Last summer I did some rethinking of our cross country and track distance training programs. The changes, finally, were something more than tweaking. I blogged about the rethinking and the changes. In fact, rethinking our training program was really the excuse for starting this blog.
As we began our cross country season last year, I spoke about the changes honestly with our team; they are smart kids, and they would have noticed, anyway. There was definitely some resistance. The changes in 2011 followed one of our most successful seasons ever in 2010, as we won our Chicago Catholic League conference meet for the first time in 12 years and qualified for the IHSA state championship meet as a team for the first time in almost 30 years. Why were we fixing something that wasn’t broken, they asked me?
To be honest, after the changes, the results during last year’s 2011 cross country season were not what we had hoped. Six of our top ten runners, arguably, made significant improvements in 2011 compared to the 2010 cross country season. But we finished second in our conference, not so bad, perhaps, and then a disappointing eleventh in our sectional–not so good. Most notably, our top runner, junior Jack Keelan, was touted as a contender for the state individual championship during the season last year. After performing like one of the state’s top runners early with a third at the Peoria Woodruff Invitational and another third at the Palatine Invitational, Keelan inexplicably finished 16th at the IHSA Niles West Sectonal qualifying meet for the state championship; he was just the ninth individual from a non-qualifying team (seven qualify), and so he did not even get to run at the state meet.
If we thought we should rethink our training program after a successful season, then we certainly should do some assessment after a season which did not turn out as we had hoped it would.
To be fair, we followed our disappointing cross country season with a remarkable season on the track last spring. Keelan finished second (9:08.48) in the 3200 meter run at the state championship meet, and then he returned to the track a few hours later to finish seventh (4:15.77) in the 1600 meters—an amazing double in the 100 degree heat that day. But across the board, our runners improved on the personal records from previous years. Senior Patrick Santino ran 9:17.94—an 11-second improvement. Senior Peter Devitt ran 9:53.75—almost 30 seconds better than the previous year. Sophomore Chris Korabik ran 4:28.17 for 1600 and 9:55.15 for 3200, dramatic improvements; another sophomore, Taylor Dugas, won both the 800 and 1600 at the Chicago Catholic League Frosh Soph championships.
The basic change in our training program last year was a switch from a plan and workouts that I had cobbled together based on my own experiences as a coach and runner to a more programmatic plan as outlined in Jack Daniels’ Running Formula. There were many similarities between what we had been doing and what did last year following Daniels, who was most famously coach for Nike’s Athletics West team in the 1980s. We continued to follow a plan which began with base training and easy distance running early in the season, followed by harder training with two quality workouts each week as we began to race regularly, and then built to an end of season peak or championship phase. Many of the workouts were similar, as well—repeats of 400 meters, or 800 meters, or even 1600 meters.
But the Daniels book added something that I had always struggled with as I did my planning. He provides a set of charts in which workout pace goals are dictated by race performance times. More accurately, the charts are tied to an index that Daniels calls VDOT, an aerobic profile which involves identifying a vVO2 Max (velocity at VO2 Max) –the speed of running a race that lasts about 10 to 12 minutes. Previously, I always gave my runners pace goals—and they were pretty good guesses, it turns out. I put the boys in groups and I assigned them goals in their workouts based on their performances in recent races—just like Daniels does. My informal charts were in my head—and on the sheets that recorded the same workouts from the years before. The boys remembered their pace goals from week to week—and year to year, even. The Daniels charts, which are available on the internet in various places, are obviously more rigorous and formal.
In addition, the Daniels program helped me to differentiate between workouts that are effective and appropriate at different stages of the season. Again, I had a plan built from experience, based upon what had worked in previous years. But the Daniels progression from early season workouts to middle season workouts to end of season workouts spelled out for me more clearly a plan that uses different recovery times and workout intensities at different times of the season.
As we had more success in the spring, the boys developed confidence in what we were doing—and they began joking about the Daniels book as “the Bible.” Fitting a template to the requirements of our schedule and to specific athletes requires more than a slavish adherence to a week by week program a spelled out in a book. Adapting a program for elite adult runners to younger athletes requires some care and thought.
What we were doing before brought us some success—and we weren’t really too far off the mark, I would say. The changes are not major, in the overall scheme. I would venture that if athletes I coached five years ago returned to practice for a visit, they would find what we are doing to be quite familiar.
But if anyone wonders what we are doing in terms of our training program at Ignatius, you can tell them now that we are basically following Daniels.
We learned some things last spring that will help us this fall, in terms of applying that program to our boys. Looking back on last year’s cross country season, our discussions with the boys brought us to the conclusion that last fall were stronger runners based on the training we were doing—but not necessarily faster. We were better trained, perhaps, for races longer than our standard three-mile Illinois cross country race. One change for this year: We will do fewer long tempo runs and more one and two mile tempo runs, broken up by rests of a minute or two.
Most of all, though, I think our boys will trust what we were doing. There was some doubt last fall. Keelan, in particular, worried that he wasn’t working hard enough. The Daniels pace charts are designed, to some degree, to keep a runner comfortable. A runner like Keelan can often run the workouts faster than the pace charts dictate, but you are not supposed to do so. Even when you repeat a workout, you are not supposed to go faster; it is simply supposed to be easier to run that workout at the same pace. Keelan’s complaint last fall was often, “But I am not tired enough. “ He would push the pace on many workouts—especially the longer tempo runs. As a consequence, perhaps, he burned out a little bit last cross country season. That is at least one possible explanation for the tough ending to that season.
We arguably both did better making the Daniels program work in the spring, and we will hope that experience—along with some tweaks–brings us more success this fall.