Reining the Beast Within

Reining the Beast Within


Over the weekend, both the men’s and women’s teams ran race scenario time trials on our championship course. The workout had two goals: first, “flex” our developing fitness “muscles”; second, hone in on good racing tactics for this course. New to the conference, the course offers an interesting challenge.

The first kilometer of the course is a significant downhill into a 3k floodplain loop. The women will run 1 lap of the lower loop and the men will run two laps; 5 and 8k, respectively. The final kilometer points the runners back up the same opening “k” to finish on top of the hill. The downhill start into pancake flat middle miles will offer an excellent pacing challenge for the final “k” straight uphill.

For a time trial such as this, the student athletes were instructed to hold goal race pace throughout the course. I am a strong believer in the opening mile should be near your average pace. Most people find this to be a conservative approach to racing. However, I find young and or novice athletes generally race better this way. Far too often high school athletes will hammer the first mile (i.e. 5:15), yet average 30-50 seconds slower per mile (5:50/avg).

Going out fast is important in an XC race; it guarantees a race pace effort, puts the athlete in a good scoring position, etc. However, too fast at the start causes a huge drop in pace around the 12 minute mark of the race; assuming the athlete has been running at or above his or her VO2max. Suddenly there is an oxygen debt to repay and the only way the body can is to reduce the stress to maintaining homeostasis (slowing down).

If the athlete above were to run the first mile conservatively (5:40) more often than not they’ll have a much better average race pace (5:42). Possibly even faster because there was less oxygen debt to repay. Compare 18:07 5k to 17:42; that’s an easy 25 seconds.

If a goal of going out fast in the first mile is to ensure a competitive finishing position, too fast can quickly become detrimental. Version #2 of the same athlete finished 25 seconds ahead of version #1. In many major invitational, 25 seconds can be 40-50 places!

Admittedly, every cross country course is different and brings its own unique challenges. So, it is better said the first mile should be the average pace of the whole race effort. It is also important to track an athlete’s’ progress on common courses year over year. Within reason, this gives you “apples to apples”.

Circling back to the team’s time trial on the conference course. Remember the new one, with the 1k downhill to start? How does one pace in this scenario? Running time trials on the course really help practice different pacing tactics. Overall I expected the paces to be 5-10 seconds slower per mile than goal pace due to the non-competitive environment. All considerations consolidated we figured out the perfect formula to attack the course come championships. It’s pretty simple. All you do is…
…Ha! What tactician reveals their plan ahead of battle? I will tell you after the championships.



Evan’s Eleven: The Keys to Coaching Success

Evan’s Eleven: The Keys to Coaching Success

Now I am in the thick of the Cross Country season: morning practice, evening practice, Saturday meets, and Sunday recruiting; all with a full time job. Revisiting this list, which I wrote before the season started, was a confidence boosting refresher.  It confirms what I thought it took to be successful then, and so this is what I am applying now. This list is in no particular order. All points must be in solidly present at all times.

  1. Develop a plan
  2. Constant clear communication
  3. A strong moral compass
  4. Your work ethic sets the standard for your athletes
  5. It takes a team to coach at team: delegate
  6. Believe in your athletes
  7. Life is a balance
  8. Adaptability for effective change. The path you envisioned will not go strictly according to plan however, the goal remains.
  9. Don’t do what your coach did; keep a constant open mind to new research and techniques
  10. Analyze performances and plans to acknowledge and learn from mistakes
  11. Persistence

I look forward to expanding on each point in the future.



High doses of LSD

High doses of LSD

Don’t worry, we’re not back in the 60’s.  To me, LSD means long slow distance. I always get funny looks when I direct my team that’s driven to be faster that they are going to, “Run slow today.”

You can practically hear the reaction: “Coach, aren’t we here [at practice] to get faster? I can run the distance today much faster than you want! Let me run fast. Please?”

Far too often do distance athletes turn long runs into negative-splitting or tempo runs. 14 miles at 6:30/mi sounds so much cooler than the 7:35 they were supposed to run. I was one of those athletes. Chasing down any guy in the group who dared to half-step the pace. Before you knew it, we were in full flight, waiting for the next teammate to crumble from our blistering pace.  Although quite confidence-boosting, this was neither the time nor place.

As I began to understand and apply my education, I began to wonder why my coach would not rein us in? What pace is best for the body? What is the desired outcome from today’s run? I felt that was a really important piece missing from our training. I promised myself if I ever coached it would be with thorough instruction.

The goals for LSD runs are increased mitochondrial density, capillarization, and structural gains; in both connective tissue and our bones. In contrast, higher intensities of physical activity put too much stress on the body’s internal environment. LSD also offers a regenerative quality, flushing out and realigning muscle fibers. I feel it is easy for most to relate to the basic idea: back to back to back hard runs wear down the body.

But what, you may ask, am I getting out of LSD?  First of the adaptations would be increased number of mitochondria. Remember back to your high school biology class? Mitochondria are the power factories of the cells. It is their job to convert resources into energy through a series of chemical reactions. Let’s skip nearly all of the chemistry, for now.  The one thing you need to know is that these chemical  reactions require oxygen.

Running slow puts demands on the mitochondria, stimulates them, and stresses the body to make more. When energy needs are high for a long period of time, mitochondria will grow and divide. It is theorized that the particular enzyme responsible for triggering mitochondrial fission, AMPK, is not activated until the demands exceed the existing cells’ capabilities. Hard running switches the effort towards anaerobic metabolism (without oxygen). Anaerobic metabolism takes place in other parts of the cell and does not involve the mitochondria. That, of course, limits any stimulus of them. Anaerobic metabolism is also unsustainable therefore can not be performed long enough to stimulate mitochondrial development.*

*More research is suggesting High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) can increase mitochondrial density. I am still hesitant to agree with the research. The information is too new. Just know HIIT is completely different than doing your 70 minute run as hard as you can. Explosive, fast training also leads to injuries much sooner than LSD.

Endurance athletes want MORE mitochondria. More mitochondria will result in higher aerobic metabolism output. In running terms, this translates into running faster at an easier effort. For example, a heart rate of 150 bpm produced an average of 8 minute pace. With LSD training athletes should begin to observe 150 bpm will soon be 7:45, 7:30, etc.**

**Eventually this linear efficiency does not continue at the same rate and begins to level off. This is why it is important to train/stimulate other energy systems.

With all of that aerobic energy production in the mitochondria, the cell is going to need a steady supply of oxygen, nutrients and waste management. A consistent aerobic exercise routine causes the human body to develop new blood capillaries in otherwise vacant areas. The result is a body more efficient at mobilizing resources and clearing waste.

This adaptation tends to occur further into a long exercise bout (75+ minutes). If an athlete is running too fast, odds are he or she will not make it to the duration of exercise necessary for capillarization to occur. Slow and steady wins the race of capillarization.

The final benefit of LSD runs is structural gains. Pretty easy to understand. The steady, moderate pounding LSD induces can increase the body’s work capacity. The bones become denser, the tendons tauter and muscles stronger. This is a slow adaptation that requires moderate, steady application of stress to avoid injuries: time on your feet.

Thank you for reading my brief overview of why running slower will make you faster in the long run (pun fully intended).

99 Problems, HILLS ain’t one.

99 Problems, HILLS ain’t one.

Hill Form:

If engineers thought big steps made life easier, then every stairwell would have massive steps. Instead they are smaller, more manageable step heights. From this approach we can develop a smarter hill running technique.

I usually have to break out some basic trigonometry when discussing hill running form with the team. Believe me, I am not a mathematician but, I find the following visual makes a lot of sense:hillform

1) Flat land stride length:


2) Hill Stride Length*:


In the image above, the blue arrows represent a distance (x) between foot contact points on flat land. In the second image, the blue arrows are the exact same distance (x) apart on the hill, as they compare to flat ground. However, the hypotenuse formed from a hill actually makes the horizontal distance, closer together (x-3 inches). If there runner attempted to maintain the same horizontal distance per stride, the steps on hill would be further apart. IE: The green arrow are the same horizontal distance if it were not for the length added by the hill (x+3 inches). [I hope that make sense.] This is why I instruct my runners to chop their stride down, increase the number of steps-per-minute, and prioritize maintaining intensity rather than pace. All this being an attempt to maintain the same work output as flat ground.

In terms of steps in a  stairwell, the athlete is opting for the smaller step over the larger. Yes, at the bottom of the hill other runners might pass your athlete but, by the top your athlete will be the strongest and able to carry on with the race; often passing those who gained ground at the bottom but, now need to recover.

Another piece of hill running form is where the hips “are”. Some coaches say “lean into the hill”. I prefer “hips pressed” because leaning suggests the idea that bending over from the waist is productive. When it comes to the physics of hill running, bending from the waist turns your body into a limp noodle. The force applied at toe-off has to travel up the leg, around the hips and over the torso. With the hips “pressed-in” the athlete has a nice forward lean from the ankle. Therefore, the force is applied straight through their center of mass; making every step more efficient.

Small fast steps and hips pressed… Races are always first to the finish, not to the top of the hill! Good running form should aid a strong finishing position.

Hills! (Part 1 of many)

Hills! (Part 1 of many)


Could you ask for a better training tool? Don’t have the best weight room (if any?). Want to build speed, strength and aerobic capacity? Mental toughness? Confidence? Discipline and pacing? RUN HILLS!

When it comes to scouting a race course, hills have to be the area of most attention. How will the hill affect my race? Where is it in the course? What is the strategy to use the hill to my advantage? All things everyone considers when they are putting together a race plan.

To me, hills can be the perfect training tool. They offer so many variables they can be used to accomplish nearly every aspect of training. Hills can get a bad reputation because of the intensity they bring up and down the hill. I find their reputation is highlighted by those athletes who do not run them correctly.

Without a doubt hills put a lot of stress on your body. Uphill is exhausting and downhill is loaded with impact. Implementing them into your training requires some skill and the confidence to err on the side of caution. Without a doubt, overdoing hills can quickly lead to injuries. Especially if you are working with novice athletes OR athletes that come from flatter regions and are not accustomed to running hills. In future posts I will expand on each version of hills we use in our practices. This post will discuss two major, hill-specific variables.

Variable #1: Duration.

Based on how our bodies work duration is the single most important variable when it comes to training. I find so many coaches use distance to define workouts: 800s, Mile repeats,  200s, etc. If you are working with a diverse population adaptations will differ based on abilities. A slower client will be running a 200 in the time it takes a quick athlete to do a 400. Or 1 mile in the time it takes another to run 2! Therefore I prefer to use duration to achieve desired adaptations.

Research has pointed out a few duration landmarks, while not specific to each individual, they are good references when designing a workout. Everyone’s body is different. Luckily these durations are gapped far enough that they tend not to mix.

Layman’s terms for landmark duration:

A 1-10 seconds: Anaerobic, no “waste (lactate)”

B 1-30 seconds: All of the above + waste but not enough to impact performance. Depletion of readily available resources decreases performance.

C 0-2 min: All of the above + a full dose of waste without sufficient time to begin managing/clearing.

D 0-3 min: All of the above + waste is starting to be maintained. Athletes feel they are steady-stating/settling into race pace.

E 0-3+ min: All of the above + steady state effort and endurance. Effort begins to be impacted by the body’s ability to metabolise complex resources into necessities to meet demands.

Variable #2: Grade

What goes up must come down. The grade of the hill is not only important for the resistance up but also the impact down. Can your athlete handle both? Often times we coaches want to find really challenging hills to go up without considering the impact downhill can be 50-75% more than that on level ground. IE: 150lb runner is hitting the ground at 225lbs of force (50%). If their body is not ready for that it can do a lot of damage.

The grade of the hill will also change the athlete’s running stride. Therefore, it will activate muscles in different patterns and quantities. Too steep of a grade might not translate into effective horizontal running speeds. IE: stressing the quadricep too much giving less attention to the upper hamstring. Something to consider how it will impact your athlete.

Pre-Season Goal Setting

Pre-Season Goal Setting

Pre-Season Goal Setting

It seemed natural that my first post should be about goals…after all, why do anything if it does not further a goal? Creating this blog will help fulfil a goal of mine. Perhaps you are reading this to further a goal as well.  It’s right we should start any discussion of coaching with an examination of how to coach athletes in setting goals.  The content here may, I realize, be more applicable to college coaches than to high school or private coaches, but I believe the general principles apply across the board.

Being a collegiate coach, I have defined limitations to what “coaching” I can do during the off-season: i.e., during the summer. Beyond those limits, there is summertime itself, “when the livin’ is easy…;” alarm clocks (these days, cell phones) collect dust, Netflix traffic rises, and parents’ grocery bills double.

Under the NCAA guidelines, what can done in the way of coaching is best called “training advice.”   I often send detailed instruction of what I would like the student athletes to be doing.   Under the rules set by the NCAA, there is no way for me to ensure athletes are following the training plan. This often leaves me guessing if incoming cross country runners really logged the miles they say they ran.  This is more than just a coaching issue: runners are risking their health if they are inflating their reported work capacity, and then come to campus determined to show the inflated numbers are genuine.

My student athletes love returning to school; back to freedom, their friends, and their team. If I asked on day one what their goals are, the excitement would translate into overzealous targets. This is why I hold off on goal setting for a few days. Postponing this task gives the coaches a chance to assess the athlete’s honest current work capacity. With those assessments made and excitement leveling off, we will have one on one goal setting sessions once we are a few days into the season.

In the one on ones, I will share my observations of where they are in their training:

“I have noticed you are comfortable at X:XX per mile on our tempo runs. That is an improvement over last year; wouldn’t you agree?”


From there, we develop S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely).

“What are your goals for the cross country season?”

“I want to win nationals”

“Okay… well, last season you were top 30 in the conference and top 100 in the region. It is really obvious you have been training hard on your own. How about a goal that might lead us to nationals, maybe not this year, but sometime in the future?”

“Top 10 in the conference and top 45 in the region this year.”

“Better. Let’s do it.”

Following the individual sessions, a team meeting is held to develop a team goal. Where is the group going as a whole? During this time, athletes vocalize how their goals and expectations of their teammates are going to work towards the overall team goal.

I think I should clarify: although goals are not developed until days after practice has started, training is not without direction or purpose. During our season-opening team meeting, I define the purpose of the team and the season. A very broad statement, nothing specific, that may later challenge the team goal. However, it does give each athlete something to focus on during the “aimless” days at the beginning of the season.