:20 for your first 800 and your pace should be 2:30, then you are costing yourself anywhere from 10 - 30 seconds!  This is a common mistake in the state meet, for everyone is hyped and the start is slightly downhill.  Disciplined runners who know pacing will not make this amateur mistake.  I am convinced that Elmhurst York has won many a state championship on this premise alone.  In fact, Coach Joe Newton has had his runners count “one thousand one” before starting the race depending upon their starting position! It is a reminder to his athletes that the race is not won at the start. 

The other benefit of running race pace (not faster!) in the beginning is the mental factor.  Passing runners, rather than being passed, sends positive messages to the brain, thus allowing the runner to focus on their race, not thinking about how much they are failing (by being passed).

(Gary comment - I've read that for every second you run your first mile too fast will cost you about 6-10 seconds by the end of the race. So, if you're supposed to run around 5:20 for the first mile and you run it in 5:10, that can cost you anywhere from 1:00 to 1:40.)

Saving the best for last.  Another common mistake made by inexperienced runners is saving all their energy for the final 100 meters.  It is easy to fall into this trap because a runner usually gets lots of positive reinforcement from spectators and teammates commenting on how great a kick they had.  However, if a runner waits until the last 100 meters to sprint to the finish, they have most likely lost 10-30 seconds.  This is not obvious to spectators and fellow teammates, but should be obvious to the coach and the runner himself.  A three-mile race is not about who is fastest the last 100 meters, it is about doing ones best over the whole distance.We will put a lot of emphasis on passing runners the last mile. 

Efficient running and “putting in the miles”.  To run rhythmically means to run efficiently.  A runner who can find “his rhythm” has found a pace he can run relaxed and with little effort.  Some of the best runners run with a consistent stride, pace, and arm carry to avoid unnecessary energy use.  Their faces are relaxed (cheeks jiggle like Jell-O) and their arms move almost effortlessly.  To run with such efficiency takes practice and lots of running.  As said before, one of the reasons high school runners improve after getting in shape is because their running form becomes more efficient.  Efficiency can only occur through consistent mileage.  The more miles a runner puts in, the more efficient they will become.  This is one of the reasons the summer is so important in preparation for the cross-country season.  The summer affords the opportunity to get in lots of miles and become a more efficient runner.

Base Training

The most important training done for cross-country is base training. Base training is done during the summer.  Base training involves putting in lots of miles at a slow to moderate pace. Runners who build up their aerobic capacity and develop a more efficient running gait during the summer have more success during the season.  They are able to build upon this base during the season.  The building of this base also prevents injuries from occurring during the season.  The actual cross-country season is too short to adequately prepare for racing.  In fact, most races occur within two weeks after the season starts.  This is too soon to get the body in running shape, let alone racing shape.  Runners who do little running during the summer will improve dramatically within the first five to six weeks because it takes that long for the body to “get in shape.”  However, had they run during the summer, they would have come into the season in running shape and improved their times from there. I estimate a runner who neglects training during the summer is 70% more likely to get injured and will run 30 seconds slower for three miles. This often happens with incoming freshman, for they don’t understand what it takes to prepare for a sport that is as physically demanding as cross-country.

"One of life's most painful moments comes when
we must admit that we didn't do our homework, that we are not prepared.”

Merlin Olsen
NFL tackle

Risk Mitigation

Gary comment: For those who aren't engineering majors, Risk Mitigation means "reducing risk".

One of the most efficient runners I have seen is Donald Sage of Elmhurst York.  Don puts in lots of miles. In high school, he ran over 1,000 miles during the summer (12+ miles per day!) and averages seven miles a day during the winter. He had some critics because of this practice.  However, no one can argue with his efficient stride and subsequent state championships.  Don ran a national best in the 3200 meter run (8:42.6) and ran close to 14:00 at Detweiller Park.  From the middle 60’s – mid 70’s, when high mileage was a more accepted practice, there were as many as three runners breaking the 9 minute barrier each year! I think those days are now back.

Running lots of miles has its risks.  The biggest risk is becoming injured.  Some guidelines to prevent injury in running lots of miles.

  1. Stretch after you run.  Muscles tighten the most during the run.  A lot of runners stretch before they run but neglect the post run stretches.
  2. Do not run hard two days in a row.  In other words, if you run for 1 1/2 hours one day, the next day you should run no longer than 45 minutes at one time. You might want to run two 35 minute runs the next day to get in the extra mileage.
  3. Do not increase your mileage by any more than 5 miles per week.  For example, do not run 40 miles one week and 70 miles the next.  You might avoid injury at first, but eventually it will catch up to you.
  4. When increasing speed, reduce mileage by 10%.
  5. Run a week of reduced miles every month. If you run 40, 45, and 50 miles for the first three weeks of a month, reduce the mileage the fourth week back to 40-45 miles.

How many miles should I run?      

One of the most often asked questions is “how many miles should I run during the summer?”  My answer is always, “It depends.”  It depends on two big factors: experience and physical maturity.  I feel it is OK to run a thousand miles during a summer as long as the runner has at least two years experience and has essentially stopped growing.  I rarely let a freshman or sophomore run lots of miles.  500-750 miles for an incoming sophomore is more acceptable.  I do have juniors who I do not let run 500 miles.  Some runners cannot handle a lot of miles due to their susceptibility to injury.  My recommendation for mileage always depends on myself or an assistant getting to know a particular athlete and what he can and cannot do.

Gary comment: Recently I was looking at my running log from my senior year. That summer I put in 500 miles between June 1st and August 10th. That's about 7 miles/ day. Coach Vandersteen's summer training actually lasts 4-6 weeks longer (about 100 days total) so the concept of freshmen running 500 miles equates to about 5 miles/ day. It's important to note that Coach Vandersteen's athletes don't start out averaging 5 mile/ day but build up to that average. If you're a first-time runner you should start with a lower number and gradually build up.

Strength Training

Strength training is an integral part of the Neuqua Valley Cross Country program.  It is a myth that distance runners are weak. The great distance runners can bench their weight and do at least 15 pull-ups.  The great distance runners can squat their weight easily and curl 3/4 their weight. A strong runner equals a more successful runner.  Our strength training involves doing a lot of pushups and core exercises.  During physical education class or on your own it does not hurt to do additional strength exercises.  Do lots of reps and keep the weight low on the machines/bars. 

Gary comment: We're going to be doing a lot of core work this summer as well as plyometrics.


Coach Bobby McGee, who works with top South African runners such as Colleen DeReuck, recently passed some advice along to a group of runners at a clinic in Boulder. One of the items he addressed was tapering before a big race. He advises lowering the volume of training, of course. This translates to shorter runs and less weekly mileage. This helps freshen up the legs for the race. He also advises, however, that runners not cut back on the intensity of their runs.

McGee indicates that running short bursts a little faster than race pace in the week leading up to a race is vital, so as to keep the legs ready for race effort. Even the day before a race, a couple of short, hard surges are a good idea. Then, on race day, the legs feel great when running at race pace, because they are used to running even faster. He likened this to a javelin thrower who uses a weighted ball, heavier than the javelin, in warm-ups. This makes the javelin feel lighter and actually permits the arm to throw with more force.

Naturally, it is important to keep intense training sessions quite short in the week before the race. This keeps from deadening the legs instead of invigorating them!

Renowned exercise physiologist Owen Anderson had this to say about tapering:

“Once upon a time, when I was in high school, I learned my first important lesson about endurance training. I had to miss several days of running due to injury, and I worried about getting out of shape. Yet when I came back, I'd gotten faster. My new mile PR was proof that small cutbacks in training can produce big improvements in performance.”

Quite a few years later, exercise physiologist Dave Costill, Ph.D., validated this early lesson at his Ball State University lab. He had a group of collegiate swimmers decrease their training from 10,000 to 3,200 yards per day for 15 days before a swim test. The result was a 25 percent increase in muscular power and a 4 percent performance improvement compared to an earlier test.

Then, in 1990, Duncan MacDougall, Ph.D., and colleagues at MacMaster University in Ontario, Canada, asked a group of runners to emphasize 1-mile-race-pace training during a one-week taper. A second group ran at moderate speeds; a third group did no running at all.

Those running at 1-mile race pace did one more thing: they decreased their week's mileage by 90 percent. Almost all of it consisted of 500-meter intervals at 1-mile race pace. They did five of them on the first day of the taper, four on the second day and so on, with no training on the sixth day. Amazingly, performance improved by 22 percent for the high-intensity group, compared to just 6 percent for the traditional-taper runners.

More recently, in an East Carolina University study, eight experienced runners (six males and two females) who'd been doing about 40 miles a week cut their training to around 6 miles of interval training during a one-week taper. The interval work consisted of 400- repeats run at 5-K race pace. As in MacDougall's study, subjects did fewer intervals each day as the taper progressed.

The results were spectacular: All eight athletes set new 5-K PRs; the average improvement was a staggering 29 seconds. A control group of runners who tapered in the traditional way (lower mileage, easy running pace) failed to improve their performance.

Given the increasing amount of impressive science, it's time to take this taper research out of the lab and put it into your program. Here's how:

The head coach at The University of Arkansas does not believe in a taper at all.  His teams have won numerous national titles without a true taper. 

I feel the secret is to not decrease the intensity, but decrease some of the mileage.   After a lot of experience in training runners to run well at the end of the year, I have found it is more important to not over-train and not do too many intervals early in the season if you want to run your best later on.  I preach moderation and consistency over ‘tricks’ at the end of the season.