A Workout Ingredient List for the Cross Country Coach

Posted by Scott Christensen

Sometimes whimsical analogies are useful in understanding how cross country coaches go about their work. To that end, today we will consider a workout ingredient list.

When it comes to cross country coaches, it seems there are both cooks and chefs.  The cook chiefly wants a step by step set of recipes for several different types of proven workouts so that they can prescribe them to their runners without hesitation.  Not concerned about the science, don’t care about individual differences in adaptability, not interested in changing the workout design in any way. These coaches diligently follow the workout steps that others have developed.  Cooks are always looking for a new recipe to cut and paste into their cookbook.  Their creativity lies not in workout design, but on the social side of the team they coach.

Chefs swing the opposite direction.  They make a list of ingredients but want no outside recipes.  They want to use the ingredients they feel are important to the meal and they want to season to their taste.  Uniqueness and adaptability are more important than mass production and they will go to no ends to study from the master chefs. These coaches are just as interested in the why of a workout as they are with the how and the when.  Unlike cooks, chefs are willing to take big chances on workout design.  Their creativity is found on the workout side, not the social side of the team.  Yet, there is real possible danger in crafting original workouts and it usually stems from not quite calibrating the strength of the stimulus correctly, thus throwing recovery off.

Coaches that are cooks prescribe the work at practice; and typically, athletes have learned to seldom ask why they are doing that particular work, but that is not to say that really fine running teams cannot be developed this way.  There are some really good workouts out there and with diligence, they can be found.

As a cook gains more experience they continue to steer toward the recipes that people like and avoid the ones that do not work well.  Now and then a new recipe enters the rotation.  Cooks monitor their prescribed work by tallying up weekly mileage, and with this number compare their work with other cooks.  That is their taste test.  Ingredients spill out of jars and cans, but a tasty meal can be made this way. There are many cooks coaching cross country.


          * Training Resource: Speed Development for Distance Runners


There are far fewer chefs coaching cross country.  Chefs want to develop workouts that will work best in their particular situation.  They want fresh ingredients and extraordinary spices.    Coaches who are chefs want to apply science to what they do, rather than memorize pure science in hopes that the principles fit the workout.  Chefs work off an ingredient list as cooks do, but that is where the similarity ends.  Chefs want to know the why of a particular dose-response stimulus applied in a workout.  Coaches such as this find it far easier to individualize training loads and determine appropriate recovery periods.  They are building individual meals to meet the taste of the diner.

The shopping list for coaches that are either chefs or cooks is extensive when assembling all of the ingredients that make up an effective cross country training plan.  Of prime concern is the main course, which in our analogy is the aerobic base of the runner.  This is the major focus of the dinner, and it will make or break the meal.  It needs to be well thought out with consideration to what the diner enjoys and will eat a lot of (for me it is seafood).

Every meal needs a salad of some kind, and that would be strength work.  Always start dinner by eating a salad.  The chef may prepare a tasty Caesar’s salad that makes the mouth water, or on the other hand, a cook may bring some lettuce in a bowl with a side of dressing.  Regardless, eat the salad.

A meal should have vegetables accompanying the main course and, in this story, they will be the up-tick aerobic work such as tempo running, lactate threshold running, and vVO2 max work.  Vegetables do not always taste good, but you absolutely need them in your diet, so be creative in their presentation.  People usually nibble on their veggies while at the same time dipping into the main course, and so it is with all intensities of aerobic work.

There is often a plate of hot bread that the chef brings to the table with perhaps, sage butter on the side, or a cold bun if a cook is preparing your meal tonight.  The bread is analogous to max speed work.  It accompanies dinner, does not get in the way of the other food, but it sure adds to the meal.  Bread refreshes the palate.

A good meal needs a sweet dessert.  That is a must.  For a Michelin 3-star chef, dessert is an exquisite hand-crafted crème Brule with a gas-torched flavorful crust on top, and for a cook, it is a Sara Lee strawberry cheesecake.  The dessert is the anaerobic work that is absolutely required to compete at 5 kilometers.  Just remember to not eat your dessert too soon or it will spoil your main course, and for heaven’s sake never skip dessert!

As a cross country coach are you a cook or a chef?  Either type of person can find success in the right situation.  If you are taking workout ideas from others, make sure they apply in your situation.


          * Coaching Resource: Strength & Power Development for Distance


If you are a chef, there is an ingredient list for your training plan in Table 1 to get you started.  These are the ingredients, along with the “taste” that can be expected.  Come up with your own menu from this list and I hope your meals, or training plan, are a success.




Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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