Training youth athletes always comes with numerous challenges. Middle distance and distance running is no exception and perhaps has more challenges than most sports. The ideals in so much of U.S. culture, especially sports, of “more, more, more” and “no pain, no gain” are particularly dangerous in the world of youth running. The sport is littered with runners who were stars in elementary school, middle school, or high school but do not improve—or worse, never continued to compete because of recurring injuries or burnout.The ideals in so much of U.S. culture, especially sports, of ‘more, more more’ and ‘no pain, no gain’ are particularly dangerous in the world of youth running. Click To Tweet
We regularly tell the youth runners who we coach (and their parents) that one can assess the quality of a coach not by the success of the runners while running for that particular coach, but by how successfully the runners transition to the next level(s).
It’s easy to say, “kids should not run too much,” but that depends on the age, the physical development of the runner, the running surfaces, the quality of workouts, and more. And, what exactly is “too much?” Do we use Judge Potter Stewart’s guidelines: “I know it when I see it?” There is significant literature on this topic, so instead of reviewing that material, this article will focus on the types of workouts our club does that help young runners maximize what they get out of the workout without having to run more than necessary.
Our club has two distinct groups: a recreational team that focuses on general fitness through running and a racing team that is competitive. The workout philosophy in this article is what the racing team uses, where the runners are predominantly ages 8–14 and the middle school-aged runners generally train with their middle school teams for 6–8 weeks before rotating into the club for the USATF championship part of the season.
Establishing a “Why”
At the beginning of each season, and with each workout, we always have three goals:
- Have fun.
- Do your best.
- Learn something.
1. Have Fun
Understanding what having fun means is easy, and it is foundational to almost every successful runner. If at your core you do not enjoy what you do, it will be hard to excel at that activity for any extended period of time. Enjoy the running. Enjoy being healthy. Enjoy your teammates’ success. Enjoy your team’s success. Enjoy learning. Enjoy getting more comfortable with the fact that running hard can be hard—very hard. Enjoy seeing how your body adapts to training. Enjoy the training process. Enjoy your improvements and your successes, and enjoy what you can learn when you do not achieve your goals. (One will almost always learn more from their “failures” than from their “successes.”)Young runners need to be prepared to enjoy the other aspects of running when they aren’t constantly improving; otherwise, performance setbacks and injuries can become debilitating. Click To Tweet
Many youth runners enjoy seemingly endless linear improvement…until they don’t. Young runners need to be prepared to enjoy the other aspects of running when they are not constantly improving; otherwise, performance setbacks and injuries can become debilitating. They need to understand that fast times and strong performances are not the only goal in what they are doing: they are outcomes of all the other aspects of the process. If runners embrace the other aspects of the running process, better times will generally be achieved; but when they are not, the runners can still enjoy all of the other aspects of running so that they do not feel like they failed.
2. Do Your Best
This is much more nuanced than having fun and one of the hardest things for youth runners to do properly. We spend a lot of time explaining what “do your best” means. It’s easy to interpret this to mean run your hardest in every workout, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Running your hardest in every workout will not only achieve suboptimal results, it can lead to both short- and long-term injuries and burnout. “Do your best” means to do the workout how the workout is designed and the way in which the coach tells you.
Oftentimes—again, especially with younger runners—this means that they need to run at a pace that is easier than they want to, especially at the beginning of the workout. It is very common to see young runners starting out workouts too hard. They then either cannot finish the workout or do the last 25%, 50%, or 75% at a pace that doesn’t help them improve.
The young runners in our club have made great progress in thinking about the workouts in a holistic manner. When we do a workout, the workout is designed to be the entire workout, not half of the workout hard and then barely finish. As they’ve embraced this philosophy, they truly believe what we tell them regularly: if they approach the workout this way, it will be easier for them to do, it will be more fun, they will get more out of it, and they will see better progress with improving times.
3. Learn Something
We regularly over-explain why they are doing what they are doing because we want them to learn and understand. Many of them will encounter coaches who may have the best intentions but just may not be very good coaches. The runners should be able to advocate for themselves in an articulate manner with some basic understanding of the physiology to support their views.
Additionally, learning is about experimenting and understanding their body and how it reacts to different types of workouts and race tactics. They are young. They will make mistakes. But the more they learn now, the better they will be later. This is the foundation of how we approach training with our runners.
The above philosophy, ultimately, has to translate to workouts. We accomplish this through three general types of workouts:
- Distance runs and aerobic conditioning
- Intervals/speed workouts
- Tempo threshold training and core/strength work
While recovery workouts are also critical to the training process, our club only practices 3–4 days a week. (We have a fourth weekly practice on the weekend if we don’t have a meet that weekend.) There are no formal workouts when we don’t meet, and very few of the runners do any informal running on the “off” days. The following sections contain details on how our youth club does this.
1. Distance Runs
Distance runs are a type of workout that can be difficult for younger runners to do correctly, even though “distance runs” for many youth runners may only be 15–30 minutes with occasional short water breaks. It is common for young runners to begin a run at a pace that they may think is not too fast but can quickly turn into a Bataan March, grinding ever painfully slower. A distance run in this manner will lose the desired aerobic benefit of the workout and the adaptation response that the runner should achieve. It is a painful experience and a quick way to turn budding young runners off to the idea that running is fun and something that they want to continue to pursue.
Our club has overcome this with various mantras and strong suggestions. On “distance” days, the athletes hear the words “sometimes a run is just a run,” which encourages them to just go out and have fun running. Another saying we like is, “what your sport does for punishment, we do for fun,” which also encourages the idea that the distance runs should be enjoyable.Where some coaches and clubs discourage talking and conversation on runs, we strongly recommend that they do exactly that on these distance run days. Click To Tweet
Even more effective, however, is the strong suggestion (very nearly a requirement) that kids run with at least one other runner and that these runs are ALWAYS conversational. We want to see them talking on these runs! Where some coaches and clubs discourage talking and conversation on runs, we strongly recommend that they do exactly that on these distance run days.
2. Interval/Speed Workouts
Speed work and intervals are an important part of every runner’s training. Intervals can vary between longer ‘’strength”-oriented workouts earlier in the season to shorter, faster intervals later in the season. Perhaps the biggest challenge with younger runners is that, as with the distance runs, they start interval workouts too hard.
While it can take some time with each runner, most of the runners in our club learn in one season how to pace themselves in interval workouts to get the appropriate benefit of the entire workout. It helps them understand this concept if the coach explains the workout with a race analogy. If we are doing a workout of three sets of 3 x 300m, just like in a race, if they are exhausted and bent over after any of the first three repetitions of 300 meters, they are running these early repetitions too hard. Like in a 1500-meter race, if they are tired after the first lap, they are running too fast and will have a problem with the race.
They intellectually understand this concept, but it will take a while for them to execute it appropriately. We encourage them to run fast enough on the early repetitions, but they should think about running each set at the same pace or faster than the prior set. And if they feel particularly strong, they can always pick up the pace on the last set or the last few repetitions of the last set. As mentioned previously, if they approach the workouts this way, the workouts will be easier for them to do, they will get more out of the workout, and they will see more and faster improvement with their race times.
We teach our runners that there are four key components to interval workouts that can be changed to accomplish the objectives of any workout:
- The distance(s) for each interval/repeat
- The pace of each interval
- The total distance of the workout
- The amount of rest between each repetition and each set
To prove this point, in one workout where the runners were questioning the idea, they were told that a very effective early season strength-oriented interval session could be created by using only 100-meter repeats. While skeptical at first, at the end of the first set of 3 x 16 100m repeats, with approximately 30 seconds’ rest between repeats and 2–3 minutes of rest between each set, they quickly realized that, in fact, even though they were never running longer than 100 meters at any time, this was a very effective early season interval workout and not fundamentally that different from other strength interval workouts we had been doing up to that point. Additionally, it provided a nice change of pace for the group and gave them an enormous feeling of accomplishment after they completed the 48th 100-meter repeat!
An additional challenge of most youth programs is that there are a wide variety of abilities with a limited number of coaches. With interval workouts, this means that runners of varying abilities are grouped together, which can be difficult to manage. As the distance of each interval repeat lengthens, it becomes increasingly difficult to ensure that all the runners are getting appropriate rest. This is especially true with the younger or slower runners, who regularly get shortchanged on their rest since they are finishing later than the faster runners but having to start again at the same time as the entire group.
Unfortunately, this dynamic changes the workout materially because either the slower runners don’t get enough rest to run the workout appropriately or the faster runners get too much rest to get the appropriate physiological adaptation desired from the workout. We regularly address this challenge by focusing on the time for each repetition, not the distance. This can be performed effectively in both track and cross country.We regularly address the challenge of slower runners not getting enough rest and faster runners getting too much rest by focusing on the time for each repetition, not the distance. Click To Tweet
For example, in track, if we are doing an early season strength workout of three sets of 4 x 400m, each repetition ends for all of the runners when the first group completes the repetition, regardless of where each runner is at that specific time. The first group can gauge their progress by their time. The remaining runners can gauge their progress throughout the workout based on where they stop running when the whistle is blown, which may be as far back as 100 meters for some of the runners, in combination with the first group’s time.
When doing 400-meter repeats on the track, starting at the 1500m start works best so that most, if not all, of the runners are finishing somewhere on the turn of the track, not spread out all along the final 100-meter straightaway. With rest being an important component of interval workouts, this methodology ensures every level of athlete gets the most out of their interval workouts.
Tempo Training and Core Strength Work
While distance runs and interval repeats can be hard for young runners to do correctly, tempo runs are perhaps the hardest type of runs to do. Faster than distance runs—but not as fast as intervals—tempo runs are a needle that is hard for most 8- to 13-year-olds to thread. While it may be easy to tell them that the effort for this type of run is one where they shouldn’t be able to talk easily, but they should be able to have short one-sentence intermittent conversations, it’s quite another thing to expect young runners to be able to do this.
To be able to target tempo-run type workouts, we have combined “tempo run paced” intervals with various core bodyweight exercises in a circuit-drill style workout. (It’s also fun running history to recount how Joaquim Cruz, the Brazilian 800-meter gold medalist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, was one of the first runners to popularize this type of circuit workout.) By combining the core bodyweight exercises with repeats (we regularly run 800 repeats followed by a set of five or six different exercises), the runners benefit from strengthening their core and upper body, which is an often-overlooked component of successful middle distance and distance running. But at the same time, the aerobic nature of the core exercises forces the runners to run at a pace that is aligned to the pace and effort for tempo runs: not too hard but not too slow.
While we typically use core exercises like push-ups, crunches, burpees, mountain climbers, and planks, any of a variety of core exercises could be employed. It is important to ensure that the runners use good form for these exercises and adjust either the number or style so they get the muscular benefit of proper form. For example, it can be too difficult for some kids to do clean push-ups. Therefore, it’s better for them to do push-ups with a good, straight back from their knees than to do normal push-ups with terrible form.
It’s a fine balance between not running young athletes too much and providing them with a strong foundation that will allow them to be competitive and improve—not only in the short term, but if they want to run and be competitive, for many years and even decades into the future—while having fun doing it.It’s a fine balance between not running young athletes too much and providing them with a strong foundation that will allow them to be competitive and improve. Click To Tweet
This type of training is designed in line with the philosophy of New Balance Boston Elite Coach Mark Coogan. In his podcast interview with Mario Fraioli on “The Morning Shakeout” (episode 165), he says: “I’ve more come to the conclusion that I’d rather do 20 B+ workouts over 10 weeks instead of having four A+ workouts… I think if I can get the consistency of this B+ type workout – when I do those, I feel like we’re not stressing the body so hard that we’re going to get injured… being really consistent over a long period of time … you don’t have to have any of these super duper workouts to prove who you are.”
While B+ workouts for 8- to 13-year-olds are very different than for Coogan’s New Balance Boston Elite Club runners, the goal is the same: consistent, healthy, and fun long-term running success.
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