How to Train Distance Runners: Some Basics
By Allen Etheridge of Oak Ridge High School
When I began coaching in 1996, I’d been running for many years and had some idea of what high school cross country was about: in 1983 I was an all-state runner and was the number one runner on my state champion team. Yet, as I found out eight years later when I became the head coach at my alma mater, as much as I thought I knew about cross country and about running in general, I really didn’t know yet how to coach a large team of diverse abilities and interest levels. Only a good deal of experience would help me to learn how to manage a team successfully.
This primer is intended for the new or inexperienced cross country coach who may or may not have a background in competitive running, who may or may not have a grounding in exercise physiology, but who would like some kind of a basic outline of how to train a high school team successfully. This is only a basic guide; for more detailed and advanced information, read the work of Jack Daniels, Arthur Lydiard, David Martin and Peter Coe, and many more. This primer is divided into the following sections:
The 5K Race: What are the demands of high school cross country running?
The Training Week: What does a typical training week look like for a high school cross country team?
Weekly and Seasonal Mileage: How much volume should your athletes be running?
The Long Run: The cornerstone of the successful endurance athlete.
Energy Systems Training: How to prescribe various training intensities for maximum progress.
Peaking and Tapering: How to achieve your best performance at the right time.
The Warmup: Both for practice and for race day.
Prehab/Accessory Training: What can you prescribe in order to reduce the likelihood of injury?
The 5K Race
As in most of the rest of the U.S., we race 5K in Tennessee. Most of the standard courses we race have been well-established and run near 5K, although most successful coaches will argue that the accuracy of the course doesn’t really matter, since the sport of cross country privileges place over time (unlike, say, track in which time is very important). To some degree that is accurate: individuals and teams succeed in the sport based on their places in meets rather than on their times, which may vary based on whether it’s rained recently, whether the course has changed even slightly, and even on the air temperature. Still, some things about the 5K distance/intensity are predictable, which means that our coaching task it to train for them:
- The race involves a mass start of from 100-500 runners, which means that everyone in the field gets out fast for the first several hundred meters. While I’ve tried various race strategies to try to overcome this tendency, none has been totally successful. I’ve found that the more reliable tactic involves training to get out hard and not die.
- The primary limiter in terms of race performance is VO2 max, which is (to a limited degree) trainable. That doesn’t mean that athletes need to do extensive VO2 max training, since overtraining at this intensity is counterproductive; it does mean that we need to train and race to maximize velocity at VO2 max, which we can do in various ways that don’t all involve running until you puke.
- The race requires speed, endurance, and the mental capacity to suffer for 15-20 minutes. In order to succeed, the runner needs to train each of these areas.
Remember also that high school cross country courses are primarily grass and gravel rather than road surfaces, making it important to train on the uneven grass terrain.
The Training Week
Some years ago, after my team had won their second state title in a row, a soccer coach asked me what a cross country coach does. Sarcastically, he asked, “Do you just tell them to go run?!” I figured he was jealous of the attention the school paid us, since he’d had a very good team which had not won a state title. I told him, “Yeah, you could do that, but then you wouldn’t be any good.” Coaching cross country successfully requires the ability to plan thoughtfully over a long period, hitting the right notes at the right times and on the right days.
Most winning programs train six days per week during the twenty-four-week training season from mid-June through mid-November. Obviously, the principle of training specificity applies: because your competitions involve running, you have to run in order to get better. However, each successful training program prescribes running at various intensities to suit various purposes, which is to say, don’t just go out and run the same thing every day. Up to a point, that’s going to help you, but beyond a month worth of running, you won’t get any better unless you train carefully at a variety of intensities and then rest. The hard part is figuring out how to do that in a seven-day week. Here is a sample week for most programs:
Monday: Q1: That is to say, Monday is the primary “quality” day of the training week, when you’ll do the workout that dominates your training phase. Some prefer to wait on this until Tuesday, since often the athlete feels better having run the previous day.
Tuesday: Recovery run/lift (unless you prefer to do your Q1 day on Tuesday).
Wednesday: Moderate road run or Q2. Q2 is the secondary “quality” day of the training week, and for many is a speed day. This is generally a less physically demanding workout than Q1 is.
Thursday: Road run or Q2
Friday: Road run or race preparation (which may take different form for different teams)
Saturday: Long run or race
Sunday: Day off or “shakeout” run of 800m to 2 miles.
Each day includes a warmup (see later section), a primary run, and a cooldown (see later section, and lasts approximately two hours. Note that only a few days per week qualify as “hard.” High school runners should be able to go out and enjoy their exercise more days than they suffer.
Weekly and Seasonal Mileage
Ask any ten cross country coaches about the optimal mileage for high school runners, and you’ll get ten different answers. Some believe in quality over quantity: that speed development and race intensity determine success more predictably than logging miles does. Others argue that a higher mileage, which develops aerobic capacity and muscle capillarization, results in better performance than running kids hard most days. In my experience, and for a variety of reasons, there is a mileage sweet spot for most high school runners, and there is an intensity sweet spot. Neither extreme seems to provide the entire answer to the question. Knowing that, here are some general rules that may help a beginning coach:
Girls: At Oak Ridge, we generally argue that high school girls ought to run slightly more moderate mileage than high school boys—in the neighborhood of 80%. The typical successful high school program runs 30-50 miles per week during peak mileage—any less and the athlete just isn’t prepared for the demands of the race, and any more and the risks of amenorrhea and other health issues become much more prevalent. Obviously, runners with a younger training age should run less, while those who have adapted to increased loads over years’ worth of training may tolerate more mileage.
Boys: Most successful boys programs are running 40-60 miles per week, on average. Our top guys average about 50 miles per week, although some have gone higher. John Sharpe, the 2009 AAA individual champion, averaged 65 mpw over the 24 weeks of his senior year. Jacob Etheridge, the 2016 Region II-AAA champion, averaged 50. Maclean O’Donnell, 2007 NXN-SE champion, averaged closer to 40.
Many programs use a cyclical mileage progression over the course of the season, building mileage for 2-3 weeks and then dropping mileage for the 3rd or 4th week in order to recover. Here’s an example:
Week 1: 20 miles
Week 2: 25 miles
Week 3: 35 miles
Week 4: 25 miles
In this scenario, the athlete progresses rapidly from 20 to 35 miles over three weeks but then on the fourth week recovers. That recovery week is necessary, since it allows the athlete to absorb the increased training volume, to adapt to it and recover. In fact, without the rest, the athlete won’t adapt. It’s easy to get caught up in increasing mileage and is tough to hold back, but do it anyway—the rest is necessary.
The Long Run
Look at any successful high school cross country program, and you’ll see that all have one thing in common: the long run. It’s the cornerstone of their success because the long run increases muscle capillarization, improves work capacity, increases endurance, bulletproofs their psyche, and creates a team dynamic that other training doesn’t quite do. We run the long run at an aerobic pace (1:30-2:00 slower than goal 5K race pace), although many teams like to increase the pace over the last third of the run, much like a tempo run. Some teams also end the run with a set of strides or sprints in order to reset body alignment and improve hormone balance. A good rule of thumb for the long run mimics the rules for weekly mileage: build mileage for several weeks but then go back to a previous set point. For example, a junior or senior boy may run 10, 12, and then 14 miles in three successive weeks before dropping back to 10. For a junior or senior girl, the mileage may go 8, 10, 12, 8. A general rule of thumb is that the long run should comprise about 25% of the athlete’s weekly mileage, and that seems accurate, to me.
Energy Systems Training
Here’s where much of the real coaching happens: most experienced coaches have their own recipes and philosophies for training energy systems using a multi-pace approach. That’s not to say that an energy systems approach is the only approach to training distance runners; in fact, a good many coaches think in different terms from this. However, the energy systems approach produces predictable results and is a useful starting point for many coaches.
Physiologist Jack Daniels divides training intensities into easy (E), threshold (T), Interval (I), and Repetitions (R), based on recent race results. I have added Tempo Intensity to include what Tinman (a Letsrun handle for a well-known running coach) calls Critical Velocity Pace, which is 10K race pace and is not part of Daniels’ plans. I have also sub-divided Daniels’ intensities into date pace (which he prescribes) and goal pace, which forces the athlete to “reach” in order to promote a breakthrough in performance. These concepts come from Bill Bowerman, the legendary coach of the Oregon Ducks decades back. The idea is that the 5K race–and any other race, for that matter–has its own demands of the body’s various energy systems. This is no place to discuss those–that’s for many of the popular books that are out there. Here we intend just to outline the various paces, intensities, and focuses of the various training intensities.
Tempo—87-92% of vVO2Max (Velocity at VO2 max), extends race-intensity endurance
Tempo Endurance (T-E)—Pure race endurance: Tempo runs of 10:00-30:00 in duration.
2-3×1.5m with 2:00 rest at :20-30 sec/mile slower than 5K race pace.
2x2m with 1:30-2:00 rest
3-5m tempo runs
Tempo Intensity (T-I)—higher intensity than T-E—bridges the gap between endurance and VO2
max, also known as Critical Velocity pace, 97% of vVO2 max.
6×800 @ T-E pace minus 5-10 sec/mile with limited rest of :30-:45 sec
Interval—100% of vVO2 max—builds maximum aerobic capacity.
Interval Date Pace (I-D)—100% vVO2 max pace based on most recent 5K race, carefully
5-6×800@5K race pace with 2:00 rest (can start with equal rest and gradually limit)
5-8×1000 with 2:30 rest
3x5x1600 with 3:00 rest
Interval Goal Pace (I-G)—105-110% vVO2 max pace, “over-reach intensity” followed by
sustained recovery, designed to push the athlete to another level.
5-8×800@5K race pace minus :10+/mile with 2:00 rest (can start with equal rest and
5-8×1000 with 2:30 rest
3x5x1600 with 3:00 rest
***Follow this workout with 1 day of very limited jogging then 1 day off. No more than
Repetitions—Promotes “running economy” or energy efficiency.
Reps Date Pace (R-D)—Based on recent 5K race, almost always slower than track season reps
8-16×200 @current 1m race pace (use chart—it will be slower than they want). Rest
should be as much as they need.
Reps Goal Pace (R-G)–~10 seconds/mile faster than R-D pace, sustained speed. Simulates a kick.
Can be added to end of another workout.
4-8×200 @faster than current 1m race pace
Hills: The trend in cross country over the past ten years has moved toward flat, fast courses, yet some, such as the State Meet course at Percy Warner Park, are notable for having many short, steep hills. Hill work generally fits into the category of Repetitions because of the intensity and recovery times, and also because it promotes the same kind of running economy adaptation as Repetitions. Find a hill, run up it, recovery slowly back down it, repeat. We try to avoid hills over about a 7% grade. We’ve also found that we can use a very long hill of 800-1600m for this work, dividing it into segments of 50 to 400 meters.
Speed—Is there a sport in which speed doesn’t kill? Speed is always good.
Reps Fast Pace (R-F)—400-800m race pace with double the recovery of R-D pace. Sustained speed.
Reps Alactic Speed (R-A)—No more than :10 in length at full speed
Knowing that I have all of these different intensities to work with, I’ve found a few rules of thumb to be true:
- Most teams respond best to tempo and reps. As Daniels points out, it’s better to be at 95% of prime fitness and be healthy rather than to be at 100% of prime fitness and get hurt. Most kids can do tempo and reps without having to reach too deeply.
- Races are the best form of VO2 max training, and you ought to include them as part of your training plan.
- Most kids do require some “over-reach” workouts here and there in order to promote competitiveness and breakthrough performance. The art is in prescribing it at the right moments.
Rotate work lengths so that athletes don’t get stale doing the same energy systems training. Here’s an example for a month-long block that focuses on Threshold and Repetitions:
Week 1: 6x1000T with 1:00 rest (Q1) and 8-12x200R with 200 jog (Q2)
Week 2: 5x1200T with 1:15 rest (Q1) and 8x300R with 300 jog (Q2)
Week 3: 3x1600T with 1:30 rest (Q1) and 6x400R with 400 jog (Q2)
Week 4: 2x2400T with 1:45 rest (Q1) and 8-12x200R with 200 jog (Q2)
For this block, you’re probably best off running the Q1 workout on a grass course so that athletes become comfortable running on cross country terrain rather than on the track. Distances may be approximate, since you’re really most interested in the proper intensity for the proper time. Threshold running is pretty easy to understand intuitively: athletes should be running “comfortably hard”: the limitation shouldn’t be their breathing. If they’re struggling to make the rest interval, they’re running too hard. You probably want to run the repetitions on the track, or at least on a consistent grade.
Peaking and Tapering
Some races are more important to us than others—the early season invitational is a nice test, for example, but do we want that to be the peak race of the season? How many peak races can we have? I remember early on deciding that we were going to focus on performing our best as a team at the top race that we could win. Some years that’s been the Region Meet, other years the State Meet, and in 2007 it was NXN-Southeast. We decided to put all of our emotional, mental, and physical preparation into winning the race that mattered most to us, while using all other races to learn about who we were as a team, to learn racing tactics, to test ourselves against the competition. By doing so, we have been able to peak predictably without having to put everything on the line every week. There’s only so many times you can go to the well before you find it’s dry.
Physically, speaking there are really two well-established methods for tapering: the linear taper/peak and the targeted taper/peak. In a linear taper, you reduce overall volume week by week over about a month’s time prior to the A-race of the year so that the athlete is rested and physically at his peak. That may look something like this:
Week 1: 100% of average weekly mileage
Week 2: 75% of average weekly mileage
Week 3: 60% of average weekly mileage
Week 4: 50% of average weekly mileage
Concurrent with the reduced volume, you might prescribe workouts that ramp up intensity so that as the athletes recover from the mileage, they also gain a sharper edge. This is the traditional taper, and it tends to work best for fast-twitch-oriented athletes—middle distance runners, primarily. In our experience, slow-twitch runners tend to feel sluggish with this type of taper, because they tend to get used to the rhythm of running mileage every day and feel best running more volume. They tend to over-recover rather than to sharpen. For a slow-twitch-oriented runner, the Basque triathlon coach Inigo Mujica has shown a different approach that our experience has validated time and again: taper mileage until ten days to two weeks prior to the competition, rest, and then increase volume again so that the slow-twitch runner is back in the rhythm of running. That might look like this:
Week 1: 100% of average weekly mileage
Week 2: 60% of average weekly mileage
Week 3: 40% of average weekly mileage (with 3 days off)
Week 4: 70-80% of average weekly mileage
On this taper program, the athlete feels sluggish during the recovery process in the third week, but having recovered and regained running rhythm during the fourth week, he typically feels sharp and fast. Again, though, this type of taper works best for real distance runners, rather than for middle distance runners. The most important thing here: know your athletes and prescribe accordingly.
I’ll break this part into two sections: the daily warmup and the race-day warmup. I’ve attached our daily warmup as an appendix. The idea comes from sprint coach Loren Seagrave, who advocates for a sequenced warmup designed to “wake” muscles up after a day of sitting in class, to activate them so that they fire appropriately during exercise, to increase mobility prior to exercise so that muscles have the maximum amount of blood flow. We do this warmup nearly every day except on long run day. We do not stretch prior to running and rarely stretch afterwards, preferring to do the dynamic cool-down listed on the warmup page. A good bit of evidence suggests that the active-dynamic warmup and coo-down promote performance and reduce injury rates. There is no corresponding evidence promoting stretching. Here’s the warmup and cool-down routine we use during both cross country and track seasons, adapted from Loren Seagrave:
- Happy Time (120m)
- Skip (forward, backward, side-to-side)
- 5×5 pushups
- 4×4 lunges (2 each side)
- 4x full squat hold for 5 seconds (ATG)
- Foam Rolling
- 20 rolls on each IT band
- Hamstrings, glutes, calves
- Core Activation—3×45” rounds
- Plank and plank variations
- Stir the pot
- Pushup singles
- Plank with knee raise
- Muscle Activation—includes 30m runout easy after each. Jog into these.
- Basic air squat x10
- Prisoner squat x10
- Front lunge with pause x5 each side
- Rear lunge with pause x5 each side
- Bird Dog x10 each side
- Dynamic Mobility—includes 40m runout quicker after each. Jog into these.
- 20m walking glute
- 20m walking hamstring
- Eagle x10 each side
- Hurdle Seat x10 each side
- 3-way fire hydrant x10 each movement
** On easy days omit Dynamic Mobility**
- 20 steps walking glute pull
- 20 steps walking hamstring
- 20 steps walking quad pull
- 20 steps anterior shins (toes out)
- 20 steps posterior shins (toes in)
- 50 heel pedals on fence
On race day, we have a second consideration, which is how to sequence a warmup so that we are prepared to race at 100% of VO2 max. We begin with the same warmup, but then our running warmup diverges a bit. We do what we call “8:00 and 3:00” or “12:00 and 3:00”: 8:00 of jogging followed by 3:00 at tempo pace, or 12:00 of jogging followed by 3:00 at tempo pace, finishing the running warmup about 20 minutes prior to race time. The 3 minutes at threshold pace activates the body’s chemical progresses so that athletes are prepared for max effort. Many are afraid to run this fast in the warmup, fearing that the effort will tire them out for the race, but our experience proves the opposite, in fact: once they’ve seen it in action, they confidently run their warmup this way.
Open a running magazine or catalogue, and you can find all kinds of things geared toward making runners feel better—the repetitive, stressful nature of the sport makes staying healthy a primary challenge. Here’s some stuff that works:
- Foam rolling: Yes, the scientific literature is ambiguous on the efficacy of foam rolling. However, our experience has been nothing but positive—we do it every day as part of our warmup and often as part of our cooldown.
- Stretching: Again, the scientific evidence here is ambiguous. We don’t stretch before running but do stretch some after running. We’ve done yoga during cross country and track seasons for years, a once-per-week session lasting a half hour.
- Strength Training: While this can take many forms—part of our warmup involves some bodyweight strength movements as part of the activation sequence—it’s critical for long-term health. Some advocate bodyweight work, both for upper and lower body and for core strength, while others advocate for dumbbell, kettlebell, and/or barbell movements. Find what you like, and incorporate it for two reasons: 1) to strengthen unused muscles and balance opposing muscle groups, and 2) to increase force production.
- Ice baths: Long a staple of distance running, the ice bath is now somewhat controversial because some evidence indicates that inflammation caused by training is actually a useful part of the training/adaptation mechanism, and if we reduce inflammation by taking ice baths, we reduce the training effect. I say, do what feels good—after a long run or workout, ice baths just feel good, and often they enable you to come back feeling good the next day by reducing DOMS.
This primer isn’t meant to be the be-all and end-all of high school cross country coaching—these are some basics. With experience, you’ll find that you agree with much of what’s in here and will use it with your programs, and you’ll likely also find that you don’t care for other parts of this, and you won’t use it.
Allen Etheridge has coached high school runners for nineteen years, thirteen years of that as Head Cross Country Coach at Oak Ridge High School, winning six state championships and a Nike Cross Nationals Southeast championship, as well as having five state runner-up finishes and three third place finishes. In 2007 Maclean O’Donnell was the NXN-SE individual champion. In 2009, John Sharpe was the Tennessee AAA individual champion. He is a USATF Level 1 coach. He is currently an assistant cross country coach at ORHS and is the Head Track and Field Coach there, where he primarily coaches sprinters and jumpers.