John O’Malley coaches cross country and track at Sandburg High School in the Chicago area, while teaching English during the day. John is well-known for the success of his 4×800 teams, and his slowest season-best time in the 4×8 since 2011 was 7:46.89. Sandburg’s average season-best time in the 4×8 since 2011 is 7:43.49. John has coached 15 different quartets to sub 7:50 (32 different quartets to sub 8:00), and has been a guest on a number of running-related training outlets.
Freelap USA: What’s your take on mileage for a high school runner? How much individualization goes at this point, and what’s your philosophy on preparing them for the next step in college?
John O’Malley: There should be plenty of individualization. When making decisions on volume, I believe we should consider: age, training age, emotional and physical capacities and skills, weather, mechanical issues, athletic history, and the season-long progression. Some of these areas should have obvious interventions and adjustments of volume. I think some areas are widely neglected by distance coaches. I believe that simply evaluating volume is a critical mistake and that athletes need to learn how to move well before you even attack the issue of volume.
How you move is more important than how much you move. This isn’t even getting into the obvious relationship of movement to injury prevention. To me, it is a critical way to circumvent injury, but it’s more of a competitive reasoning to prioritize movement patterns. You will be a better runner if you move better and then you can move progressively more (i.e., volume).How you move is more important than how much you move. Click To Tweet
As far as preparation for college, I think the simple evaluation of mileage as a means to prepare for college is really lazy and easy and wrong. If you are withholding four years of speed development, four years of improving mechanical idiosyncrasies, and four years of skill development, then you are being irresponsible as a coach. I hear people talk about being irresponsible at the high school level with volume, but never with these other areas.
If I was a college coach, I’d want a kid who progressed in volume, but more importantly progressed in speed, skill, mobility, stability, and a variety of training paces. That’s proper preparation for the next level. The specific volume amounts need to be individualized and they vary greatly. As distance coaches, we still need to face the reality of building mitochondria and that requires an attention to volume. But to express this aerobic power, you need to be able to express yourself powerfully with movement patterns.
Freelap USA: For distance and mid-distance, how do you approach the balance of steady low-intensity mileage versus speed work? Is there much of a mid-zone you work with?
John O’Malley: Some of this is addressed in the previous question. We don’t do much “mid-zone” running for middle distance training. We are pretty polar with paces. I believe the theory of speed reserve is applicable to any event distance. Additionally, probably around 2008-2009, I stopped counting miles and instead decided to focus on more important metrics in deciding how much volume we do:
- How much faster are we getting?
- How well are we recovering?
- How easily do we move when doing specific work?
- How is the athlete feeling?
Our recovery days are probably far less volume than a lot of program’s recovery days. Additionally, I think a tool that a distance coach can use is max sprints or short acceleration sprints up a steep hill for less than 10 seconds, and they can serve as a recovery mechanism at the right time of the season.
The positive hormonal and chemical production for explosive activity without inducing additional fatigue can result in better recovery. I’m talking about testosterone, growth hormone release, etc., without the need to utilize it for activity; therefore, there should be some benefit to recovery. I theorize here a bit, but I suspect it is a tool that can be effective for a distance coach who is balancing volume, speed, and recovery in extreme ways.
Additionally, I am constantly suspicious of our progress in strength and fitness getting in the way of being fast. So, even though distance runners need volume—some of it slow—I want to make sure they are connecting in fast, efficient neural ways all the time. This is not to be confused with work that buries kids.I am constantly suspicious of our progress in strength and fitness getting in the way of being fast. Click To Tweet
An example would be to replace a traditional “20-minute cooldown” (with no further instruction) after a heavy load (race, workout, etc.) with short gear shifts while running—perhaps a fartlek. Get them to fire neurologically, get them to reinforce good technique while fatigued, get them to be attentive to the task.
Freelap USA: What’s your take on the mental side of running? Do you do any special work here for your groups? Do you tend to favor it for some athletes more than others?
John O’Malley: Yes, we do a lot of mental training. First of all, I believe that the best and first way to get someone to improve their mental performance is to help them become aware of their mental performance. What is their habit loop? Once they have some self-awareness, we can start to build new habits with strategies and experimentation. How do you get an athlete to become self-aware? Spend time on it. We all know how important mentality is to performance, but we, as coaches, often spend less than 5% of practice time on it.The best way to get someone to improve their mental performance is to help them become aware of it. Click To Tweet
I often give athletes psychological goals for workouts. I also put them in different situations to get them to be adaptable and self-aware. Debriefing afterward is important. This is not classroom stuff. Some of it can be, but I think it’s best when you give athletes a specific tool and ask them to use it in practice.
I was thinking about adaptability and I think it’s sort of a paradoxical skill. The more I research and the more I reflect, the more I feel like a skill of being adaptable is one in which you rely on a predictable, pre-conceived, practiced skill in the context of something that’s not predictable. In fact, most skill sets are paradoxes. To be courageous, you need to do things you’re afraid of. Within the context of races, we have our athletes complete race reflections in which they evaluate their decision-making before and during a race. Note: You must first view psychology and success as a decision-making process.
Freelap USA: How do you utilize time as opposed to distance in writing workouts? What was your progression that led you here? How does it differ across various workout emphases?
John O’Malley: I think, by and large, we underutilize the greatest metric-producing device in the known universe: the brain. What I like about using time as opposed to distance is that it embeds an infinite number of factors into the stimulus. Stress levels, motivation, physical maturation, weather, CNS readiness, talent, athletic history, gut biome…anything you can imagine…all are integrated into this amazing metric that calculates all factors that impact stimulus to this complicated environment called the human body.
How do you get that metric? Ask the human. Do responses vary? Are some athletes overdramatic and some stubborn? Do we surprise ourselves with how ready we are on some days? Do we overestimate ourselves on other days? Yes.The human body is the best metric I know. Click To Tweet
The better you know your athlete, the better you are at interpreting this data piece, but even with the potential for influences, it’s the best metric I know. So, this relates to time measurements as opposed to distance measurements because it translates those influences. Let’s assume all elements are 100% equal (impossible, but let’s do the thought experiment) and it just happens to be 90 degrees out with 100% humidity. We need to get a 10-mile run in. Compared to an ideal weather condition, that 10-mile run will vary by time duration by as much as 15-20 minutes with the same level of perceived effort. So I just translate it to time and let the brain do its job.
Ten years ago, I would have said 10 miles, now I say 70 minutes. As far as workouts are concerned, I believe you analyze the stimulus and translate that to duration. A heavy anaerobic interval may be :45 long. For some kids, that’s 300 meters; for other kids, it’s 250.
My favorite example is the very classic distance coach holy grail called the 20-minute tempo run. It’s also called lactate threshold. Also, anaerobic threshold. Whatever. Ok, so the classic Jack Daniels training manual calls on the 20-minute threshold run. Sounds good…especially with trained collegiate or post collegiate athletes. Most freshmen in high school CANNOT reach the physiological state of lactate threshold and sustain it for 20 minutes, so it’s really just a mess. My point is, you have to evaluate age—training age—and apply that to the physiological goals of the day in order to determine how much time it takes to elicit the stimulus you seek.
Freelap USA: What is your attitude towards tapering and peaking for distance runners? Towards championship meets, what tends to change? How much of tapering is outside of the workouts themselves?
John O’Malley: The short answer is “not much.” Psychologically, we are finalizing tactical decisions, coping strategies, and optimal zones for performance. This is the result of experimentation and reflection from the process of the season. At this point, I am thinking and saying: “Let’s make some conclusions and reflect on our skill set and ready that skill set for execution.”
We are also leading with our “why.” This can’t come out of left field or be inauthentic. It’s something we’ve been developing all season. Why are we engaging in this goal? I hate wasting time. Sport and activity should mean something, and it better not be the result of some coaching manipulation in an attempt to attain coaching achievements.
You can do this—plenty of coaches do this. Have you seen the stories of some prestigious collegiate coaches in the last year? I just don’t want to be that coach. I’ll fire myself when that day comes. I’d rather be with my family than win a state meet. But if I am going to be at state, it better have a soul to it. It better have meaning and make us better and stronger human beings. So, whatever that meaning is, we lead with that. It’s what we talk about and focus on most.
My method of physical preparation involves observing patterns that have worked well with individual athletes in the past. This requires experimentation and embracing failure throughout the season. This requires thinking. Aside from that, I will never utter the famous words, “the hay’s in the barn.” We are fresh and still improving; we are focusing on muscle tension and neuromuscular connectivity.My physical preparation method involves patterns that worked well with individuals in the past. Click To Tweet
Two days before a race, I like moving fast in controlled efficient ways much better than just going for a run. I give them more recovery, a little more specificity, but maintain frequency of workouts in the final two weeks.
Freelap USA: What’s your take on developing technique in distance runner stride, and how much emphasis are these things given? What’s your thought on the idea that the mileage run will build the technique?
John O’Malley: Mileage will not build technique. The only way it can possibly build technique is that fitness reduces fatigue and by-product, therefore theoretically making it easier to have proper technique. But if you haven’t worked on technique or have some cognizance of proper technique, it’s irrelevant. I am not a biomechanist, but we do have some cues and some check-ins.
Arm pattern, hip placement, alignment, and evaluation of stability are all a part of watching how they move. I think most of this is best improved through movement. I try not to overcomplicate cues or explanations. Athletes need to feel their patterns and I am also concerned about creating new issues with overly complicated interventions. There needs to be some awareness though.
I think a short, steep hill interval is an interesting tool to use for development of better technique. Many bad movements right themselves through the hill resistance—it’s pretty hard to land on your heel too far in front of your center of gravity, for instance.A short, steep hill interval is an interesting tool to use to develop better running technique. Click To Tweet
Imagine if you have a new runner with minimal athletic history and terrible strength, mobility, and stability. Start running miles and keep building, right? Imagine, instead, that you have that kid sprint for short durations. Imagine he sprints uphill another day for short durations. Imagine you get him to move on multiple planes and get his feet to move quickly. Imagine if you gave this kid a jump rope. Which one produces the better runner?
Freelap USA: How do you approach the entire year of work for a high school distance runner who likely doesn’t do other sports in terms of rest periods or encouragement to do something else for a time period?
John O’Malley: As I’ve mentioned, I am a builder of mitochondria, so more running throughout the year is helpful to our goal task. In addition, as I’ve already noted, I am hypersensitive to building athleticism and speed. What this means for a year-round calendar is that, for someone who trains year-round primarily as a distance runner, I am supremely responsible for their athletic development, not just building mitochondria.
They need rest after a long season, emotionally and physically. Beyond that, we focus on all elements of athleticism and speed all year ’round. It’s there from week one to the final week of the season. It’s a priority. It is there, in part, to make up for their lack of development in these areas by virtue of playing other sports.
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