Track Coach

Multi Magic?

A Successful Formula for Coaching the Combined Events

Another comprehensive and well thought out piece by Coach Thorson

By Mike Thorson, Assistant Coach (Hurdles) at the University of Mary, Former Director of Track & Field/Cross Country at the University of Mary, Bismarck, ND

We see change around us every day. It happens in life and certainly in the track & field world. One thing that doesn’t change is that people want to be successful. We are still asked today how the University of Mary in Bismarck, ND, was able to have so much success in the combined events in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. What were the ingredients and formula for success? Would that recipe still work today? Unfortunately, we can’t pull out a cookbook that includes recipes for multi-events success. Every coach and institution has a different situation and set of circumstances.

The University of Mary had a unique set of circumstances to train combined event athletes, and training had to be designed with this in mind. Winters can be brutal in North Dakota for a number of months and the only facility for indoor use at the school was the basketball gymnasium. Mary had no indoor track & field facility at the time. The Marauders did have access to their outdoor track, provided they were willing to shovel the snow from several lanes and train in temperatures that were often -10 degrees or lower (much lower with the wind chill).

A great deal of training was done on gravel roads near the university and in the swimming pool when the outdoor track was totally inaccessible. We were forced to be creative and tailor our training to the environment we faced on a daily basis. Obviously, given the individual circumstances, every coach and program must determine what and how it wishes to coach its multi-event athletes.

We developed a training program that produced repeated success and that is always a trademark of a successful program. We had four different women win national titles in the combined events, some being multiple titlists. We had a number of men who were very successful as well. We can share what “worked” for us at Mary with our different circumstances and some of the commonalities that would apply to each and every combined events coach and program. These will be outlined and discussed followed by some general training considerations.


One of the major factors in the Mary combined event success was the fact that the Marauders always had great athletes competing in the multi-events. Not good. Great! They were athletes who possessed speed, strength, endurance, stamina, and explosive power. Perhaps more importantly, they were all very passionate and committed to excellence and had an incredible work ethic!

None of the Mary combined event athletes specialized in the multi-events. Most of the multi women were national champions (or at the very least All-Americans) in other events and the men were typically conference and regional champions in individual events. Many programs make the mistake of guiding average athletes into the combined events with the idea that they can do “okay” in all or nearly all of the events. It rarely results in a successful heptathlete/decathlete. An “average” athlete is more often than not an average or sub-average mulit-eventer.

We always informed our prospective heptathletes and decathletes that they needed to be one of the best athletes on the team. We insisted that they have minimum of one great event, ideally more. That always narrowed the field considerably and resulted in our obtaining the very best athletes to compete in the heptathlon/decathlon/pentathlon.

One need not look any further than the University of Mary Athletic Hall of Fame to discover that the Marauders were placing their top athletes in the combined events. In fact, two of the Mary HOF athletes are in the NAIA Hall of Fame. Jamey Mulske, an eight-time national champion and 21-time All-American, and Mandy (Schroeder) Sheldon, a four-time national champion and 11-time All American, are both in the NAIA shrine. Annie Goodson and Cindy (Leingang) Thompson were other Marauders who captured national titles in the combined events. The top men’s decathlete was Mary HOF standout hurdler/jumper Rob Renschler, who won a national championship in the triple jump.

My standard reply when people ask why we were so successful in the combined events: “We had great athletes who were very passionate and very highly motivated to be the best they could be.”


There is no question that coaches can and do make a difference. It’s only common sense that the level of coaching that an athlete receives will significantly affect his/her final performance. The Mary approach to training multi-event athletes was a staff/coordinator approach for a number of reasons. Many programs have enjoyed tremendous success with the “solo” method of coaching multi-event athletes where a coach basically coaches all of the events. Mary was very blessed to have tremendous assistant coaches and our thinking was that it would be a shame not to utilize their talents and knowledge in the coaching of the Marauder heptathletes/decathletes. More often than not, too, the multi-event athletes were being coached by the assistant coach in their individual event(s).

“The staff approach is the best method,” noted former Marauder jump coach Doug Schweigert, who was one of the top jump coaches in the country while coaching at the University of Mary and North Dakota State University (Fargo, ND). “Most multi-event athletes are jumpers and it would be tough for the athlete to go back and forth from different methodologies if the athlete has to have several different coaches,” added Schweigert, who coached 14 national champions and 13 runner-ups.

“I had great coaches throughout my high school and college career and that made a huge difference for me,” said Mandy ( Schroeder) Sheldon, commenting on her coaching. Mandy was a national champion in the multi-events and the high jump for the Marauders.

It should be noted that the staff approach employed by the University of Mary will only successfully work if you have a coordinator to organize and devise a total training program for the athlete.


The Mary approach to the multi-events and what percentage of time we spent on the different areas and events was quite likely different than most schools. Whereas most programs lean toward a very balanced training scheme, we spent a much greater percentage of our training time on our so-called “strong events” where we felt we could gain the biggest dividends and capitalize on the scoring tables. Our question was always this: Where can we get the biggest rewards in scoring? Our answer: the events that stressed speed. We felt the sprint events, hurdles, jumps (including the pole vault for men) and even the 800m in the women’s heptathlon were events that utilized speed and explosive power.

The hurdles, sprints and jumps (pole vault) always seemed to our staff to offer the most opportunities to result in high point production for our particular athletes. Most were national caliber athletes in the hurdles and jumps. Consequently, a very low percentage of time was spent on the throws. We didn’t neglect the throws, but due to our cold weather environment, our throwing training time was certainly not in balance with the other events. We were forced to rely on athleticism a great deal in the throws, especially in the javelin.

A considerable percentage of time was allocated to training maximum speed. It was our thought process that this would assist us in the big “point producing” events like the hurdles, 100, 200, 400, long jump and even the women’s 800m. It’s obvious that improved speed will assist any athlete’s performance. Most coaches will agree that acceleration and sub-maximum speed will improve as the maximum speed of an athlete improves. All are important ingredients that a coach wishes to train with nearly any athlete, but most certainly combined event athletes. A common phrase in our program: “You are what you train.” It was true in the 1990’s and it is still true today.

The fact that we had stellar coaches in the hurdles, sprints and jumps was another important factor in focusing on those particular events. We always felt we would be foolish not to take advantage of the superb expertise of some of the best coaches in the country.


“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan and not quite enough time.” That is a quote from Leonard Bernstein, the great American composer who was one of the first American born and educated conductors to gain worldwide acclaim. It is a quote that sums up combined events training quite well.

Coaches must have a very balanced and systematic plan of what and how to train their multi-event athletes. Organization is a must in order to blend everything together in a comprehensive training plan and maximize the training time. Time and facilities, which often can go hand in hand, can typically be limited at the collegiate level. Combined event coaches must be very detailed and resourceful to utilize all of the available time and facilities.

To put the University of Mary combined training into a nutshell, it would be charactized by low volume, high intensity, simplicity, and an emphasis on maximum speed. It was a rather conservative approach that allowed athletes to be very consistent in their training. The consensus of the staff was that success in track & field is fueled by consistently training at high levels for long periods of time without interruptions and injuries.

The conservative, simpler approach by the Mary staff prevented overtraining and largely limited major injuries. We always like to remind people, however, that simple doesn’t necessarily mean easy.

The lack of an indoor track & field facility (our facility was a tartan basketball floor) and our harsh climate dictated our training to large degree. We had to adapt our training to the available facilities and what the weather would allow. That often meant hurdling (with flats and no spikes with the maximum amount of hurdles being three) on a gym floor at 10 pm at night after a basketball game! It certainly limited our training time and we were very conscious of obtaining “quality reps. “

Most of our strength training came in the form of functional training such as plyometrics (lower and upper body), medicine ball circuits (multi jump/throw circuits), and hill training. Our weight room was very tiny and poorly equipped. Although we could do a limited amount of strength training, it certainly went along with our simpler version of training the combined events.

It was our desire to achieve a very balanced training program that “covered all the bases” so to speak. Unfortunately, as stated earlier, we didn’t always meet that goal, namely in the throws.

In summary, the ultimate goal of our training program for the multi-events was to have a very sound, fundamental and science-based process that combined everything into a comphrensive yet simple program. It was designed to meet the individual needs of each and every combined event athlete.

“We really had a great training environment and we always had great training partners,” said Mandy (Schroeder) Sheldon, commenting on what the author always described as the University of Mary’s “championship training environment.” “That was a major factor in our multi-event success. No question,” she added.


Most coaches will agree that the best or “ideal” training opportunities for athletes come in competition. The Mary program was practicing this concept long before it was a popular idea in the coaching community. We were doing this out of necessity: weather and a very limited indoor training facility forced us to use our competitions as the best forms of training.

Our training was arranged around our meet schedule. As stated earlier, our athletes did not specialize in the combined events. They were outstanding athletes in individual events, quite often being national champions. So naturally they were going to compete in their specialty events at the various meets we attended, usually on a weekly basis indoors and outdoors. In addition to their “regular events,” competition afforded our athletes the opportunity to work and train in some of the other events that they would contest in the multi-events.

Other coaches were always quite surprised—or alarmed—depending how you looked at it- that our top athletes were doing three or more events at a meet and competing on a relay(s). We merely saw it as taking advantage of a situation that we likely wouldn’t have obtained because of our lack of facilities and difficult winters.

The other benefit from an extensive competition where we could “ideally train” was planned rest and recovery. In reality, resting, tapering and recovering from the frequent competitions prevented Mary athletes from overtraining and overuse injuries.


Very few coaches would agree that the mental or psychological component isn’t a very important part of the combined events. There is little question that these events can be very stressful and emotional at times. How athletes handle this will often dictate success or failure. We always found that it took a very focused, confident athlete who was very strong mentally, was extremely disciplined and who enjoyed tackling challenges “head-on.” It is essential that athletes battle through adversity and “see the other side” without “breaking” in a long, grueling competition. A calm and positive approach by the coaches was always an extremely important factor in guiding the athletes through an often pressure-filled event.

We have always maintained that coaching and athletics are about people and relationships. A key element in successful coaching is having excellent relationships/rapport with athletes. Good communication skills (verbal and non-verbal) are undoubtedly a prime factor in successful relationships. An athlete needs to have a very open, honest line of communication with the coach. Without it, it is very difficult for the coach to challenge and critique the athlete in a very positive, constructive manner.

A reassuring approach that assists an athlete to keep a very even keel throughout competitions is extremely critical. It is equally important that training be designed with positive outcomes to create confidence, with confidence being a critical factor in determining the success of a combined event athlete.


The following are some of the principles, concepts and guidelines that our program adhered to in the training of the Mary combined event athletes. It is by no means a complete list. They are discussed in no particular order.

**Preparation is a key to success in any training program, and certainly in the combined events. Not only preparation, but the correct preparation. The author received the ultimate compliment as a young coach when the late Hall of Fame Doane (NE) University coach Fred Beile commented: “I don’t always know where the Marauders will finish at the national meet, but I know one thing. They will be well prepared,” he said in his scratchy, gravelly voice.

**Although we trained all of the different energy systems, our emphasis was on developing maximum speed. It was our belief that it would aid in the development of a number of different components, including acceleration and sub-maximum speed. The goal was to train max speed/CNS as frequently as possible.

**Quality over quantity was stressed, with the volume of training quite low. This was especially true when one looks at the workload that many multi-event performers undertake today. We always remember Hall of Fame Coach Gary Winckler telling us at a clinic he did at the University of Mary in 1997: “Work capacity is not a biomotor quality.” A thread that we have always tried to weave: “Less is often more.”

**Sprint mechanics were a constant point of emphasis. The mechanical advantage gained from proper sprint mechanics is a big advantage for athletes. The ability for an athlete to put the body in the correct position at the proper time is a very powerful force. One of our common themes: “You are only as fast as your mechanics will allow.”

**We did not believe in mileage and base work. Going out and jogging slowly was not part of our training vocabulary. We have always said that the base or foundation for explosive athletes like multi-event athletes is speed. Yes, we did do some fartlek and steady runs on occasion. But the runs were for relatively short distances and no jogging was permitted. Slow mileage (aka jogging) ruins sprint mechanics. Hill work, pool training and a lot of pace 200’s were a means to develop strength and endurance in our program. Hill work was a weekly staple in the fall training months. When athletes would ask us about going out and jogging for endurance, we always said, “Go take a nap. You will get more out of it.”

**The pool was a very valuable resource for training. It was used for recovery/regeneration, rehabilitation, and training endurance (aerobic). It was considered a great general fitness and conditioning component. A great deal of endurance and stamina is needed for not only the 800m, 1000m and 1500m, but in general for heptathletes and decathletes. A high fitness level was certainly a requirement when you think of multi-event athletes competing 8-12 hours on back-to-back days.

**It was important to train in a fatigued state at times. Fatigue can certainly influence technique and the athlete must be prepared to encounter and overcome that. That obviously comes with the territory in the heptathlon and the decathlon. Only by experiencing it in a practice setting will the athlete be prepared to overcome and deal with it in an actual competition. We also thought it was essential to train and be prepared to compete in all types of weather (this was never a problem in North Dakota).

** The focus in our program was explosive strength and power. There are very few athletic performances that don’t demand power—high force production in a short period of time. We have always said what a lot of coaches term strength is actually power.

**Only impactful drills that had a high degree of transfer to competition were used. Drills can be extremely important. It is our feeling, however, that many coaches “over drill” and use drills that do not translate to success in competition.

**Quality repetitions were always of importance, with time and energy always a concern. An example: We combined sprint training with approach work in the long jump. Coaches should be mindful, however, that it takes up to 500 hours to perfect a motor pattern before it becomes unconscious.

**The pole vault was one of the events that presented problems in our program due to a lack of indoor facilities. We did, however, have a box in the gym floor and our goal was to vault several times a week, even if one of the sessions was drill work.

**One of our goals was to carry out precise technique training following a rather light or easy day, with the focus being on having the athlete as fresh as possible for the technical work.

**The area that we spent the least amount of time was the throws. Weather was always a factor and a high volume of throws with the fouls kept to a minimum was the order of the day when the opportunity to throw presented itself.


Time passes and it’s gone. You can’t get it back. Most coaches have reflected on the past and what they would do differently if they had a “do-over.” Upon reflection, we would do several things differently to minimize several limiting factors. They include:

**We would certainly devote more time to the throws and strive for a better balance in our overall training plan, although as we have stated, some neglect of the throws was due to circumstances out of our control.

**We would certainly place more emphasis on nutrition, especially knowing now how much nutrition can assist the athlete in recovery and performance.

**We would increase the value we placed on the use of the weight room and developing a total body strength program. We would have benefited more from the functional strength training with the increased use of the weight room.

**More time and energy should have been devoted to flexibility/joint mobility. We certainly stressed sprint mechanics and running efficiently. But the reality is this: many athletes can’t place themselves in the correct mechanical positions due to a lack of flexibility and joint mobility and their performance suffers.

**The use of daily double sessions or even multiple sessions would have allowed for athletes to maximize the training time and aided in recovery for the athletes. Often our training schedules jammed everything into a single, lengthy session that wasn’t as productive, Again, however, facilities, or a lack of, often prevented this from happening.


One can quickly see that the University of Mary did a lot of things right when we look back at the way the Marauder heptathletes/decathletes were trained. Could we have did it better? Of course. Hindsight is always golden. But it is difficult to argue with the success of the program. National champions and repeated success were trademarks over an extended period of time!

Our training program worked for us in our situation and circumstances. It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t complex. It was actually quite practical and quite simple. We understand it wouldn’t work for everyone. Every program has a unique set of parameters that it has to deal with. We were able to figure out a path to success in our reality, in our environment. We often say it is “difficult to argue with great results.” The results from our training of combined events speak volumes. Large and loud!!


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