Training Sub-Elite Middle Distance Athletes

Posted by Scott Christensen

Building and maintaining a healthy population of middle distance athletes is important in achieving rewards for a team, and in having a pipeline for future success.  Like it or not, individual performances are driven by internal dynamics directly related to the pyramid of numbers in a particular training group.  The really good runners do ascend to the top of the pyramid in training situations where all athletes are happy and feel like they have an opportunity for success.  So the focus today is training sub-elite middle distance athletes in three specific groups.

Every high school middle distance training group in America has many more practice days than meet days.  The normal daily routine is to go to practice, the occasional day is to go to a meet.  There is no doubt that the best runners on a team make meet days fun, but the other runners on the team make practice days fun.  If these others are unsatisfied, then the team is not functioning very well at all.  The surest way for the big group to be unhappy is for the coach to always be driving workouts and discussions toward the best runners on the team. 

These coaches set up work schemes for the best runners, while the others are told to run a little slower or a little bit less.  Then, on meet day the best runners compete in four events while the others stay home.  No opportunity for them to have that competition moment where it all comes together.

The vast numbers of middle distance runners in a program (or a coach’s career) are not elite.  The meaning of the word elite itself is elusive, with it defining different things to different people.  In track and field, elite means outlier – a runner way off the bell curve in talent and performance. 

Most coaches call them the “once in a lifetime runner”, far fewer coaches say that their training program is based on science, thus when you always do successful things a certain way, then the process is replicable, and outliers (elite runners), can appear more frequently.

A high number of middle distance coaches simply subdivide their large training group each day by the dichotomy of fast or slow.  Occasionally, they may further divide these two groups into young or old as well; that is when they are really getting technical.  Elite in this situation means just the very best of the best if there is one that year.  There is a better way of subdividing a training group.


* Coaching Resource: 800M: Successful Coaching Strategies


Since elite is so occasional that they cannot be considered a group upon themselves, set that term aside until there actually is one on the team.  Instead, take the large training group and subdivide into three subset groups based not on ability or chronological age, but on training ageThese three groups are called novice, emerging, and experienced.  Because the sub-groups are based on variables like growth and development, rate of maturation, and importantly years in the training group, the runners share like characteristics, trends, and projected outcomes. 

A middle distance coach can prescribe workouts and place expectations in each of the sub-groups in a way that is appropriate for that training group.  If used properly the sub-groups would look something like the following:


  • Novice: Usually the largest training sub-group.  The training age is zero and one year of age.  They may or may not be ninth graders, so quit thinking that way.  They simply have little to no experience as middle distance runners.  Middle school or club experience rarely counts into the training age because development in 10-13 year old children is so erratic and non-functional. The aerobic energy system in novices is under-developed and their anaerobic energy system is even worse.  Bone density is slight, the cardio-vascular system is incomplete, and muscle fiber cross-sectional size is small.  Recovery patterns from workouts are unpredictable and they do not yet listen to their body.  What these runners lack in physical skills they will try to make up for in enthusiasm.  Training the novices is easier than the other two groups because there are fewer training components to incorporate.  Performances improve rapidly because they are training for the first time in their lives.  The coach should try to develop the aerobic base first.  If some cannot complete continuous run workouts, have them stop for a short period of time during the run, not to walk but just to stop and recover a bit, and then resume.  Athletes work toward a total weekly volume of 25-28 miles.  (Physiologists consider anything over 30 miles per week high mileage.)  For anaerobic work, the theme is merely introduction to the work.  Do not try to work at high blood lactate levels, but rather a moderate level over an extended length of time.  This means keeping the recovery rest interval short between bouts of fast running.  An example would be 4 x 400 meter repeats with 2 minutes rest; of course, warning them not to run the first repeat too hard.  The novices should only run 5-6 days per week with six days leaning toward a training age of one.  As a coach, reward the small accomplishments and always put novices in a position to be successful.  Trial by fire has never worked with most novice athletes.  Although this is a middle distance training group, race them in a high number of 3200 meter races to help develop their aerobic power.  Have them do only an occasional 800 meter race as their lactate tolerance is so poor.
  • Emerging: This is a rewarding sub-group to train because they can now do all the training components and their aerobic energy system is finally the big contributor to performance.  Emerging has a training age of 2-3.  Runners in this group are on full 12 day training microcycles because they need a mixed bag of aerobic and anaerobic stimulus.  They should now be able to train aerobically with steady state continuous runs of varying length, including long runs which should be 20% of their weekly mileage in one dose.  Anaerobic work is done frequently in varying distances from 30 meters to 600 meters with extended recovery to keep the intensity of work high.  Emerging can handle high blood lactate levels.  A steady dose of vVO2 max work develops both the central and peripheral aspects of the aerobic system.  Unlike novices who use races to help training, emerging use races to experience high level competition and to test themselves against others.  It is important these athletes are only placed in situations where they are likely to achieve success.  Rewarding small things has somewhat passed, but these can never be the athletes the coach counts on the most.  Do not be fooled by large improvements in performance, and that this can go on forever.  An emerging middle distance runner can plateau rather quickly.
  • Experienced:  The top group on any team.  They may or may not all be talented with high skill levels.  However, from the point where each started, performance has improved drastically.  What they all have is experience in the program, ability to handle all types of work, realistic goals, and a continued desire to perform at their highest individual level.  The training age of this group is four years.  If an athlete started late in the program then there are many runners with a training age of three that can be included in this group.  However, many athletes never make it this far and remain as emerging athletes.  The coach and training sub-group should always value effort over talent.  Performance improvement really slows down in the experienced group and, in some cases, merely reaches the level the athlete achieved while emerging.  Experienced are on 12 day training cycles with few days off of training.  They are serious and the coach is demanding.  Anaerobic work is frequent with weak areas being the biggest target of stimulus.  Aerobic work covers all of the bases and much is expected.  Long gone are the big smiles and large rewards for small things.  High level racing is crucial for all members and the thought a race would be used as a workout for members of this group is ridiculous.  Opportunities are created for all in important situations, depending on the meet.  The novices and emerging see how this group operates and want to be a part of it someday.  Just about every workout is timed and is entered in the individual athlete profile.  Decisions are made from this data as to what the athlete needs to work on or transition out of.


Now it is time to circle back to the concept of elite.  If the team is set up in the three sub-groups as outlined, an outlier could appear at any time from any sub-group.  An elite middle-distance runner is appearing.  In that rare find, it is necessary and appropriate to move that runner off on their own to do different kinds of workouts, harder workouts, race less often, and recover over many more days from the work. 


* Additional Teaching Resource:  The Training Model for High School Middle Distance


But, until then, a middle distance coach will find much gratification and the team will be much happier sticking with the three sub-groups.  However, moving from one group to the next is not set in stone with training age.  It is merely the best indicator for movement.  Some four-year people never make it out of the novice sub-group and others remain in the emerging group.  They are just not motivated to do so.  That is ok.  They are still fun to have at practice.   




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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