Planning Training for Distance Running: Part Two

PART TWO: What experts say about training for distance running

Carrie Tollefson, ran for Lac Qui Parle Valley and Dawson-Boyd High Schools and won a national record 5 state cross country titles and a state record 13 track titles. She also won 4 NCAA championships, and ran in the 2004 Olympic games in the 1500 meters. She won the 2006 4K USA cross country title and USA Indoor 3000 meter run. She directs the Summer Distance Camp at St. Catherine's College and does a Weekly Online Show called C Tolle Run. Tollefson also is married and is expecting her third child to arrive soon.

MN MileSplit: What would you do differently as far as training in high school?

Tollefson: I don't think I would change much of anything. My coaches were very conservative and I think that is why I had so much fun in the sport and had some success. I always had room to grow and didn't have any overuse injuries.

Maybe knowing now how much the little things do for a runner I would have worked a bit more on my drills, weights, stretching, and nutrition. I think the actual running that I did was great, it was the other things that I didn't pay much attention to.

We did a little mental training and maybe more so with my parents but that is a huge component of our sport that doesn't get utilized at a young age and I think all athletes can benefit from that.

MN MileSplit: What did you do right that you probably would not change?

Tollefson: I think what I did right was I worked really hard. I didn't have a lot of "junk" mileage. My mileage was always around 30-35 mpw and even though that seems low, we always had a purpose for those miles. Recovery, tempo, intervals, long run, and race day all had a meaning and it kept me focused and again, having fun with a sport that can be life long.

I also think my coaches and parents were good about letting me be a kid at the same time as being elite. We took it seriously but we also goofed off, ate cake after hill repeats, made sure to have days off and I was allowed to play lots of other sports in the off seasons.

MN MileSplit: How would you train a young Carrie Tolefson in today's environment?

Tollefson: I would be really careful with a young athlete today. Running has changed quite a bit. Not many people play other sports and I think that is a shame. I was a great runner because I believe I had time away from my sport and we kept it exciting. My parents didn't force me into anything, and my coaches saw the talent but let me grow into it.

I played basketball in the winter and summer and loved every minute of being on that team. I did run a tiny bit as I got older during those times but I was a basketball player first when it was that season. I think we are getting away from that. The muscles, speed, and joy I developed in another sport only made me want to be better at running when it was that time of the year.

So, if I were to train another runner today, I would make sure they were well rounded, working their whole body and mind. I would make sure to keep the workouts and mileage at a number that could increase over the years without causing fatigue or injuries. Most of the runners I know today that are Olympians and world class were very undertrained in high school. It was only in college that they see the real miles!

MN MileSplit: What precautions would you give high school females in regards to training?

Tollefson: I am about to have my third baby and I have always shared with coaches and athletes that life after competition is so important. We have to take care of ourselves. As a girl and woman, we have the ability to have physical signs that we are healthy and getting enough nutrients each month. It is really important to stay on top of those signs. Being at a healthy weight and managing our nutrients is HUGE for both males and females.

But if young girls and women want to be great athletes and become mothers one day, they have to be smart early on. If we do not have those physical signs, then we run the risk of injuries or fatigue issues and both of those do not do anything for our racing and training.

This isn't an easy sport, but it is so rewarding when we stay true to ourselves, and make sure we are taking care of ourselves. It is not a sport to abuse in a way that we hurt ourselves and I encourage every athlete, coach, and parent to be aware of anything that does not feel or look right.

Beyond that, I think being coachable is one of the most important things an athlete can be. Listen, learn, and communicate with your coaches. If you are feeling great, let them know, if you are off, let them know. Just be open and your results will speak for themselves.

Training over the years, if I did something my coach didn't want me to do, specifically add mileage, time in the gym, neglect sleep, travel too much, not eat properly, it only interfered and caused stress for both of us. Be open, they understand that this is a hard sport, but they also understand the fine line of going over the edge. Do not let that happen.

Kim Spence, 2004 graduate of Wheaton College, Norton, Massachusetts and now head coach of the Men's and Women's teams there said, "The training age of runners is very important in prescribing mileage and intensities in their workouts. How much running have they done up to this point?" "We also have to determine which event they are best suited for and that can be determined by what the coaches see as they try various events." "Sometimes people get it in their head that they are sprinters but cannot handle the workouts. That is also true for distance runners," Spence added.

Dave Smith, Head Coach at Oklahoma St. University, national champions in cross country in 2009, 2010, (second in 2011), and again in 2012, had this to say about how one should train in today's high school environment: "I would focus on aerobic development through long term consistent training using a lot of easy running and steadily, but patiently increasing volume.

"I would also work on light quick running in the forms of stride outs, hill repeats, or repetitions of 200-300 meters with full recovery. I would spend a lot of time training by feel and less time looking at a watch. I would use a lot of perceived effort fartleks and tempo runs where the emphasis is never on actual pace. I wouldn't spend a lot of time on the track grinding out gut busting workouts."

What coach means by "strides outs" are short gradual buildups to a sprint at a distance short of 100 meters. Watch other runners do these.

In college, Smith worked very hard, running 90-100 miles per week. But it was not just the mileage. "I always trained with presumption that the harder I worked, and the more I did, the better I would become. If my coach wrote down 5 x mile @ 4:40, I would try to run them in 4:30! I constantly made the mistake of trying to race everything." Unfortunately, even today a lot of runners make this mistake!

"As a coach, I think I have been much better than I was as an athlete. It's kind of like the old saying, 'doctors make the worst patients.' It's much easier to look at the athletes I coach from an objective perspective and see what needs to be done (or in my own case, not done). In my coaching career, I have focused on a lot of submaximal running and only very rarely, do I have athletes train at the same intensities with which we expect them to race. Not every coach sees it that way, and there are a lot of very successful coaches that use more high intensity training than I do. But I would not change the aspect of the way we do things," Smith concluded.

Smith credits Jack Daniel's book as having influenced him to train runners this way: "If your goal is to run a 4:00 mile, do not do 4:00 mile workouts. Instead, start at your current fitness level which might be 4:20. When you can do the type of work a 4:20 miler can do then attempt what a 4:15 level would be."

"A huge part of being a successful distance runner is learning how to relax and concentrate when you are tired. Many runners are often nervous before and during competition and these emotions can exacerbate fatigue and discomfort. If you can stay relaxed, poised, and focus on the job at hand you can beat many runners who have more ability or fitness. Ryan Vail is an example of this type of runner. This is something that can be learned, practiced, and perfected. At Okahoma State University we work on it a lot!," exclaimed Smith.

"The greatest limiting factor on a distance runner is the aerobic fitness level, we do not ever want to get far away from that,"said Arthur Lydiard "Speed must be worked on all year long but be careful of doing too much hard anaerobic training as you will get injured or sick, " is another of Lydiard's maxim's.

(Pure speed training is not hard anaerobic training. Whether you run 10 x 100 or 10 x 400, they both would be considered anaerobic, however Lydiard is talking about 10 x 400 being very tough on the body, especially if you push the pace. For runners with a base there is a time and place for 10 x 400! According to Lydiard you do 10 x 100 type training all year.)

Lydiard was known as the "Father of Distance Running." He is from a little island called New Zealand not much larger than the state of Colorado and the 76th largest in the world.

Yet this tiny country had two gold medalists; Peter Snell 800 meters, and Murray Halberg 5000 meters, and Bronze medalist Barry Magee in the marathon in the 1960 Olympics. In 1964 they did even better with the 5'10" 180' Snell winning both the 800 and 1500, John Davies getting the bronze in the 1500, and Marise Chamberlain claiming the bronze in the only long distance event for women, the 800 meters. Between 1956 and 1965 New Zealand middle and long-distance runners bettered or equaled 23 world records or world best times.

Lydiard is known the world over and is rumored to have actually coached in the following countries: New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Mexico, Venezuela, Japan, Great Britain, South Africa, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the USA among many other places. The Lydiard Athletics Club in South Africa is the only athletics club to be named after a coach.

Most experts agree that a beginning runner must first develop a distance base of many miles before they are ready for the faster running. A high school freshman starts out at around 10 miles per week. In general a senior in high school is running between 30 to 80 miles per week. A champion runner will want to run every day. It's not that hard to build a base if one improves the level by less than 10% per week. This is the way to go if you expect to be any good.

Ideally what you want to do is develop aerobically and improve speed at the same time. This can be done if one does not overload the anaerobic system. Work such as 6 x 800 meters is best left for time spent with a coach.

"Arthur Lydiard is highly critical of the American system. He teaches that by emphasizing hard anaerobic training, we are destroying the potential of our runners. According to Lydiard, anaerobic activity alters the body's pH levels (alkaline vs. acid), and leads to a physical breakdown over time. What's more, he boldly states that anaerobic training does nothing at all to enhance performance, nor does it increase human speed. (He sees speed development as a factor of increased muscle strength due to resistance running such as hill training). Anaerobic training simply teaches how to run in oxygen debt." John Raucci, Author That is a direct quote but I believe Lydiard means the overdoing of this system!

Please take into consideration that the oxidative (aerobic) need of distance events are: 400 meters - 30%, 800 meters - 55%, 1600 meters - 70%, 3200 meters - 85%, and 5000 meters - 90%. The oxidative need for an event goes up if the athlete is slower. For example a 2:15 800 is more oxidative than a 1:55 800!

Jeff Jirele was a very good distance runner at Austin, MN High School having run a 1:56.59 880 and a 4:26 mile. He also ran cross country and finished 22nd in the state meet. This was run almost exclusively on an interval running program. "I needed to lift weights and run in the mornings when I was in high school," Jirele admitted.

Then at Golden Valley Junior College, Jirele was in a high mileage program of up to 130 miles per week. This resulted in three individual junior college titles for him; one in cross country and two in the mile run.

Then he transferred to the University of Illinois and was in a well-rounded program. He ran 1:51.1 in the 880 and 4:00.3 in the mile. In 1978 the year after he graduated he ran a 3:58.3 in the mile. "What I needed to do in college is to have more positive thinking and larger goals," Jirele stated.

Al Tappe ran for New Richland-Hartland High School in the mid-1970s. He ran 4:22 for the mile as a senior there. In high school they did a lot of fartlek, long runs, tag, and they did accelerations after almost every practice. Tappe had an outstanding prep career and said that his coach kept it fun even though they ran lots of miles. Tappe experienced continual improvement in the 440 meter dash in high school because of the mileage, speed, and downhill running they did.

Tappe said, "We always ran against the wind on the way out in our distance runs and on our return we had the wind at our back. We also ran down a long, gradual, hill near campus. These things led to our increased speed!" Tappe increased his speed in the 440 to 51.4 by the end of his senior year.

Jim Ryun, the former 3:51.1 miler, out of Kansas, was another one who used improving 440 times to help him out at other distances, including cross country.

Then at the University of Minnesota Tappe ran for Roy Griak, the former Pan Am Games coach. Under Griak the mileage was about the same as he ran in high school, but the intensity went up. The fact you ran against better competition was also a motivating factor. He would have done even better if he didn't occasionally leave his best races in practice! "Garry Bjorkland and others were so tough in the interval workouts, and it was easy to get pulled along at their pace, rather than a more reasonable pace," exclaimed Tappe. Despite this he ran 4:01 for the mile and is still on the All-Time Top Ten for the 4 x 1600 meter relay.

Sometimes we find that small town kids are intimidated by large school teams. According to Tappe this is a purely mental thing that can be overcome. In addition research has shown that runners from Kenya and Ethiopia do not have any physical advantages. Their culture and expectations are different. Americans need to quit being intimidated just because someone is from eastern Africa!

Spence was a good sprinter as a freshman and gained All-American honors in the 4 x 400 relay early in her running career. She found that she enjoyed the longer distance workouts so she joined the cross country team. After that she made All-American in the 800 meter run and 3000 meter steeplechase. Spence said that developing her aerobic system also made her faster in the shorter distances!

Geis, from Texas originally, was a tennis player in middle school. He feels that this gave him a base for his eventual running career. When he changed to cross country and track & field he was trained by a coach who followed the Mihaly Igloi system. Igloi's plan usually consisted of running many different speeds over short distances with very short jogging breaks between. They did do a few long runs every week and the total volume was consistently very high.

Part of the reason you do not hear about this coach in the present day is because of the revolution that occurred in Hungary at that time. Igloi and many of his athletes moved out of the country and lost contact with each other. However Bob Schul is the last American to win a gold medal in a distance over 800 meters in the Olympics when he won the 5000 meters in 1964. He won the race in 13:48.8 on a wet, cinders track in Tokyo, Japan. There is no telling how fast that time would be if they had run on today's lightning fast tracks in the clothing and shoes of the 21st Century!

Steve Bence, a 1:55 800 meter runner in high school, walked on at the University of Oregon and improved to a 1:47.7 and All-American status as a freshman in 1972. He did win lots of races in the next three years, and gained another All-American award, but his times did not really go down in the 800 after his initial year in the program. Bence was a world class runner in the 800 yard run in 1972, as his time was only 3.4 seconds off the world record set originally in 1962 by Peter Snell of New Zealand at 1:44.3.

Bence suggested runners could learn from his mistakes: "The relationship with your coach is incredibly important because he/she can set up goals for you, develop a good workout group, and have races set up to motivate you throughout the entire year. You must be consistent with your running to the point that you also include recovery runs nearly every day. That is one of the things that made Prefontaine great. I roomed with him and for him it was like brushing his teeth. He never missed a morning run."

Head coach Bill Dellinger, having been a cross country and 5000 meter runner, led Prefontaine, Geis, and Matt Centrowitz, Sr. to the Olympics because they had a great relationship. Bence, being somewhat shy at the time, did not have a relationship with Dellinger. Looking back he believes he should have taken ownership and developed one with the busy coach!

Wayne Feder, legendary coach of New Richland-Hartland, whose program produced two-time cross country champion Dan Lyndgaard, runnerup finisher Dave Tappe, plus top 15 place placers Al Tappe and Brad Finseth; stated, "There is a big difference between training high school kids as opposed to world class athletes." "The first thing all runners must do is establish a base so that they can do the harder, faster workouts."

We all know that running 5 x 1600 or 12 x 400 fast will ultimately bring your fastest times for the moment! But how good the aerobic base is determines how high that moment can be!

Craig Virgin is one of the most famous distance runners America has ever produced. In high school he was already running against the best in the world as he broke Prefontaine's high school 2 mile record with a 8:40.9 and also ran the mile in 4:05.5. He went on to have a great career in cross country running where he is the only American male to win two World Cross Country Championships.

He also is a three-time Olympian in the 10,000 meter run and eventually ran that distance in 27:29.2. That is a pace of 4:25.4 for 6.2 miles! He ran that in 1980 and it was the fastest time in the world that year. The problem was the U.S. boycotted the Olympics that year! Virgin could recover faster from fartlek and speed workouts than the average high school athlete.

He also went through an injury from stepping on a stick as a freshman, and fell on both knees slipping on the ice as a senior. The injury to his knees caused Osgood-Schlatters disease which is not fun. He grew up on a farm and had to do lots of heavy work, and attributes some of his success to that. Yet Virgin is also rumored to, "Have a friend in every city." If you want to know what he did in training, it's not hard to find on the internet as he is open and wants to help high school runners. He also has a biography coming out in January or February of this year.

Virgin began running during cross country as a freshman. His coach's background was as a baseball and basketball coach who got his training knowledge from a swimming coach. According to Virgin the training for swimming is in some ways similar to running. "Swimming and running are similar so he knew that I needed over distance, intervals, and then taper/rest before a race."

Virgin still holds the 3 mile course record for the Illinois State Cross Country Meet in 13:50.6 set in 1972. They still run 3 miles on the same course so he has held this record for 33 years!

Virgin and his coach talked frequently about his training and collaborated on what he wound up doing. A lot of their theory came from other runners and coaches. "Starting with my soph year I started to do 3 mile AM runs every day except for the day of the race and the day before the race. My distance training runs in the afternoon were usually 6, 8, or 10 mile runs. I averaged 8 mile runs most of the time but usually did a 10 mile run in the afternoon on Sun....after a 3 mile run in the morning. My final two years of H.S. I averaged 60-80 miles per week which was upper middle for that time. There were other top HS runners doing 80-100 mpw and there were some doing 50-70 that were also successful."

For Fartlek runs he liked to use telephones to mark the fast portions of the run, "sometimes just one pole surges, but then I would mix them with longer surges," Virgin explains. "I might also go to the golf course and sprint the fairways, followed by jogging to the next tee. The total distance of my workout would be 7-8 miles. I would get the heart rate up quite high and it challenged my mental toughness," Virgin instructed.

He would also do 12 x 440 as follows: Run a 440, walk for 20 yards, then jog for 200 yards before starting the next repeat. He would do the first one somewhat slow for him and then increase each repetition so that each one was faster than the previous one. "By dumb luck I discovered that it was also best to gradually increase the speed over the entire 440 so that I was near my top speed at the end. This is how I developed my biomechanical efficiency," Virgin related. He trained at different speeds!

Virgin also liked to do many of his runs, even the morning run if he felt fresh, like a tempo run. That is the speed of each mile would be perhaps 30 seconds faster than the previous mile. As a team they liked to do 3 x 1 mile on their course sometimes. "Mileage is just part of the equation of successful training. It's called quantity...but quality is also important. That's when things got hard and uncomfortable and usually painful at the end." stated Virgin.

So we really need four types of runs: long, hilly, speed/short, and fartlek. Warm up well and warm down well. Stretch. Run every day. It does not need to be a lot more complicated than that. Talk to your coach and tell him what you are doing and ask for advice.