By: Doug Petrick
The season just ended...so where do you go from here? Athletes, you’ll probably take some time off, write down your goals for the upcoming season, and then transition into the next training cycle.
Coaches, you’ll probably chart a similar course. Take a short break to reboot, write down team goals for the upcoming season, and then shift into planning mode for the next training cycle.
As a coach of high school distance runners, I’ve found that self-reflection is not only necessary, but personally rewarding. So as each season concludes, I sift through the best practices that helped our program improve. Then I write down three mindsets that best support those practices.
The mindsets serve a compass to keep our program from veering off course. These big-picture themes will ease your mind when the season gets chaotic. Coaches and athletes, here are three mindsets to welcome for the upcoming season that are sure to improve your distance running program.
Your Environment is a Strength
Think creatively to work within training limitations.
Whether it’s cross country, indoor track & field, or spring track & field season, every team has a unique training environment. (I’m a high school coach that happens to coach all three seasons.) The environment can be related to your physical location for practice, weather conditions, or the size of your team. As a result, all these factors guide the structure of practice sessions- workouts, group management, and culture. For coaches, an adaptive approach helps you work with the restrictions of your specific environment.
Consider your winter training facility. Do you have access to a temperature-controlled indoor track? Do you have ample space for runners, sprinters, and throwers to access anything they need? Are weather conditions conducive to year-round outdoor training? In Southwest Pennsylvania, during winter months, the answer to those questions is no, no, and no. Temperatures drop, and rain changes to ice. When outdoor footing is unsafe, the hallways inside the school become our training ground. Sure, it’s not an indoor track, but we’re lucky to have an indoor training spot that is dry, warm, and flat.
Utilize the spaces you do have, and sneak in ways to deepen athlete-to-athlete and coach-to-athlete connections. In the building hallways, we have two main routes available, and each one spans past lockers and classrooms. Both the counseling loop (182-meters) and theatre loop (335-meters) twist and turn through the high school building.
During the bulk of our winter season, our distance running programs emphasize quality over quantity during our Tuesday and Thursday workouts. We prioritize high velocity reps with lots of walking for recovery during speed development at the start of practice. Alternate extreme ends of the pace scale to teach new athletes how to dial into different gears.
Seasoned runners sharpen form with simple coaching cues over short distances. With shorter segments, athletes focus on mechanics in small pieces to prepare for that day’s inside workout. As a bonus, I get to chat individually with athletes between efforts. I provide feedback on form, talk about training, or simply check in to see how their week is coming along.
These moments do wonders for building trust in the athlete-coach relationship.
One of our year-round training tenets is chunking a daily workout into multiple pieces. Even though the specifics for any individual workout and athlete may look different, the framework for practice appears the same.
For context, any Tuesday/Thursday workout typically has five pieces: warm-up/speed development, part one emphasis, part two emphasis, part three emphasis, and cool down.
This approach works with the limitations of the physical space. It complements our indoor hallway locations, since cycling a large group of distance runners into smaller clusters becomes more manageable. Due to the winding hallway corridors, additional recovery time is allocated in between each workout chunk. In turn, this provides time for athletes to process the purpose for each upcoming segment. Athletes check in with me as each subsequent part is wrapped up, and I field questions and concerns as needed.
Athletes connect within peer groups through chunked workouts. The athlete clusters naturally emerge, even without being formally assigned, during the first few reps of the practice session. Within each pack, runners self-assign roles, as they will take turns leading the assignment and/or calling out time on the fly, helping to keep everyone focused. Often, a veteran within the group emerges to provide support to newer athletes- a simple word of encouragement or workout tip when the time is right.
There’s a beauty in working towards a common goal as a group.
Some of the strongest athlete-to-athlete connections are made during, “breathers,” the short breaks provided in between workout chunks. For a “breather,” as an athlete pack finishes, they are sent by me to walk down a flight of stairs, complete a walk/jog/skip series of movements, return back up the stairs, and then see me to hear short instructions on the next part of the workout.
This downtime creates a safe space for runners to decompress before the next piece of the workout. Teammate small talk strengthens bonds that transcend training. Whether their conversation is about the latest Netflix series, an upcoming test, or the post-workout Chipotle burrito stop…it builds the team culture.
Athlete confidence increases within the social group, which helps individuals navigate the approaching segment of the workout.
Competitive Opportunities Increase Growth
Utilize feedback to develop your athletes.
When is the right time for an athlete to race? Ask a dozen coaches, and you will probably get a dozen different answers. I’d argue that the right time is RIGHT NOW for your athletes. As long as an athlete isn’t coming off of an injury, waiting until you are, “race ready,” is irrational. Training prepares athletes for competitions. Competitions provide feedback.
Feedback guides the athlete and coach to the next logical step in training. It’s a very cyclical process.
In the spring, I enjoy seeing what our athletes have — from a fitness point of view — during our first scrimmage. It’s typically two and half weeks after day one of practice. Depending on the experience level of the athlete- they may complete one or two events for the day. But no matter how the athletes perform, it’s comforting to know everyone WILL improve throughout the season. A scrimmage provides a simple benchmark for athletes and coaches. It’s a starting point for both stakeholders to begin the journey into the season.
Obviously, a race provides numerical, time-based data. But the race data I’m thinking of isn’t time, place, or splits. I’m thinking more holistically…sights, sounds, and feel. Close your eyes and visualize a distance race being played out on the track.
Was it a fast start race? Did the strong kicker win? Did the field split halfway through the race? Were the athletes responsive to the clerk and starter’s pre-race instructions? Was there labored breathing in the lead pack? Was a key move made as the bell lap was rung? Anyone get boxed in? Was it a physical race? Did any athletes get emotional before the starter fired the pistol?
In order to reach your potential as a distance runner, all of these questions are important. And as a coach, there is a skill related to each question that can be addressed at practice with your athletes. Structure practices that emphasize getting acclimated to a fast start, working on a finishing kick, anticipating the field separating, etc. Surprises happen in races, but as a coach you can reduce the shock-factor from what you do at practice. Words to your athlete during practice can help anticipate what could happen so they have a plan in place when disaster strikes.
Talking with your athletes at practice improves post-race conversations.
Workshop those skills at competitions, and utilize the feedback loop to keep athletes improving.
Independence Accelerates the Learning Process
Structure situations for athletes to become self-reliant.
Within our high school program, most distance athletes compete during each of the three sports seasons. But as a coach, is it necessary to physically meet up with your athletes every day of the year?
Well…it depends on your perspective.
During the winter/indoor track & field season, we provide training structure throughout the winter months, as a detailed weekly plan is sent out each Sunday. We see distance runners 2-3 days a week in person from November through February. As a result, they perform the other days’ training sessions on their own. This routine continues throughout the entire indoor sports season, until we reach the Indoor State Championships. Once the weather improves, and we enter the spring track & field cycle, the entire team meets six days a week throughout the season.
When the state championship concludes, (Memorial Day weekend), athletes have some much-needed downtime.
After the break, we reconvene with one pre-season cross country info meeting in June. During the meeting, we distribute a detailed summer training packet that outlines three tiered levels of training for approximately the next twelve weeks. We discuss individual and team goals, the fall competition schedule, and answer general questions related to the training. Athletes are on their own, with structure from the packet, until the optional cross-country sessions kick off in July.
During summer, July is the only month we meet in-person: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. For variety, these sessions occur at local trails off-campus. For context, each of the three days has a theme. Tuesday is a run-by-feel session, Wednesday is a decompression run, and Thursday is a potentiation run. The other days of the week have structure from the training packet, and are on your own through mid-August. Once official practice begins mid-August, we transition to six days a week through the start of November.
Could we meet more often throughout the year? Absolutely. Are there other successful High School Distance programs that meet much more frequently during the winter and summer months? Of course. But there’s a benefit when a coach relinquishes a little control. If your goal is to have your athletes mature as young adults, as well as runners, let your athletes take the reins once in a while. You can achieve buy-in from your team when you provide opportunities for empowerment.
We all want athletes who lead others, make intelligent decisions, and holds themselves accountable- without a coach around. But there are key windows of time when the coach must be a constant presence. This is not a novel concept, simply plan your year with intention. For example, during our July in-person sessions, coaches are tasked with teaching athletes to complete a run-by-feel workout, perform a recovery run, and execute a run with surges.
Learning is achieved in small doses, and by default running-by-feel workouts are emphasized during the summer. This plan allows newer athletes to get familiar with what may be a new concept. Veteran runners get a chance to sharpen this skill. Both groups can do this before the official season begin, when the stakes aren’t quite as high. And it’s no coincidence that as we shifted our summer training to this format a few years ago, our attendance for July workouts has steadily increased.
The training system is a little more nuanced for track than what runners see during cross country; there’s a learning curve.
By intention, my approach as a coach is more flexible. Everyone has a different rate of understanding and processing with training. Practice should be a safe space where athletes can take a risk, try a new approach, and challenge themselves. I try to create an atmosphere at practice in which athletes are comfortable with asking lots of questions and communicating.
How do you do that? Patience.
Someone shows up a little late to practice…talk to the athlete and try to understand. A younger athlete doesn’t understand the workout…ask questions and explain a different way. Be kind and forgiving. From observation, it typically takes an athlete a full year of High School training to understand how all the pieces fit together. A freshman may not understand the correlation between what we did in September and how it supports what we’re doing in December. And that’s completely normal. Once an athlete cycles through our program, the connections become clear. They slowly start to see the overlap week-to-week, month-to-month, season-to-season. As they become students of the sport, it allows me to devote more of my time to newer athletes on the team that aren’t quite there yet.
If you strive to grow as a coach or athlete, it’s critical to process the ups and downs of the previous season. Knowing what did and did not work for your situation better streamlines the process. And as you enter a new season, these subtle shifts in approach move the needle forward in a small but positive way.
As you ease into your next training cycle, which mindset resonates with you most?
Doug Petrick coaches (Cross Country, Indoor Track & Field, Spring Track & Field) and teaches Physics at Upper St. Clair High School in South Western Pennsylvania. He enjoys spending time with his wife and three young children. In his spare time, he runs, writes, reads, and listens to podcasts. Connect with him at @DougPetrick1 on Twitter or @dpetrick76 on Instagram.