How to design and implement distance workouts that meet the needs of all members of a diverse team or training group.
By Monty Steadman
For more than 30 years Monty Steadman was a head and assistant track coach at the high school, community college and collegiate levels. He is also a certified USATF official and is the author of Coaches’ Guide to Cross Country and Track and Field: Training Cycles (2015), available from amazon.com
As I was driving down a rural street one day, I came across a group of high school distance runners going on a long run. I was driving in the opposite direction so I passed the top runners first. They were more or less running in several loose knit groups. Then I passed some slower runners and a runner who appeared to be their coach running together at a slower pace than the top groups. Finally at the other end of the line of runners, I observed a rather strung-out group of runners. Some were running. Some were running and walking, and at the back end of the group, some were just plain walking. The entire situation demonstrated the challenge of coaching large and diverse high school cross country teams and/or groups of middle distance and distance runners while they train on long runs.
Most high school cross country teams and track & field distance groups consist of male and female athletes, sometimes in large numbers, with a wide range of talent, ability, and motivation. Not everyone can handle the same workloads during a workout session. Wasted time and runners standing around are two enemies of effective team workouts. For a workout to be effective and efficient, all individuals or groups should be running during the entire workout and finish running at more or less the same time.
The problem for a coach is how to design and implement long run and hill workouts that meet the training needs of all members of a diverse team or training group while fostering team unity. Sometimes coaches never really get to view all of their runners during these workouts. If a coach stays in one place, the runners pass by and are not observed again until they reach their destination. If a coach runs with athletes, then a choice has to be made as to where in the large group a coach can or will run. If a coach has the ability to run with top athletes, then athletes with lesser abilities are unobserved while running behind that coach. If a coach runs with or behind the slower athletes, then top athletes are neglected.
Two coaches can help with this problem, as one can run in front and one can run at the back. However, what happens to the runner who becomes sick or injured during the workout? Who sees that runner when she or he needs help, and where does that runner go to get help? In my opinion, this problem can be solved through training sessions designed around Timed Running and Loop Courses.
When large or small groups of athletes set out for a run of a specific distance, two things can happen. One is that no matter the distance run, some athletes will finish the distance before the remainder of the group finishes. Generally these athletes then either warm down and go home earlier then the rest of the group, or they wait around until everybody finishes the run. A creative coach can give these athletes some extra work to do while they are waiting for the rest of the group to finish, but then the workout tends to become fragmented.
The second thing that happens is that the slower athletes at the back end of the group always finish after everyone else in the group has already finished and maybe has even gone home. This situation can cause these slower athletes to feel disconnected from the rest of the group. They may also become discouraged by always being in the rear. From my observation, some runners at the tail end of groups don’t always challenge themselves in long run workouts. Some few even have a tendency to walk when nobody is looking.
A solution to these two situations can be Timed Running. Instead of designing workouts that have runners cover specific distances, 2 miles, 5 miles, 10 miles, 15 miles, or what have you, a coach can design workouts that have runners run steadily for specific lengths of time, 10 min., 25 min., 40 min., 60 min., or longer. These workout duration times should be based on the fitness and performance levels of the athletes as well as on the desired outcome of the various workouts.
With timed runs everyone starts together and then finishes at the same time. By everyone running for the same duration of time as everyone else during the same workout, runners will cover different distances based on each individual’s or subgroup’s fitness and ability levels but all finish the workout together. As runners improve and raise their fitness levels, they will cover more distance during specific time periods. Timed running can effectively work for short tempo and threshold runs and also for very long, high mileage training runs. As was stated, the time of the runs depends on the goal of the specific workout.
WORKOUT COURSE DESIGN
If athletes are going to run for time rather than distance, workout course design becomes critical. Timed running on an “in and out” course is fairly simple to set up and implement. The coach determines the duration of the timed run. The course is set up, and the runners are told to run for half of the allotted time from point “A” toward point “B”, say 15 min. for 30 min., 30 min. for 45 min. or whatever is desired and then to turn around and run back toward point “A.” By having all the runners turn around at half time no matter where they are on the course, everyone, no matter their talent or ability, will arrive at the starting point at more or less the same time. When the workout concludes, it will conclude for everyone in the group at almost the same time.
The major problem with time running on “in and out” courses is a coach’s ability to monitor and supervise all the runners in the group during the entire workout. A coach can’t be everywhere at the same time. Running these workouts on loop courses offers a solution to this problem.
THE LOOP COURSE CONCEPT FOR TIMED RUNS
No matter what the location, hill and long run workouts can be performed on loop courses of any distance depending on the location. Loops can vary from 1 mile to 3 or 4 miles depending on the type of workout. Running on 2.0 to 2.25 or 2.5 mile loops seem to work the best from a supervision standpoint. There are several reasons for working a team on loop courses.
Loop courses provide a good means for supervising all runners during the entire workout. Having all runners run on a loop course, allows them to all continually pass by a coach or coaches. (If two coaches have two separated check points on any loop course then runners will never be too far from a coach at any time.) These loop courses can be set up in parks, recreation areas, on actual cross country courses, and even on some large school campuses.
Close supervision of runners on a loop course allows a coach or coaches to keep in close communication with all team members throughout the entire workout. The pace and intensity of runners’ work can be monitored continually as each runner or group keeps passing by a coach or coaches. The physical health of all runners can be assessed throughout the run. If a runner becomes injured, sick, or unduly fatigued, that runner can receive help or first aid much quicker than a runner would on an extended “in and out” or single-direction course. Also water stations can be set up on loop courses. Coaches can carry small walkie-talkies or cell phones, so that they are able to communicate with each other concerning their runners.
This direct supervision and communication eliminates many monitoring and supervision problems as well as keeps the workouts going at the pace and intensity that a coach desires. By moving runners continuously around a large loop, coaches are able to set runners at different paces, intensities, and distances while keeping them all in the same immediate area. Coaches are able to supervise and regulate the work done by all runners in these loop course settings.
By running athletes for set times on a predetermined loop, it is very easy for coaches to establish how much work is performed by individuals or groups from workout to workout. For example, if at a given site a runner or group runs three complete loops in a given time, and then at the following week’s workout, the same athlete or group runs three and a quarter loops in the same time as in the previous week, obviously more work at a faster pace has been performed the second week. Also, if less work is performed during the second week’s workout, then coaches can look into this difference. Fatigue, illness, injury, adverse weather conditions, or maybe lack of effort can all be causes of the workout differences. Changes can be made in the workout structure to remedy such problems. Shorter workouts, longer workouts, pace changes, rest days, or even pep talks can all address these problems. Timed running on loop courses enables coaches to locate and solve training problems as they come up, thus helping runners to grow and improve.
Loop course workouts allow coaches to make instantaneous changes in workout patterns thus creating variety and individualization in those workouts. When runners work according to strictly repeated patterns there can be a tendency for some individuals over time to lose interest and become bored with workouts. Loop course running allows a coach to make sudden changes in a workout at any time during that workout. These changes can be communicated to all the runners performing the workout, or to some groups, or to individuals. Groups and individuals can be given tasks, which are different from those of others running on the same loop. Unexpected changes can add variety and zest to otherwise monotonous workouts.
An example of a very simple change in a loop course workout is that as the runners pass a checkpoint a coach sends them back in the opposite direction. (This change of direction is always a crowd pleaser.) A variation of this change of direction tactic is to send the lead runner who reaches a checkpoint back in the opposite direction. This lead individual is instructed to turn the other runners around as the designated runner meets the runners coming up the course. So what starts out as a single runner running in the opposite direction ends up with the entire team or group running together around the course in that opposite direction. This is always a good way to finish up a workout.
Some athletes, especially those who are new to the sport of distance running and/or cross country or those with limited fitness or motivation have a tendency when unobserved to walk during portions of long runs. This walking problem needs to be corrected as soon as it is observed by a coach. Timed loop course running provides a coach with many opportunities to observe and then stop individuals from walking.
THE NO WALKING RULE
One concept that must be established with all runners on the very first day of practice and must be continually re-enforced thereafter is, “THERE IS NO WALKING DURING ANY OF THE RUNS IN PRACTICE.” Some neophyte runners have to learn that they do not need to walk during long runs.
At practice, individuals or groups who are observed walking at any time during a running workout should be checked for signs of extreme fatigue or injury and then either pulled out of the workout or encouraged to try to keep running. In practice if runners walk during a run one of two things could be wrong.
• The individual has been running too fast and is fatiguing too soon. If that’s the case then the runner needs to be advised to slow the pace down so that the entire workout can be completed by running.
• The runner is sick, injured, or has some other problem that is keeping the individual from being able to run. If any of that is the case, then the runner should stop running immediately and go to a coach and explain the problem. If a runner is too sick or injured to make his/her way to a coach, the runner should send a teammate to a coach immediately.
Teaching runners not to walk during practice runs may require a personal approach by a coach. Through observation it becomes easy to determine who is walking due to injury, illness or distress or just walking due to habit. Pacing adjustments can be made for walkers who are not injured, ill, or in distress. Sometimes the only thing these walkers need is verbal encouragement. Any individual who after being encouraged to keep running walks a second time in a workout should be pulled from the remainder of that workout. Athletes who continually refuse to stop walking in practice or races should be asked to leave the team and program and encouraged to try a different sport or activity. With the proper encouragement and supervision it should not take long to get all team or group members running for all of the practice time. Once a “no walking culture” is created within a team or group, the problem tends to disappear.
The Timed Run, Loop Concept can be a mainstay of a school’s or club’s cross country, middle distance, and distance program. This concept allows for measurable, graduated, individualized workloads for all runners while still maintaining a team or group setting. Because of the individualization of this type of workout, all participants can experience positive development and consistent improvement of performance. This method of timed, loop course running can work for the inexperienced neophyte as well as for the top-level runner all in the same workout. A little preplanning and course setup by a coach can make it happen, so that all team or group members continue to grow and develop through an entire season. It works!