Before the 2018 season, our coaching staff for the Downers Grove South girls high school cross country team went through our yearly evaluation of the previous season’s training plan. Immediately, we focused on needing to improve speed development.
Our team could run solid races, but we wanted to improve getting out in better position and finishing stronger. Our girls’ team had back-to-back top 5 finishes at the state cross country meet, placing 4th in 2016 and 5th in 2017 (only 10 points from 3rd). For the upcoming 2018 season, we decided to be purposeful and consistent about addressing speed throughout the entire season. With six of our top seven runners returning, we were looking for ways to get faster and have stronger finishes.
4 Key Elements of the Training Plan
Historically, Downers Grove South has had its fair share of success. We’ve won the conference championship 20 years in a row, and we hold the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) record for consecutive dual meet victories at 102. Over the past seven years, our program has been top 25 in the state.
Our program’s success was built on consistency in our training through mileage, some speed work (especially toward the end of the season), and traditional strength training exercises. To help facilitate our 2018 speed development goals, we switched our in-season training cycle to a nine-day microcycle, which allowed us to incorporate more elements of training regularly. From there, we focused on speed, strength, injury prevention, and building an effective team culture.
During our summer training period, we dedicated one day per week to speed and running mechanics. Our format consisted of speed drills, mini-hurdle variations, and timing 10- to 30-meter flys.
We began with a 30-meter fly and eventually adjusted to a 10-meter fly to better assess our progress. At the shorter distance, girls were able to hold their form together and monitored times started dropping in just three sessions. Because acceleration is neglected when working with distance runners, I recommend using a shorter build-up at the beginning of training and slowly extend the build-up as the athletes become stronger and faster.
To address running gait mechanics, we use mini-hurdles, which have proved beneficial. Common errors among runners are crossing over and having appropriate stride length. We watched and recorded each girl on an iPad to help us analyze their gait patterns. After recording each athlete, our staff identified common issues that could be addressed with strength training or through several different mini-hurdle variations. Variations included the athletes holding their arms straight up to focus on posture and using aqua bags or slosh pipes to work core strength and keeping their hips forward. We also challenged their nervous systems and coordination by using:
- Raised and lowered surfaces
- Hard and soft surfaces
- Hurdles set closer and further apart
Mini-hurdle exercises are more effective than verbal cues because of the external stimuli—they really do the coaching for you.
Over the course of the fall season, we continued to address speed during the nine-day microcycle with longer interval or shorter interval workouts that almost looked like sprinter workouts. The improvement of our entire team—not just the top seven—has been phenomenal. The speed work paid off by helping our girls have better starts, surges, and finishing kicks, resulting in faster overall times. On a team of only 56 girls, we had 10 girls break 19 minutes and 15 who have run under 20 minutes. Coach Doug Plunkett, who has been the head coach at Downers Grove South for the past 14 years, said this is the fastest team he’s ever coached.The #speedwork paid off by helping our girls have better starts, surges, and finishing kicks, resulting in faster overall times, says @Coach_Farthing. Click To Tweet
While prioritizing speed, we also placed a tremendous emphasis on the third mile of the race. Our team implemented a “check out” system in races by counting how many runners our girls passed during the last mile. The idea of the check out system was suggested by one of our assistant coaches, Mike Arenberg, who described how legendary York High School coach Joe Newton used to count the number of runners his athletes passed during the most critical point of the race.
At our team meetings, our coaches gave out skull beads to the girls for each runner passed in the final mile as a token of their efforts. We emphasized the check out system throughout the season because the last mile is often when a race is decided, especially in races with other high-caliber teams. In 2017, when our team finished 5th at state, we were only 1 point behind 4th and 10 points behind 3rd. Our team bought into the check out mentality so much that they spent entire bus rides home looking through video and calculating the exact number of runners each of their teammates passed. One of our runners said, “Checking out the last mile of the race was challenging physically and mentally; however, our close-knit team atmosphere motivated me to finish strong for a purpose outside of myself.”
Our revised training plan with a greater emphasis on speed and checking out made a big difference in our success last season.
If you research strength training for distance runners, you’ll come across countless articles advocating relatively heavy, high-intensity exercises, such as deadlifts, to challenge the nervous system since distance running is purely aerobic. In my experience putting together an appropriate strength training program, I’ve found that you need to consider the athlete’s training age. Most girls who have come into our program have had very little strength training experience, so I’m not quick to rush into heavy, high-intensity exercises.
In doing some research, we decided to break away from the traditional strength training model of several sets and reps and modeled our program on Dr. Michael Yessis’s 1 x 20 program principles. The program incorporates 15-20 exercises, completing only one set of 20 repetitions. The purpose is to work at several multi-joint movements to strengthen not only muscles but also tendons and to increase capillary density. By allowing for many exercises, our coaches can individualize athletes’ programs and provide specificity in their training. Many of the exercises do not resemble traditional lifts, such as back squats and bench presses.
Our program is categorized into exercises targeting:
- Foot and ankle
- Lower body
- Upper body
- Stability and coordination
While there are some recognizable exercises, such as single-leg squats and kettlebell swings, we carefully considered exercises specific to running, focusing on increasing strength in the feet, ankles, and hips. We even included specific running exercises like weighted boom-booms, where athletes hold weight over their heads to learn how to push harder off the ground. The purpose of including these exercises is to emphasize proper running mechanics with resistance continuously.
After concluding summer training, our team had several athletes with injuries. We actually had one athlete develop a stress fracture and a couple of other athletes with stress fracture-like symptoms.
Two weeks into our season, our team implemented Reflexive Performance Reset (RPR), which is a method to convert the body from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state. When your body is in a parasympathetic state, it’s more relaxed, which allows you to breathe easier and increase flexibility, reducing the likelihood of injury. We saw immediate results in the reduction of injuries and the number of athletes missing practices and meets. Before implementing RPR, our peak number of girls completing cross training during practice was 15 of 56 girls. Within three weeks, only three girls cross-trained due to more severe injuries.Reflexive Performance Reset immediately reduced injuries and the number of athletes missing practices and meets, says @Coach_Farthing. Click To Tweet
Each day before starting practice, our girls divided into four groups led by a captain who guided them through the RPR “wake-up” drills. On meet days, each group racing completed the drills before starting their warm-up. After the season, I asked for feedback from our runners about the physical and mental effects of using RPR. Approximately 40% of our team completed the survey. Of those 24 athletes, 6 stated RPR had a positive effect physically and mentally. Here were some of the responses:
“I think it definitely helped me mentally and was a way for me to prepare before running. I felt more flexible, and my breathing felt more under control.”
“RPR has been helpful mentally because it gives me time to relax and kind of meditate before practice and races. I was about to see the physical benefit over the summer after being tested at various times throughout our training.”
“I felt like it woke me up before races.”
“It was easier to breathe and move.”
Overall, the implementation of RPR was beneficial to our athletes based on their feedback. All high-mileage distance teams toe the line with injuries, and ours was no different. There is nothing more discouraging to coaches when the injuries start to pile up, which is why we implemented RPR for injury prevention and recovery. At our conference meet, we were proud to line up 55 of 56 girls, and RPR had much to do with it.
Although our training model led to an improved level of success for our program, I would be remiss if I did not mention our program’s culture. Our athletes consist of a tremendously close-knit group of girls who are compassionate, kind, and hardworking. They spend many hours over the summer on team-building activities. They host pool parties, BBQs, movie night at the track, and other team get-togethers. Our team takes three-day camping trip at the end of summer training to bond and set goals.
The level of consistency in our training and focus on turning our team into a family culture has also had a tremendous effect on our program in recent years and hopefully, many years to come.
After our season ended, I compared our state meet runners’ season-best times to their times from the 2017 season. The first six runners ran in the state meet the year before and our 7th runner—who was a freshman—didn’t break 19 minutes at the Detweiller at Dark race back in July. Here are their improvements:
At the end of the season, I went back to our 10-meter fly data from summer training. Of the 17 girls who regularly attended our strength and conditioning camp, those who had the fastest 10-meter fly times typically ran the fastest three-mile times on the team.
Below is the data of those 17 girls after the conference and state meet:
|10 Meter Fly||3 Mile Time||3 Mile Time|
Based on our end-year results, it’s apparent our coaching staff’s decision to place a greater emphasis on consistent speed work in our training plan paid large dividends. Mileage is still certainly most important in developing an aerobic base necessary for cross country, but speed must be a part of the equation and needs to be present throughout summer training and the season.
With a greater emphasis on speed, strength, and injury prevention our program earned its first state trophy, earning 3rdplace behind national powerhouses Naperville North and Yorkville. In fact, our program earned a top 15 ranking throughout much of the 2018 season.