The Essence of the Endurance Training Program

Posted by Scott Christensen

Over the past 60 years all sport training models have benefited from the scientific principles that scientists have developed to explain the natural world.  The application of scientific laws and theories by coaches has transformed athletic training from a trial and error method to a systematic model of periodized development.  The important link in this knowledge chain is the education of the middle distance coach in the areas of training science that are specific to what that coach does on a daily basis with their athletes.  The emphasis on the importance of peer-reviewed science becoming the base of the scientific knowledge necessary to make coaches creative problem solvers to the daily questions that enter into any endurance training program is important.  All successful coaches need the necessary and most contemporary scientific research available to them in a manner in which they can both understand the principles, and can then apply them to the training of their middle distance athletes.

RELATED: Preparing the Elite Junior Middle Distance (800m – 1600m) Runner

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, in a time before eastern European influenced periodization had taken hold in America, the famed American endurance coach Bill Bowerman of Oregon learned his craft by trial and error testing and achieved great success.  This led to the following observations on training by Bowerman:

“The principles that I thought were most important were what I have chosen to call the hard-easy. This does not mean that a person runs hard one day and takes it pretty easy the next. It depends on the individual. Perhaps a Steve Prefontaine or a Dyrol Burleson might work hard two or three days and then he might take two or three very light days. Kenny Moore was a fragile runner and after one of his very solid workouts, it might take two or three easy days before he was ready to apply the next hard effort. Nevertheless the hard-easy principle applies and, in general, I don’t think a person can go wrong either as a coach or as an individual runner, working hard one day and taking the next relatively easy, or perhaps an effort in some other physical activity (Bowerman 1975)” .

Nowadays, in the periodization models of the various types of endurance training in an endurance training program; there requires a firm understanding of human physiological principles in the domain of contemporary scientific understanding.  These models primarily differ in the distance the athlete is training for, and in the biological characteristics of the individual.  It is a requirement to employ a training program that matches the general and unique physiological adaptations that a specific athlete is capable of attaining, in order to achieve success in the program.  Ultimately, endurance training program requires an understanding of the physiological principles training in the aerobic energy system, anaerobic energy system, and the combined zones of each athlete the coach trains.  Stated simply, the “theory of periodized training” must directly relate to the theories of overload and adaptation on an individual basis (Figure 1) (Freeman 1989).






-Figure 1.  Overload-adaptation progression indicating muscle size changes.

Before developing a periodized training model for middle distance runners, it is critical to look at some special consideration in constructing the annual plan (Bompa 1983):

  • The total amount of time available to prepare the endurance runner for the next major series of competitions. (Bourne, 2009)
  • The specific needs of the individual endurance runner in regard to the various primary physical performance components needed to compete at a specific event or range of events (Bourne 2009).

Any given year may require the planning of one or more macrocycles for the middle distance runner in their individual annual plan.  The number of large training cycles will depend upon the annual structure of competitions or seasons available (or required) of a given endurance runner.  Some will no doubt participate in cross country running, others will not.

Each developed macrocycle will include a preparation phase, pre-competitive phase, and a competitive phase, followed by a recovery transition phase, besides the daily workloads.  All of these cycles are designed to bring about the physiological adaptations necessary to perform at a high level during the important competitions of that macrocycle (Bompa 1983).  This technique narrows the training funnel to certain key workouts that will be needed for individual success.

To perform at a high level all middle distance runners need a periodized training model that emphasizes the big picture.  Create these lengthy cycles on paper before setting up individual workouts for your athletes.  A successful middle distance coach does need to be a reductionist in understanding the training effects of workloads, but not before they have developed the essence of their endurance training program as whole.

More mid-distance from Coach Christensen: The Oxygen Deficit Curve: The Limiter of Mid-Distance Performance


Bompa, T.  1983.  Theory and Methodology of Training: The Key to Athletic Performance.  Kendall/Hunt Publishing Inc, Dubuque, Iowa, USA.  Pp. 131-179.

Bourne, D.  2008.  A history of training theory and methods for elite runners through 1975.  University of Texas Publishing, Austin, Texas, USA Pp 378-389.

Bowerman, W.  1975.  Coaching Track and Field.  Simon Publishing, New York, New York, USA Pp. 23-25.

Freeman, W.  1989.  Peak When it Counts: Periodization for American Track and Field. Tafnews Press, Los Altos, California, USA.  Pp. 45-90.

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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