Managing the Racing Schedule of the Middle Distance Athlete

Posted by Scott Christensen

Middle distance and distance racers cannot be effectively managed in the same manner as sprinters, jumpers and throwers are, despite rules that allow it.  Cross country coaches, for the most part, understand the many aspects of managing the racing schedule of distance runners: 1) race with a purpose, therefore schedule only enough competitions to address the needs, goals and aspirations for that season, 2) balance the need for training with the fun and interesting experiences gained from a meet, as most meets cost three days of training, 3) quality over quantity is always better in competition, this is especially true in scheduling the number of racing opportunities, 4) distance racing is an intense psychological activity, much more so than the speed and power events, there are a limited number of effective opportunities in a season, and 5) racing a 5k is always enough in the fall, so in the spring, racing the 3200 meters should be enough as well. 

In the fall, the cross country racing and training routine is pretty clear: attend a meet, race once, recover in a day or so, and then train for the next week.  Repeat, and then repeat again, etc.  But in the spring, there is a disconnect to that philosophy and it usually involves the desire for scoring more meet points, the eagerness of the athletes to want to over race in too many events to boost their profile, way too many meets that substitute for training, and the coaching thought that “they can handle it”.  In other words, the middle distance and distance runners are treated like the rest of the track & field team and therein lies the challenge in preparing distance runners to perform their very best in the spring.

In high school track & field, the focus in the speed, power and technique events is usually about competing against outside competition (see how fast you are against others in a 100 meter dash, how high you can pole vault given three quality attempts against others, ditto in the hurdles, shot put, discus, and sprint relays, etc.), but this is not true in the middle distance events where quality training is more the season long focus.  Racing is just a periodic test under controlled conditions to assess the progress of training for distance runners.


* Coaching Resource: 3200M: Successful Coaching Strategies


Managing distance and middle distance runners effectively is two-pronged in nature for the coach.  The first prong involves the number of racing opportunities during the season, and this should be part of the long range plan for each athlete.  Athletes should know far in advance when their next opportunity will be any given event.  The second is managing the athletes racing schedule within a single meet if they are indeed going to compete in multiple races.  There should be a set plan in place for the runner to follow concerning warming up, racing, cooling down, warming up again, etc.  Again, all of this will be much different than the rest of the track & field team. 

Most high school teams have 12-14 track meets on their schedule each spring.  Determining a racing schedule for each middle distance athlete over all of these meets will be dependent on their gender, age, skill and specificity of training.  Females mature before males do.  Girls aerobic infrastructure development and anaerobic buffering characteristics are established about two years before boys are.  As 15-year olds, girls can handle both aerobic and anaerobic training, while boys struggle with anaerobic training

Boys in the 15-16 age group are best suited for mainly the 1600 and 3200 meter races with an occasional 800 meter racing effort.  In that same age group, girls can pretty evenly split the load and spend time determining what their very best championship event is.  As 17-18 year olds, males can handle anaerobic training, so this is when they blossom as middle distance runners, especially if they have spent the prior two years really improving their aerobic power

In that same age group, girls too benefit with big training loads of anaerobic work in both middle and long distance events.  Their improvement in racing performances will only come from gains on the anaerobic side if they have reached a training age of 4-6 because early maturity and years of aerobic power work has plateaued out aerobic development.

So, in setting up a race schedule for the season: 1) younger boys, do mostly 1600 meters or 3200 meter races, 2) younger girls, do an equal distribution of 800-3200 meter races, 3) older boys, do mostly 800 and 1600 meter races with only an occasional 3200 meter race, and 4) older girls, do mostly 800 and 1600 meter races with a couple more 3200 meter races than the boys. 

Managing race day for middle distance runners should be a breeze, but in many cases, it is not.  Complications should lie in the sprint and jump groups with so many various events including relays to get done, and not in distance! 

Distance coaches should look long and hard at doubling the1600 meters and 3200 meters in the same meet for an athlete.  Added up over a whole season, well that is a lot of racing.  A couple of 800 meter races in a meet are no problem at all.  Another good look is having one or two of the best middle distance runners join the 1600 meter relay for their second event.  Nothing builds speed in a miler more than anchoring a 4 x 400 meter relay.


* Additional Teaching Resource: Every 800m – 1600m Workout For The Entire High School Season


Recovery within a meet is different for middle distance runners than sprinters, hurdlers or jumpers.  Middle distance events consume much more oxygen, energy and water while producing more lactate and hydrogen ions than sprint or jump events do. 

Recovery for middle distance events, while preparing for the next, should adhere to a strict time-line and really the only external variable that affects it is the temperature.  Below is a general guideline to follow, coaches should adapt it for their own particular situation.


Preparation and recovery protocol for multiple distance events in a meet:


  • Begin warmup 70 minutes before the athletes first event. Begin with general activities and work to specific activities.  Slow to fast. Big muscles to small muscles.  End warmup period very fast with high heart rates.
  • Race 1
  • Immediate cool down of at least 800 meters to bring the core body temperature down slowly. 12 ounces of water soon thereafter.  After 15 minutes, 12 ounces of a sport drink.  Relax in the shade.  No ice or ice water treatment.
  • Begin warmup for the second race 45 minutes before the event. Shorten the general activities by 50% over the first warmup.  Specific activities should be about the same.  Heart and level of sweat should get to race ready much quicker than warmup number 1.  No sport drink within 45 minutes of second race, only water.
  • Race 2
  • Same cool down routine as cool down number.
  • If there is a third race. Begin the warmup 30 minutes before the event.  Shorten general activities to 400 meters of easy running.  The bulk of the warmup will be a very active sequence of skipping, lunging and sprinting.
  • Race 3
  • Same cool down routine as before.




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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