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Basic Philosophies on Distance Running

Jeff Stiles, Head Cross Country & Head Distance Coach Washington University in St Louis

1. Keep it Fun

It can’t be more basic than this. If someone enjoys an activity they we will be much more likely to repeat it. Start off conservative so that the athlete can be successful and wants to do more. If a coach starts an athlete out too aggressively and the athlete perceives that they failed then the athlete will be exponentially less likely to continue running. As coaches, we need to put athletes in a situation to be successful as to increase their intrinsic motivation.

  • Give younger and less experienced athletes workouts they can successfully complete. Slowly increase the challenge to the point where they understand that they can’t PR every race or workout.
  • Ex) Theme days on an easy run (my women love this & my men’s team would never think of it)

2. Stay Healthy

You can’t improve if you are not healthy, being conservative with younger athletes is important. However, many times injuries occur not because of too much running, but because they did not prepare properly in the summer or winter.

  • Run on Soft Surfaces
  • Overall body fitness will increase chances of staying healthy (ex) abdominal work
  • Stretching, sleep, nutrition, hydration (all are essential)

3. Communication

This is what can prevent knowledgeable coaches from being great coaches. Having knowledge as a coach is not enough. Somehow a coach must be able to transfer his/her knowledge to their athletes in a way that they can understand what they are doing and why. If an athlete understands what they are doing and why, they have the ability to take “ownership” in their athletic career. I believe this is necessary for an athlete to maximize their athletic potential.

  • Have Individual meetings at the beginning and end of each season to assess and appraise progress and goals.
  • Have weekly or daily team meetings to explain what the team is doing, why they are doing it, and how they are doing.
  • Coaches who can communicate a common vision effectively are the coaches developing teams/programs and not just individuals.
  • Expectations to your athletes need to be made clear.

4. Goals

Goals give a purpose and a vision to training and racing. This is where running becomes fun, without a purpose running can feel pointless. How can someone get where they are supposed to be if they don’t know where that is?

Coaches need to help athletes develop realistic and challenging goals. Many athletes either short change their abilities or have unrealistic goals. One is not challenging enough, and the other is a sure way to become disappointed. Long and short-term goals are essential. Athletes need to develop a plan on what they can do to accomplish these. EX) get 8 hours of sleep/night, run 60 miles/wk in the summer. People who write down their goals are 10 times more likely to achieve them.

5. Make it Your Own

This is something that Paul Thornton, the Head Track Coach, at Washington University in St Louis continually says. The concept is this, the specific workouts you do are not as important as the concept you are trying to accomplish within the workout. There are a thousand ways to “skin a cat”. So it becomes necessary for a coach to not only have solid concepts within his/her workouts, but for a coach to understand it inside and out. This way the coach can make adjustments in the workout due to weather, facilities, and the health of the athlete, different levels of fitness or abilities on a team. Coaches can’t pull out the cookie cutter coaching style and have maximal consistent results.

6. Be Flexible

It is essential to have a plan, but never avoid making adjustments in a workout that was written days, weeks, or months in advance. For example, I may drastically change a workout during the cross country season if it 100 degrees outside. Our most important races are in November, so my athletes don’t need to acclimate their bodies’ t0 running in 100-degree heat. Always trust your gut instinct. We are hired to make educated decisions for our athletes; but we also must trust what our inner voice is telling us. My regrets as a coach come from when I have neglected to trust this voice.

7. Never be afraid to fail

Athletes and coaches must be willing to fail in order to excel.

Al Carius, Division III Cross Country Coach of the Century, who has finished in the top 4 in the NCAA 31 out of 32 years, instilled this in me when I ran at North Central College. After almost forty years of successful coaching, Al is always trying to do something different no matter how small it is. The concept is this, we are never going to have the perfect system and if we fail to try new ideas we are limiting our success. Every great and historical coach has failed, yet to be great we must think outside of the box. Look within your situation and think how you can make it better.

  • Most of the things we do at Wash U are based off of mistakes that I have made as a coach or as an athlete.
  • At Washington University, in my second year we tried giving the athletes Tuesday off from Practice. They are expected to run their recover run on their own. We do this because we regularly practice at 7:00 am and it seemed that morning practice would wear on the students, and so it seemed to work well to give them a day to run whenever they want. This reinforces that they are at one of the finest academic institutions in the world for academics first.

8. Develop your own Coaching Philosophy

Study other coaches who you would like emulate within your sport and outside. Coaches who are successful every year are doing something right – don’t be afraid to ask questions, read books, or call up coaches.

9. Develop a definition of Success

This is essential, because we should all strive to be “successful”, but what does that look like in your program. You athletes need to understand the expectations. I require my athletes to memorize my definition of success.

  • “Taking advantage of your daily opportunities, to the best of your abilities, under your given circumstances.” – Wash U Definition
  • I want my athletes to understand that each day is an opportunity for success. You are either taking steps forward or backwards in relation to the circumstances that God has given you. Make the most of today.

10. Progression of Training

Running more each year is a simple way to get better, but we must be careful to not jump too much too quickly. If an athlete is running 100 miles/wk as a soph in High school where are they going to go when they are in college? Joe Vigil discusses his suggestions for progression in his book Road to the Top.

9th 30 mpw
10th 40 mpw
11th 50 mpw
12th 60 mpw
FR 70 mpw
SO 80 mpw
Jr 90 mpw
Sr 100mpw

Remember – once we make hard and fast rules we will get bitten in the butt. The concept is good but we must take each athlete one at a time. Some will do less; some will do more. The concept is what is important – Progression.

11. Long run

We will either run our long run on Mondays or Saturdays. This year we went to a Monday long run because we took the approach of trying to not squeeze workouts in. If run at the correct effort, an athlete should be able to recover from their long run for a Wednesday workout. According to Fox and Matthews of The Ohio State University did a study in the 1970’s that demonstrated that there is not a training advantage to more than 2 workouts per week. We count a race as a workout.

  • Easy aerobic continuous run w/ heart rate 130-160 bpm or 65-75% of Vo2 max (3k)
  • 20-25% of weekly volume (mileage or minutes)
  • Ex) 15 miler for someone running 60-75 miles per week or 100 min for some running 400-500 minutes/wk
  • Once every 7-14 days
  • Never longer than 2 hours unless training for the marathon

12. Threshold Training (Tempo Runs)

This is the most beneficial type of quality training in my opinion and yet the hardest for younger athletes to grasp. Because faster is not necessarily better. If running the correct paces, athletes could always run Threshold reps or runs faster. But it is not how fast, but how correctly that will determine the success of the training. We must constant remind our athletes that the majority a distance runners training will be run at sub maximal effort.

  • Fast aerobic running w/ heart rate 160-180 bpm or 80-90% of Vo2 max (3k)
  • Run for 20-60 min depending on the intensity and level of the athlete
  • Ex 1) 5:00 miler would run a 4 mile run @ 6:08 pace 90%
  • Ex 2) 7 miler start off @ 80% 6:50 and work down to 90% 6:08
  • Ex 3) 5 x 1600 w/ 45-75 sec rest @ prescribed pace
  • It is Always better to start conservative and get faster
  • Athletes can ruin the workout by being too fast early on
  • These efforts should never be approached as to see how fast they can run them – but instead to learn the effort to get feed back to see what they can race at.
  • I have found These are the Best indicator of aerobic fitness if run correctly

13. Hill Training

Hill Reps are a great source to develop muscular power, leg strength, aerobic Power, running economy, mental toughness, hidden speed, and prepare athletes to run hills in races.

  • Ex) Hill reps w/ rest periods of easy jogging in between
  • Ex) Hills within hard efforts
  • Grass Hills are great for injury prevention

14. Multi Tier Training

  • 400, 800, mile, 3k, 5k Pace
  • It is good to incorporate all paces into training, but coaches must learn where to emphasize the faster paces.
  • The faster the pace, the shorter the reps will need to be and the higher intensity generally calls for more rest
  • 5 x 1200 w/ 3 min rest @ 3k ? 1600 @ 5k (3:00) 1200 @ 3k (3:00) 600 @ mile (5:00) 400 @ 800 (5:00) 200 @ 400

15. Washington University Training System

I break down our training into two 6-month cycles. The concepts are the same for the equivalent months, just relative to the event they are training for.

Training Basics
December (Physical & emotional Rest) = June (Physical & emotional Rest)
January (Blending Hills & threshold) = July (Blending Hills & threshold)
February (Threshold Focus) = August (Threshold Focus)
March (Intensity picks up) = September (Intensity picks up)
April (Race preparation) = October (Race Preparation)
November (Div 3 CC NCAA’s) = May (Div 3 Outdoor NCAA’s)

After Cross Country &/or Track (End of Nov-beginning of Dec & Beginning of June)

I give them 7-14 days to run every 2-4 days real easy and short. I have found that complete rest has often led to injuries. I am not sure why, I just find out that each year we are usually the least healthy from the end of Dec to the beginning of January and I have never understood this. I am starting to think that complete rest unless required because of an injury does more harm than good.
Ex) 20-30 min easy, two to four times/wk.

Building up volume
We run easy and how we feel for a 4-6 week period where we work up to full volume, add in fast strides, circuit, strength training, and just get our body and mind ready for intensity. I have found that this is a crucial time to become “hungry” for training again. It is not uncommon for even the very motivated athlete to take awhile to become ready to add in intensity. It will take different amounts of time for each athlete to get the “itch” back to run easy. I encourage for all easy running minimally through the month of December. We are looking to have only two main peaks. Cross Country and Outdoor track. Emotional energy is just as important as physical energy if a peak is to work correctly.

Example training weeks
Cross Country Runner 16:00 5k runner

Week in middle of August
Monday Long Aerobic Run – 20-25% of weekly volume. (60-120 min) Barefoot strides & Body Circuit.

Tuesday Longer recovery run (50-80 min). Hurdle mobility, weights, body circuit, 4-6 x 150 @ 1500 effort.

Wednesday shorter recovery run (40-60 min). Drills, body circuit, barefoot strides.

Thursday Long Tempo run @ 80-90% of Vo2 max (3k) (5-8 miles). Run easy 1-2 miles, then run the hard effort at a progressing effort, 1-2 miles, 4 x 200 @ 800-1500 effort, w/ 1-2 min rest. EX) (6 miler) 6:15, 6:05, 5:55, 5:45, 5:35

Friday Easy aerobic Run. Hurdle mobility, Drills, Body Circuit, Weights, barefoot Strides. (30-60 min)>

Saturday Long Aerobic Run – 20-25% of weekly volume. (60-120 min)

Sunday Easy Recovery (30-60 min) Good day to rest or Xtrain if needed.

2nd runs if run are 30 min easy. I don’t suggest more than 4/week.

Sunday Easy Recovery (30-60 min) Good day to rest or Xtrain if needed.

  • 2nd runs if run are 30 min easy. I don’t suggest more than 4/week.
  • Ice baths should be taken following all hard efforts and/or long runs.
  • Over training most easily takes place by running too hard on recovery runs, so I would rather have athletes run too slow than too fast. With highly motivated athletes, it is essential to hold them back.
  • Every 4 weeks take a “down” week from volume and intensity – take it on a case-by-case basis. Ex) Cut long run from 2 hrs to 90 min and cut out a workout from the week.


I believe that more harm than good can be done in the last 2 weeks of the season. It is essential to not rid training of all aerobic training. One of the quickest ways to run poorly at the end of the season is to cut back too much volume. I would encourage starting cutting back 7-10 days out, but no more than 10% of weekly volume per week. Of course for every situation, each athlete must be taken on a person-by-person basis.


1. Al Carius (my college coach)
– Head Cross Country Coach @ North Central College.
– Won 12 Division III Team Titles.
– Finished in the top 4 of Division III 31 out of 32 years.
– Won 32 consecutive CCIW Conference team titles.
2. USATF Level II(Endurance)
3. Joe Vigil, Author of Road to the top, (Progression of volume)
4. Houston Franks (My Boss as a graduate assistant at Southwest Missouri State)
5. Arthur Lydiard (Aerobic running)
6. Bill Bowerman (Easy Days)
7. Tinman (marathon paced runs & only two workouts/ week)
8. Running Experiences
– Mistakes (most of my knowledge comes from knowing what not to do)
– Positive experiences(Endurance)


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