Should you think about running in college?

As high school cross country finishes up, many juniors and seniors are turning their attention to college applications.  Some of the more serious runners are probably thinking about running competitively in college.  In talking to high schoolers and their parents, I find there are often a lot of misconceptions about what college distance running is like in the NCAA.  I just finished four years of competing in cross country and track at a Division III school, and I have several friends who are Division I and Division II athletes, so I'm in a good position to comment on college athletics as they are right now.  In this post, I'll try to key you in on what running in college is all about, the differences between the various divisions, and whether you ought to think about running in college yourself.

This time, we don't need a crash course in any kind of -ology, so we'll jump right in.  First off, there's a few things you should know.  College running is different in many respects to high school running, mostly because the bar is set higher.  In college, running is a year-round sport.  Long distance specialists compete in cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter, and outdoor track in the spring.  Summer is the only real break from competition, and it's devoted to building base strength for cross country.  And even 800m specialists are usually expected to train for and compete in cross country in the fall.   The race distances are also further—most men's races are 8km (5mi) and most women's races are 6km (3.5mi).  At the Division I and Division II level, the regional and national championship races for men are 10km.  So when I say "running in college" I mean cross country and track.   Relatively few programs allow distance runner to compete exclusively in track or cross country, and rightfully so—those who do tend not to improve very much, if at all.

The Divisions
College athletics is dominated by the NCAA, which is itself divided up into three divisions (aptly named Division I, Division II, and Division III—or DI, DII, and DIII for short).  I'll go over the defining characteristics of each division and give you a "snapshot" of a few "typical" runners in that division.  Please note that these "snapshots" are not meant to stereotype the division, nor are they based on real people.  I'm writing them simply to give you a picture of the range of what is typical for each division—your own experience may be totally different.

Division III

Division III is by far the largest and most varied (in terms of commitment and ability) of the NCAA divisions.  It's comprised mostly of private schools (80% of DIII schools are private), and it is best-known for giving no athletic scholarships.  The schools that make up the division are varied; many of the elite national liberal arts colleges belong to Division III, but so do many smaller local schools, midrange regional or national colleges, as well as small public universities.  There are a few schools in this division that have over 10,000 students, but by and large the colleges and universities that make up DIII have 1,000-5,000 students.  Virtually all coaches and athletes in this division will tell you that academics are the top priority for their athletes, and it's common even for top athletes to miss practices or meets if they have an academic commitment.  Many people have a false impression that DIII consists mostly of nonserious teams, but in truth, there are dozens of DIII runners every year who could, if they so desired, be in the top 7 at most Division I cross country teams.  It is true, however, that the commitment level among the assorted teams in Division III varies wildly—some teams are comprised of 20 or 30 men, virtually all of which run 70-80 miles a week or more, lift several times a week, and are extremely dedicated athletes.  Other teams have only 12 or 15 members, most of whom do not run more than 50 miles a week, do not lift or do other ancillary work, and who usually have other, more pressing nonacademic commitments in their life.  One thing that unifies all DIII athletes, however, is that they are all running in college because they love to do it.  They aren't getting any money, and there aren't (usually) any prospects of a professional career after graduation.  Let's meet a few typical DIII runners:

Jim is one of the slower runners on a somewhat below-average Division III team.  In college, he has a track 5k PR of 17:30 and attends a local private college in his home state and gets decent grades.  He ran for a few years in high school and enjoyed it, graduating as a 10:50 two-miler.  He runs perhaps 40 or 50 miles a week, but takes Sundays off and also devotes a good bit of his time to non-athletic commitments—perhaps he's in an choir or performs in the campus theater group.  He spends some time socializing with the team, but his closest friends are not runners.  His coach may be a young coach learning the ropes, or may be an older and more experienced coach who doesn't want the program to take over the life of his runners—he'd rather see them focusing on academics and their other interests than spending a lot of time focused on running.  His team usually finishes in the back third of the races they run, and Jim probably will not be running on the varsity squad, but if he improves, he might have a chance to qualify for the conference track and field meet by the time he's a senior.  The team culture is fairly positive, but also nonserious—the team doesn't set goals or have any plans of making the "jump" to being an above-average team.  Most of Jim's 15 teammates also run about 40-50 miles a week; he might have one or two teammates who train at a higher level and get better results, and the team may have even sent an individual runner to cross country nationals once or twice in the last decade, but the team has not qualified for many years, if ever. 

Suzy is an average DIII runner at a midrange program.  She attends a prestigious elite liberal arts college.  As the #9 runner on her cross country team, she does not run varsity, but gets to run at all of her team's regular-season meets and travels along with the team for the regional championships as an alternate.  Her team has qualified for cross country nationals two times in the last decade, but typically finishes right about in the middle of the field at their conference and regional meet.   In high school, Suzy played soccer for two years before taking up cross country and track, and she graduated as a 5:40 miler and 12:00 two-miler.  She wanted to run in college, but she applied to several top academic schools, many of which she would not have been able to run at.  Despite coming from a sprinting background, Suzy's coach is fairly knowledgeable and committed to her program; she has the team run 35-45 miles a week with several hard workouts and a day of cross-training.  The team culture is a positive and fun one, and team members often socialize together, but also have several friends who are not on the team.  As her school is very academically rigorous, she spends a lot of time studying, sometimes to the detriment of her performance.  She is a biology major, so once a week she has to miss practice so she can get her lab work in, but her coach is supportive of her and organizes a morning workout group with the other women who have lab classes.   

Sam is a top-level Division III runner at a well known regional private college.  He is a multiple-time All-American in track and boasts a 5000m PR of 14:33.  He usually runs 80-90 miles a week in the summer and winter, though at times he's ran over 100 miles a week.  In high school, he may have been a reasonably talented 4:20/9:20 runner who decided (either for academic or athletic reasons) not to run Division I, or he may have been a "late bloomer" who only ran 9:40/4:30 in high school, but improved significantly after training more seriously in college.  He is the #1 runner on a team which has qualified for cross country nationals several times in the past decade and has a rigorous strength and conditioning program prescribed by one of the two assistant coaches.  His head coach is dedicated and very experienced, having held the coaching position for a long time.  The 20-30 members of his team are, by and large, serious athletes like him, running 10 or more miles a day and committed to their strength program, and eat, socialize, and often live together.  The team culture is one of tradition—it's expected that all members will do their best every day.  Sam and his teammates are also committed to their studies, and often bemoan the fact that they have to stay up late to finish homework before hard workouts or have to miss an easy run for a lab class (though he and some of his teammates are known to "accidentally" sleep through a morning class the week of the conference championships).  He also lives in a triplet room with two teammates, and most of his close friends are on the track and cross country teams.  If he decides to run after college, he will get some free gear and a discount from a local running store in exchange for running for their road-racing team a few times a year, and he might continue to race unattached in track, or switch his focus to the marathon and try to qualify for the Olympic Trials. 

Division II

Division II is, in many respects, fairly similar to DIII, although it is much smaller and does have the ability to offer athletic scholarships.  Because most money goes towards "big money" sports like football and basketball, there are relatively few scholarships to go around for runners—especially considering that track and cross country must share scholarships.  So, unless you are extremely talented, don't expect to get more than a few hundred to a few thousand dollars from most DII schools.  You'll have better luck getting money from local rotary or city academic/leadership scholarships.  But because of the scholarships, Division II is significantly stronger at the very top than Division III.  Once you get past the top 40 or 50 in the nation, however, there is virtually no difference between the divisions.  Here's an example: every year, the University of Minnesota hosts the Roy Griak Invitational, a massive cross country meet with races for NCAA DI, II, and III.  Here's a table comparing place to time in the men's races (over the same course) from last year's Griak meet (an 8km race):

Place DI Time DII Time DIII Time
1 23:40 24:54 25:39
10 24:31 25:49 26:15
20 24:49 26:21 26:32
30 25:05 26:35 26:42
50 25:22 26:57 27:06
100 26:00 27:35 27:48

Top ten finishers at Griak typically have a strong chance of qualifying as an individual for cross country nationals, so as this table illustrates, the difference between DII and DIII is significant only in the top 15 places or so.  Once you get out of the lead pack, there's only a small variation. 

Division II has a reputation for not being up to par, academically speaking, compared to DI and DIII.  Indeed, because nearly all elite liberal arts colleges (Amherst, Pomona, Middlebury) and elite small technical schools (MIT, Caltech) are Division III and most elite research universities (Stanford, the Ivy League) are Division I, this leaves Division II with relatively little academic heft.  Most DII schools are local or regional schools (including many state universities) that are comparatively easier to get into than an elite liberal arts college or an Ivy league school.  However, DII does boast a few schools with a strong academic reputation, including the University of California-San Diego and Colorado School of Mines.  But because DII colleges tend to be local or regional schools and tend not to be highly selective, they also tend to be somewhat cheaper.  While there's no telling where tuition rates will be going in the next 5 years (right now, public school tuition rates are rising much faster than private school rates), for now at least, many DII schools can offer good middle-class students attractive academic aid packages in addition to their athletic scholarships.  It's also worth noting that, since it's smaller, the "back end" of DII isn't quite as slow as the back end of DIII. 

Because an 'average' DII school is very comparable athletically to an 'average' DIII school, I'll only give snapshots of hypothetical athletes on mid-range and top programs.

Steve is the #4 runner on a mid-range Division II team at the local state university and has a 5k PR of 15:34.  Steve's team is much like Suzy's in Division III: It has qualified for nationals a few times in the past decade, it has an experienced and dedicated coach, and finishes right in the middle of most meets it enters.  Steve's team has only 18 or 20 members, and perhaps for that reason is a tad more serious than a Division III team of equivalent national rank.  In races, however, Steve usually finishes right with many of the #3, 4, and 5 runners from local DIII teams.  Steve was a 4:35/ 9:55 runner in high school with average grades, but as a college student he usually takes his academics more seriously than he did in high school.  As DII allows for athletic scholarships, Steve might get some money to cover books or a small amount to pay tuition, but he gets a lot more money in financial aid from his school.

Samantha is a top-level Division II runner.  She is the #2 runner at her school and has qualified for nationals as an individual in track multiple times, garnering one All-American award.  Her 5k PR is 16:55, and her team is a perennial contender for a top-10 finish at cross country nationals and has qualified almost every year in the last decade.  Her coach is very experienced and knowledgeable, and over half of her tuition is payed by an athletic scholarship.  Her grades in high school were not very good, and she decided to choose an easy major so she could focus on her running.  Her times in high school, however, were very impressive.  Coming from a small school, she won the mile at the state meet in 5:06.  Her teammates are very serious about their training, and Samantha rents an apartment along with two of her teammates.  If Samantha decides to run after college, she can probably get free gear and a discount from a local running store.  If she continues to improve, she might be able to be accepted at a regional sub-elite development program. 

Division I

Division I, as a whole, is on a different level than Division II and III.  While many good DII and DIII runners could run for most DI teams, the ability at the top is far, far above what DII and DIII can boast.  Most large research universities are Division I, including the entire Ivy league as well as prestigious public schools like the University of California-Los Angeles, University of Virginia, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  While DII and DI both have a bit over 300 member schools, because Division I has so many massive public universities, the number of students attending Division I schools is much greater.  As a result, Division I schools can invest much more money in their sports programs.  DI runners at major conference schools are usually issued gear (shoes, sweats, etc.) from their school's official sponsor, whether that's Nike or Adidas or one of the other major shoe companies. And their varsity squads criss-cross the country, racing in Indiana one weekend and Arizona the next.

But the biggest misconception that most people have about Division I is that all DI schools are like this.  Division I consists of 300 schools, of which only about 50 have high-powered running programs that are far and away better than a top-tier DII or DIII school.  The results from this year's southeast regional championship, for example, are patently ordinary.  A 10:00 high school two-miler, who most people wouldn't think has any business competing in DI cross country, could very well work his way to being a varsity runner at almost any school in the southeast region.  And I don't mean to single out these schools—probably 250 of the smaller, less well-known DI schools are of the same caliber, ability-wise, as a good DII or DIII school.  These lower-tier DI schools tend to be local or regional colleges and universities—most of the "big name" colleges belong in the top 50.  The athletes who run at those 50 or so top-tier DI schools are very talented, and it only becomes more significant as you move closer to the top.  A school like University of Wisconsin or Oklahoma State can spend all of their scholarship money on sub-9:00 or sub-9:10 high school two-milers.  While that doesn't mean a slower runner can't 'walk on' (i.e. try out for the team as a non-recruited athlete), it'll be very difficult to have a coach at a "big time" school even talk to you if you haven't run under 9:20 or so, seeing as they have a very limited roster size (sometimes under 20 cross country runners!).

At the DI level, it is somewhat easier for girls to secure a roster spot, because Title IX regulations require similar numbers of total roster spots between men's and women's sports.  Given that football gobbles up 80 or more men's roster spots (and a concomitant number of scholarships), it's no surprise that some DI women's cross country and track coaches get a bonus in their contract if their roster exceeds a certain size.  There is also slightly more scholarship money to go around for women (for the same reason), but since cross country is not a "big time" sport like women's basketball, and since cross country is forced to share scholarships with track and field, runners still end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to athletic aid.  Don't interpret this to mean that the training is any less difficult or the caliber of athletes among top DI women's teams is any lower, though.

Let's meet two hypothetical DI runners.  Again, since the talent level at a lower-tier DI school is similar to that at an average DII or DIII school, I won't outline that here:

Jill is the #13 runner at a mid-range DI school.  She attends a reasonably-sized public university in her home state.  Very many things about her school's athletics program are middle-of-the-road: they are a member of a major conference, but usually finish near the back of the field; they have send individual runners to NCAA Nationals a few times in the past 10 years, but have not qualified as a team in a long time.  Since Jill is not one of the top runners, she does not usually get to travel to some of the "away" meets, and instead runs in smaller local meets, sometimes against DII and DIII competition.  In high school, she consistently ran around 19:00 for 5km, despite having injury issues.  Unlike many of the other (hypothetical) programs in these "snapshots," Jill's coach, who is very experienced and capable, believes in low mileage.  So Jill, along with her teammates, only run 5 or 6 days a week, cross training a sixth day and taking sundays off.  She runs about 30-35 miles a week, but much of it is at a very high intensity.  Monday and Tuesday usually consist of back-to-back workouts.  Wednesday is cross training, and Thursday is another workout.  A pre-meet run or easy run on Friday, a race on Saturday, and a long run or an off day on Sunday rounds out a typical week.  She's a good student, both in high school and college, which helped her secure a spot on the team as a freshman, as bright students help bring up the team's average GPA.  Jill's 40 teammates are, in general, pretty committed to the sport.  But most of the runners outside the top 15 or so realize their chances of making the varsity squad are not favorable, so they don't let running impede their academics.  They still enjoy the perks of being on a DI team, however—free gear, academic help, and so on.  Jill doesn't get any athletic aid, but if she improved and cracked into the top 10, she might get a few hundred dollars for books or possibly even a few thousand dollars towards tuition.  The team culture is more serious than that at a mid-range DII or DIII team.  Even the women not on scholarships know they're expected to improve and support the top runners, and Jill's coach likely feels under the gun to improve on their ranking in the conference. 
Bill is the #5 runner at a top-level DI school.  He attends a nationally-known research university most famous for its football and basketball prowess.  But its cross country team is also a perennial presence at the national meet.  He and most of his teammates run 80-100 miles a week for much of the cross country season.  As a middle-distance runner, this is more than he runs during the track season.  During the winter and spring, Bill primarily runs the mile but will occasionally run a 3k.  He boasts PRs of 4:05 (indoors) and 8:16 in those events.  In high school, he was a top talent, placing second in his state meet with a 4:10 mile and recording a 1:53 800m as a senior.  But perhaps more importantly, he managed to run well his junior year, hitting a mark of 4:16 and catching the attention of college coaches around the country.  His grades in high school were mediocre, and his SAT scores are below average for students at his school.  But his college grades are not bad—he opted for an accounting major so he didn't have lab classes interfering with practice, and he gets help from special athletic tutors employed by his school's athletic department.  About half his in-state tuition is covered by an athletic scholarship.  His team has qualified for the "Big Dance" five times in the past 10 years, narrowly missing out on an at-large bid this year after a disappointing regional meet.  Their top runner qualified individually.  His head coach is very experienced, having been on the job for over 10 years; periodically he is asked to give seminars at USATF coaching conventions.  Bill's 20 teammates were, like him, top-caliber runners in high school.  Their coaching staff makes it very clear that they are being paid to be athletes, and a full-time commitment is mandatory.  Many of the "little things" that are blown off at DII and DIII levels are taken very seriously by the program: the team has mandatory morning practices, a dedicated strength and conditioning coach who prescribes a weight-lifting program that's carried out three times a week, and runners who get injured are immediately shuttled to a doctor who works with the team.  Athletes often get priority in choosing class schedules or securing dorm rooms—when Bill was a freshman, his coach placed him in a dorm with two other freshmen runners.  He often travels to large meets like the Griak in Minnesota or the Dellinger Invite in Oregon.  Though Bill will not be able to "go pro" straight out of college like his school's #1 runner, he can join a regional development program like Zap Fitness or Team Indiana Elite if he improves his times a bit.

So, should you run in college?

The biggest question facing a high school runner considering running in college is this: Do you want to compete in college? Do you enjoy or at least get some satisfaction out of training and racing? If the answer to these questions is "no," pretty much everything else is irrelevant—even if you're a super-talent, running in college probably won't be a good decision. The converse is also true: even if you aren't particularly talented, if you do love to train and to compete, running in college will probably be a very good decision to make.  For me, it was one of the best choices I made when heading off to college.  Running because you love it really should be the biggest factor in whether you compete in college.  With American distance running on the upswing, there's very little prospect of securing a significant athletic scholarship unless you've run 4:10/9:00 for boys or equivalent for girls.

If you decide you want to run in college, I recommend you do the following: Imagine you aren't going to run in college, and then decide what kind of college you'd like to go to—one that fits you academically, socially, environmentally, and financially.  Even if you train 3 hours a day, you still have 21 hours left where you aren't training.  You should pick a school where you'll be comfortable being a student those other 21 hours in the day.  Do you want to go to a large public university? Do you want to get out of your home state? Do you want a small liberal arts college experience? Are your grades and test scores good enough to get into an elite college, or would you do better at a less-selective school? What subjects do you want to study? The College Board has a nifty web tool that you can use to whittle down your options.  Once you have an idea of what kind of school you want to go to (small rural liberal arts, large public research, mid-sized private suburban, etc.), you can start looking at running programs.  I can guarantee that, given any combination of size, location, type of school, etc., you can find schools with quality running programs at most levels of competition.

With the "snapshots" above, you've seen what life is like in the three different divisions.  That should give you some idea as to what you should look for when looking at running programs at different schools and divisions.  But how do you know what division is right for you? There are no hard-and-fast rules as to who should run at what level.  But I can offer some very rough recommendations for boys (as I'm not a girl and am not as familiar with what's typical of women's programs, I don't feel comfortable throwing out times—perhaps a knowledgeable reader can contribute!):

  • If you are a national caliber runner (~9:10 3200m / 4:14 1600m or faster) as a senior, you should run at a top-tier Division I school unless there is some extenuating circumstance (like having your heart set on a particular school).  If you do decide to run DII or DIII, you should be ready to do most of your training alone, and run most of your races from the front.  
  • If you are a state caliber runner (~9:20 / 4:20) as a senior, you straddle the talent divide between the divisions.  While you could probably walk on to many major-conference Division I programs (barring the most elite), you won't get as much coaching attention right off the bat.  However, you'll have plenty of people to train with.  Unfortunately, if things don't pan out initially, you might find yourself on the wrong end of a roster cap. On the other hand, you can run for pretty much every DII and DIII team out there, as well as lower-tier Division I teams.  On most DII and DIII teams, you'll get more attention from the coach and will be able to run closer to the front of the pack in your races (vs. closer to the back if you'd gone DI).  For you, it's a question of "fish and ponds" (see below).
  • If you are a section/conference caliber runner (~9:40 / 4:30) as a senior, you're pretty typical of most recruits at mid-range to top-end Division II and III programs.  It is not impossible for a 9:40 runner to walk onto a major conference DI team, but you'll likely have to train on your own your freshman year and run faster times for the coach to allow you to walk on.  Even then, you'll be at the very tail end of the team in most workouts and races.  Running Division II or III (or lower-tier Division I) is a much better option, as you'll get more coaching support, have teammates to train with, and opponents to race against.
  • If you are a local caliber runner, (~10:10 / 4:45) as a senior, Division II and III are your only viable options (barring some very low-end DI schools).  It's also important that you pick the right DII and DIII schools—some won't give you the time of day, while at others you'll gladly be welcomed.  A few DII and DIII schools have either explicit cutoffs, roster caps, or time-trials to qualify for the team (a well-known top DIII school has a pre-season time-trial where the top ~20 finishers make the team; the rest are out of luck), but most do not.  10-flat high-school two milers make up the backbone of many midrange DII and DIII teams.
  • If you are a team caliber runner (10:40 / 5:00 or slower) as a senior, you're probably looking at midrange or lower-tier DIII teams.  You want to pick a school where you can contribute to the program, but not one with an inexperienced coach and an underdeveloped program either.   

Ultimately, it's a question of "fish and ponds": Do you want to be a big fish in a small pond, or a small fish in a big pond?  I personally think a happy medium is the best answer (a medium fish in a medium pond!), but different people are motivated by different things.  Some need to feel the pressure of being near the back to force themselves to muster a better effort, and others need to be out front alone so they don't run themselves into the ground every day in practice. 

Sizing up the school

So you've decided what type of school you want to go to.  You've got a big list of schools that fit the bill (academically, environmentally, socially, and financially) and now it's time to look at their running programs.  The first place to start is the school's web page.  Unlike high school, where results from many meets are near-impossible to find on the internet, college results are almost always easy to find, because every NCAA school has an athletics web site with a page for the cross country and track teams.  Usually these pages will have a blurb about the coach, a roster, a schedule, and some team history and school records.  The first thing you should do is let the coach know you're interested.  Fortunately, this is very easy, as most sites have a "recruiting questionnaire" link that's pretty easy to find.

It'll take you to a web form that will ask you for your name, PRs, grades, SAT scores, etc.  Also note that, contrary to popular opinion, most runners (even good ones!) have to contact the coach using a recruiting questionnaire, a phone call, or an email.  It's pretty rare for a coach to seek you out unsolicited unless you're a really phenomenal runner.  There are also NCAA rules about when coaches can contact you—if I recall correctly, it's not until after your junior year that coaches can contact you.  But they can respond to you if you contact them.  Generally, coaches will get back to you pretty quick after submitting a recruiting questionairre (I had one coach call me half an hour later!).  But if you haven't heard anything in a week or two, send the coach an email or give him or her a phone call during the day.  Sometimes coaches just forget!  Especially during busy periods like November and May.

After you've sent out your information, now would be a good time to check on how fast the runners on the team are.  Some schools even have team performance lists by event, but this is rare.  Sometimes, the roster page will list a runner's PRs by season.  Usually, though, you'll have to peruse through some results.  I recommend looking at track times instead of cross country times, as they are more consistent and less prone to wild swings due to weather or course distance.  Take some time to sift through meet results and check how your high school PRs match up to college times.  Comparisons can be difficult if you ran, say, the 1600 and 3200 in high school, since neither of these events are contested in college.  But almost all college distance runners will do a 1500 at some point outdoors or a mile at some point indoors, so this is your best shot at comparing times.  For a "quick and dirty" conversion, add 17 seconds to a 1500 time to get a mile/1600m time if you are a boy, and 21 seconds if you are a girl.  You might have to look at several meet results to see the range of times on the team.  Unlike high school, in college it's pretty standard fare to send your fastest runners to one meet and the rest of the team to another.  Finally, beware of comparing times from championships races, as these can often be "tactical" (read: slow).  The Big 10 indoor mile in 2005 was won by sub-4 miler Jeff See in a "blistering" 4:22 (with a first 800m in 2:33).  So don't look to conference or national meet results for reliable times!

Visiting a school

Once you have an idea of where your times would put you on the team (and don't be alarmed if it's near the back, as that's typical for freshmen), and once you've gotten in touch with some of the schools on your short list, you'll probably want to visit the school to get a feel for the environment.  There are plenty of resources in college guide books and elsewhere on what to look for, academically and socially, when you visit a school, so I won't waste time on that.  The only thing I'll say on that front is that you should be repeatedly asking yourself "could I imagine myself actually being a student here for four years?"  If you are serious about running in college, make sure you let the coach know that you are planning to visit.  Admissions departments are notoriously bad at communicating with the athletics department, so you might not get much time to see the coach or meet the team if you don't let him or her know that you're planning a visit.  If you go through the athletic department, you'll also be able to stay overnight with a runner on the team instead of a regular student. 

During your visit, you'll have a ton of stuff to do.  Class visits, official tours, meeting with the coach, overnight stays with your host student, cafeteria meals, team practice, and so on.  It can be a bit of a whirlwind, but make sure you set aside time to talk with the coach.  He or she will be the most important person in your athletic life in the next four years if you decide to go to that college.  When you meet with the coach, do your best to get a sense of what their training philosophy is, what a typical week of practice is like, what their racing strategy is, what kind of time commitment is necessary, and what the atmosphere is like (competitive vs. relaxed, and so on).  A few coaches—mostly DI—have been known to cater their depiction of the team's training and racing styles to the preferences of the recruit (e.g. telling you that they run a lot of mileage and high-end aerobic work if that's the kind of training you prefer), so it's best to ask "What's your coaching philosophy?" or "what's a typical training week look like?" right off the bat, before you have a chance to talk about what kind of workouts you like, what you did in high school, and so on.  Also ask some runners on the team what a typical week looks like to corroborate the details. If it's a DI or DII program, it would be wise to ask about scholarships too. 

Meeting members of the team is also pretty important.  But keep in mind that the culture or quality of the team could change somewhat, since none of the seniors you meet will be around when you enroll.  According to NCAA rules, the coach is not allowed to watch you work out, but there's no rule against going for an easy run with the team.  This will give you a good opportunity to see what the runs are like.  If you grew up in the middle of the woods, you might be a bit shell-shocked having to imagine doing all of your running in a major metropolitan area (and vice versa).  Does the team spend a lot of time together? Do they eat dinner together? Do they live together? Do they seem to get along? These are all big questions you should think about, and at a healthy program, the answer to these is usually "yes."  Keep in mind that the social scene you see will probably be dictated by the day of the week.  If you want to know what the night life is like, don't visit on a Tuesday, and if you want to know how hard everybody studies, don't visit on a Friday!  To get the best of both worlds, you can plan a two-day visit spanning Thursday and Friday.  You're bound to have questions later, so ask for the email address of your host or one of the captains so you can send them a message later if you forgot to ask about anything.

All of this can seem a bit overwhelming and hard to keep track of, but fortunately, your brain is pretty good at taking in information about an environment.  An example: When I was looking at colleges, one visit in particular stuck out from the rest:  I asked the coach, "What's your training philosophy?" (A question which could keep most coaches talking for hours on end), to which he replied, "Well that's not a great question; you'll have to rephrase that."  And then silence.  I eventually got him to talk about their racing strategy, which was explained to me as "getting out aggressive and controlling the race," which I (correctly) interpreted as "going out hard and slowing down at the end."  My own style has always been even or negative splits.  Later, when I was meeting some of the runners on the team, they were in a coffee shop gossiping about how certain people on the team didn't deserve to be captain the following year.  When my host took me back to his dorm, his floormates were sitting in a circle copying answers from the solutions manual for the organic chemistry textbook.  Needless to say, I wasn't too disappointed when I didn't get into that school.  This visit sticks out in my mind because it was so different than the other schools I visited, where the coaches were friendly and gregarious, the teammates got along well and didn't gossip in front of prospective students, and students actually did their homework.  Your intuition will give you a pretty good idea of whether that school and that program is right for you.

If you are not a top athlete and you are hoping to walk onto a DI team or make the cut at a small DII or DIII program, you probably won't get the "star treatment" visit where you meet the team, stay overnight, talk with the coach, and so on.  In that case, it'd be smart to contact one of the team captains via email or facebook to ask about the team.  Usually they'll be very helpful—and if not, would you really want to be on that team anyways?

Applying and getting in

Applying for college as an athlete isn't any different than applying as a regular student.  Any "preferential treatment" you get will be handled on the other end.  It's popular wisdom that great athletes have an easier time getting into schools than an average student, and while this is the case, it's not nearly as prominent in running as it is in, say, football or basketball.  While it's true that many schools, though not all, will give preferential treatment to top recruits, even a sub-4 miler can't waltz his way into Harvard with a 17 on his ACT.  Coaches usually have a very good sense about who will get in and who won't, so don't be afraid to ask what he or she thinks your chances are—they'll usually be honest with you.  If you are a top recruit, you'll probably get a "nudge and a wink" not to worry about getting in if you're in the clear.  Some schools (but again, not all!) give their coaches a certain number of  (virtually) guaranteed admission slots, though they usually have minimum GPA and test score requirements.  But even if they didn't have these requirements, a coach wouldn't waste a slot on someone who couldn't handle the academic load.  The application and admissions process is also when financial aid and scholarship money are finalized.  This usually wraps up before the spring track season, so if you're a late bloomer, you might be out of luck (for the time being at least).  For better or worse, it's your junior year track times that garner coaches' interest—cross country times are usually too varied, unless you can place highly in a well-known or competitive meet like your state championship.

Paying for it all

I've touched on this a few times already, but unless you are a superstar, there is very little money in athletic scholarships for distance runners.  Sometimes you can squeeze out a bigger scholarship by going to a lesser-known program, but in most cases, your time would be better spend applying for scholarships.  A scholarship from your local rotary club or boosters association often ends up being as much as or more than any athletic aid you'll get.  Finally, study for the SAT and ACT, as your scores on these, along with your GPA, can help you get academic aid from your school, and there is a lot more academic money to go around (for runners at least) than athletic money.


But wait: what if you want to be an engineer at a top public research university, but you're not a very talented runner? Are you out of luck? Fortunately, no.  Many big universities have running clubs, which generally are less competitive and more relaxed than varsity college teams, but still get to train and compete together.  There's even a club nationals.  The very best club teams are about as good as a middle-of-the-road DIII program.  If you are going to a small local school or a religious college, you might be surprised to find that the NCAA isn't the only college athletics association.  The biggest alternative is the NAIA, which caters to community colleges, junior colleges, and small, nonselective local schools.  In terms of talent and competitiveness, the NAIA is about on par with with Division II at the national level, but is smaller.  Many NAIA schools are two-year institutions.  Talented runners who couldn't muster the grades in high school to run for a Division I school often complete two years at an NAIA school before transferring to a DI school for their last two years of eligibility.  There are also small local associations for Christian colleges and junior colleges who aren't big enough and don't have the resources to compete in the NCAA.  Even if you're completely sick of organized running and you're going to school for solely academic purposes, don't be surprised if you find yourself yearning to head out the door for a run after a year or two away from the sport.  Many of my old high school teammates (even ones who finished near the back of the JV races) have taken up marathoning once they hit their twenties!


The college admissions process is long and arduous, particularly for the budding collegiate runner, but it's eventually worth it.  College track and cross country are a blast.  I wrote this article with distance runners in mind, but most of the advice here is just as relevant to sprinters, jumpers, and throwers as it is to distance runners. First, find out what kind of school you want to go to—what fits your social, academic, environmental, and financial needs.  This should happen around the middle or end of your Junior year.  Then, from your list of schools, start looking at athletics programs.  Get in touch with the coaches, get a sense for the ability of the team, and start to whittle down your list.  Pay a visit to your prospective schools, meet the coach, and gett to know the team.  Try to picture yourself as a student at that college.  Could you be happy there?  Once you've finalized which schools you will be applying to, be sure to let the coaches know.  Finally, when it comes time to make your decision, trust your instincts!  While visiting one school as a prospective student, I went for a run with an athlete who would later become an All-American in the 5000m.  On our run, a hilly 9-miler at dusk through the outskirts of town, he told me, "You've got the ability to succeed wherever you go, but you'll only be willing to work to succeed at a school you'll be comfortable at."  That's the best advice I got during my college search, and hopefully you've gotten some good advice in this article too.

Have I forgotten anything? Drastically mischaracterized and stereotyped your division? please let me know below!

My apologies for the long delay.  Writer's block (or maybe just procrastination) happens to the best of us!

About the Author

John J Davis, PhD

I have been coaching runners and writing about training and injuries for over ten years. I've helped total novices, NXN-qualifying high schoolers, elite-field competitors at major marathons, and runners everywhere in between. I have a Ph.D. in Human Performance, and I do scientific research focused on the biomechanics of overuse injuries in runners. I published my first book, Modern Training and Physiology for Middle and Long-Distance Runners, in 2013.

14 thoughts on “Should you think about running in college?”

  1. Great summary of a runner's choices for college, John. I have found that the best options for many athletes are high quality, small, liberal arts colleges in Division II and the NAIA. Depending on the current roster, a good athlete may get a bigger share of the scholarship equivalency pie, be in a more communal setting and receive a fabulous education. Almost all regions of the country have these alternatives. Even if a young man or woman goes to a less selective undergraduate program, they can attend great graduate programs because of the fabulous academic and athletic achievements they earned in college.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to write this objective, thorough assessment - as a parent of a prospective college runner I found it one of the most helpful pieces I've read on this subject.

  3. This was an incredibly well-written piece and it gave us an excellent, comprehensive overview of the process. As parents of a high school runner, this was very helpful. Thanks so much for taking the time to do this!!

  4. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a well-thought out and thorough article. As a mother of a high school junior middle distance runner, I found this very informative and helpful.

  5. Ditto what the other comments have said, "this is by far one of the best write-ups regarding running in college." There is plenty to discuss with your child after reading this article.

    Kudos to you!

  6. Thanks so much for this post. I'm an incoming senior runner interested in running D3 in college and this is far and away the best/most comprehensive advice I've been able to find!

  7. getting a say a 1800 on sat and a 6.3 GPA out of 7

    I run a 1500 in 5:18

    any point in applying to pretty top ranking schools for running - i really want to run track at uni

  8. I ran at UW-Madison. Our best runner ended up being a "state level" champ from Wisconsin, with regular times, who improved greatly after his sophomore season. I was recruited by Martin Smith who said I wasn't fast enough to run with the D1 college 800 meter crowd. A couple of weeks later I was in the NCAA champ meet. It's mostly about your focus on your craft. Not many runners in D1 are world class athletes, yet the most successful are very focused on doing everything right. World class athletes are even more focused, have a little more talent, and this is the main reason for their success.

  9. I am a freshman in high school but have already been looking into colleges. I know I definitely want to run in college and I'm already on the top-end of the varsity team at my high school. This was really helpful to know what I need to look for. Thank you so much!

  10. I am a 29-yr old amateur runner, although I walked on to a D1 swim program and loved my four years (UK). I was just curious as to what the college level runners were doing (in terms of 5k time, for instance) and your article answered all that and more. I really enjoyed reading your perspective, and I'm sure that you've really helped many a college-bound senior, whether they left you a nice comment or not! Thanks so much for your effort in this article.

  11. Great article. I would have found this article helpful as a high school junior looking at colleges. Having run DI and coached at different DIII and NAIA schools, I would say this is a pretty accurate description of the differences between them. The exception would be your description of the NAIA is a little off (you may want to edit that part.) I coached at an NAIA school last year, and unlike stated in the article, the NAIA is actually all four year schools - no two years. The best way to describe the NAIA is like a smaller DIII with scholarships. It it comprised mostly of smaller, private colleges, typically less selective ones academically, with many having a religious affiliation. The top NAIA athletes nationally are probably on par with the top DII athletes, but the bulk of the NAIA is comparable with DIII, except it's smaller, so it has less depth. These schools typically have a fair amount of scholarship money to give out between academics and athletics, so they can be an appealing option for student-athletes who were middle of the road both academically and athletically (a "conference level" athlete with 3.3 GPA and 24 ACT could possibly get half their tuition covered at some of these schools.) The way you described the NAIA in your article is probably a more accurate description of the NJCAA which hosts all 2 year schools, so basically all your community and JUCO colleges. (No community colleges or JUCOs in the NAIA that I am aware of.)

    I also have to agree with your point of contacting the coach. As a DIII college coach, I often get enough athletes interested in my school who contact me or who's names I'm given from admissions, that I rarely have time to reach out to random runners in the area who could be good fits if they don't contact me first. (It would be a good idea to do this, but realistically I don't usually have time to do so.) If you email me or fill out a questionnaire, I usually promptly respond with interest.


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