Running in college, part II: Making it through your freshman year

Last time, we talked about how to decide whether you should run competitively in college, and if so, where.  This post is about adjusting to the life of a collegiate distance runner, which can be quite a struggle at times.  Many freshmen right now are probably at home on break or just arriving back at college, still reflecting on their first collegiate season (for better or worse) and preparing to gear up for indoor track in the winter.  Many are probably disappointed that their first season didn't meet their high expectations.  Right off the bat, I'd like to share a piece of wisdom I wish I'd known before I left for college:
If you don't suffer a serious injury or get slower than you were as a senior in high school during your freshman year of college, you are ahead of probably half of your peers.

Many times, I've seen freshmen dejected after what they consider to be a lackluster season, but in the context of all the freshmen in, say, their conference, it was really quite good.  My own freshman year was much like this; perhaps my story will serve as a good introduction.  Many of the pitfalls that trap the "typical freshman" are obvious, but a few are more subtle.  I also had a few advantages given my running background in high school, and there are a few assorted traps that I managed to avoid, so afterwards, I'll deconstruct what I did right and what I did wrong and explain how that all applies to you, the newly-minted freshman runner.  

My story

I graduated high school a 4:28 miler and 9:45 two-miler.  I'd had to work pretty hard to get those marks—I didn't break five minutes in the mile until I was a junior, and I logged about 1300 miles over our 18-week break between the end of cross country in November and the beginning of track in March.  So going into the summer, I already had some experience with high mileage running.  My college coach didn't give me too much guidance as to how much he expected me to run, so I just built on what I'd done the previous winter: 8-10 miles each morning at an easy to moderate pace, supplemented by a 3-4mi easy jog in the evenings two to four times a week, and a long run every weekend.  My mileage bounced between 70 and 100 miles per week, but I probably averaged 85ish. This was one significant advantage I had coming into college: I was already running much more than many other freshmen.

I headed off to college on September 1st for our pre-season training camp.  I had beaten one of the better runners on the team at a 10k road race over the summer, so I was eager to run with the top guys and prove I belonged.  I already knew that the top seven athletes would get to run at the regional championship and, if we qualified, nationals.  I didn't know too much about how good our team would have to be to make it to nationals, but we had five seniors who were all very fit, so the general consensus was that we had a pretty good shot, and I wanted to be a part of it.  The workouts didn't seem too hard, either—though I was maintaining my mileage through the early season (instead of dropping down from my peak summer mileage like I was used to from high school), I could hammer with the top 5 in pretty much every workout.  Our two studs, Joe and Quentin, were not too far ahead of me either.

We did a lot of long repeats and tempo runs my first few weeks, and I was loving it.  I could keep up with all of the top guys in the workouts, and if I was having a good day, I could hammer the last few repeats or last few miles of the tempo run and beat them by a bit.  My debut race was pretty successful—though most of the team didn't race, I beat a runner who'd qualified for nationals a year ago, and ran pretty even splits.  My second race was less satisfying: at the Roy Griak Invitational, I went out at a good pace, but fell apart in the last mile and was passed by most of our varsity squad.  But I kept my head down, working hard in all of the workouts and doing my best to stay on top of school, sleep, and my new daily routine in college.  We flew to Oregon for another race, where I did well again, placing 6th on the team and recording a very fast time (on a slightly suspect course).  Next up was the conference meet, which would serve as a selection for who would make the regionals team.  Unlike high school, only seven runners can compete for each team at an NCAA regional meet, but everyone can run at the conference meet.  Up to five teams in each of the eight regions can qualify for nationals a week later.  We had a strong team, and our team victory in Oregon boded well for our chances to qualify.  Coming off my race there, I was confident I'd be able to run well at the conference meet.

Unfortunately, things did not go as well as I'd hoped.  I went out as I usually do, trying to hit even splits, but after about three miles, I ran out of gas.  I got passed, again, by most of our varsity squad, and finished 8th on the team (Andy, who was usually our #3 runner, got cramps and finished well behind me, so for all practical purposes I was really 9th on the team).  I was dejected, of course, and didn't really understand what had gone wrong, but I didn't have much time to figure it out.  Our JV end-of-the-year meet was the following week.  To add insult to (proverbial) injury, I came down with an infection that week, but soldiered through it.  The morning of my final race, I still had a fever.  As you might've guessed, the race did not go well.  Being sick, compounded by a first mile that was way too fast, led to an embarrassing and humbling finish, and my slowest time of the season.  Our varsity squad did qualify for nationals the following week, and I watched as a spectator as they competed at nationals. 

Spotting the ups

While this might sound like a sap-story, it took me a year or two to realize that my cross country season that year was very much above average amongst collegiate freshmen.  You might be surprised that, among the 39 people who finished ahead of me at our conference meet, only one was another freshman.  On the upside, I didn't get hurt, I didn't do worse than I did as a senior in high school, and I only got sick once.  This is a lot more than many freshman can say.  Additionally, I had two significant advantages that prepared me for the rigors of college running: I had a high-mileage background, and I came from a strong, well-structured high school program.

High mileage is virtually mandatory for college runners, but especially for men, who might race 8km seven or eight times during the fall.  Once in a while you'll hear about a stud runner who races extremely well on 40 or 50 miles a week, but most of the all-conference and all-American cross country runners that I know put in at least 80 miles a week.  Mileage has a cumulative effect, so much so that when a college senior races a freshman, the thousands of miles of running he has under his belt give him an almost insurmountable advantage.  Seven of the top ten runners at my conference meet that year were seniors.  Running high mileage in high school can mitigate this advantage somewhat, so high mileage runners tend to adjust better to college running than those who come from a low mileage background.  And even if you don't think of yourself as a "high mileage" runner, running 60 miles a week or more is nearly unavoidable for men; the "staple" workouts all add up to be 9 or 10 mile days! Even if you are just doing six or eight miles on your easy days, you'll easily end up at 60 miles in seven days.  This kind of consistent grind can take its toll on your body, even if you're experienced like I was—and especially if you are hammering the workouts.  This is something we'll come back to later.  But even with my high-mileage background, I wasn't experienced with running high mileage and doing hard workouts at the same time.

Secondly, I came from a very strong high school program.  Throughout college, I found that many runners who have fairly successful freshman years of college (i.e. avoid serious injury and retrograde performance) tend to come from high-caliber high school programs.  The interesting thing was that exactly what kind of training they did in high school was of secondary importance—the program structure they grew accustomed to and the work ethic that they developed while in high school were more significant.  Going through high school track and cross country in the suburbs of the Twin Cities, I was somewhat naive about the larger world of high school distance running.  Minnesota is blessed with many, many excellent coaches, who, though they may differ in their approach to training, all build very strong teams with good team dynamics and athletes with good work ethic, self-discipline, and sharp minds.  I thought that all programs were like this: that, when I got to college, everyone would have a warm-up routine for race day, would know not to eat big meals before workouts, would understand the importance of training during the summer, would understand how to take care of their body, and so on.  Unfortunately, this isn't always the case.  Runners who come from more loosely-led high school programs without a strong structure and team environment face some additional challenges in college, since they need to learn all of these lessons—how to warm up, how to get fit over the summer, how to take care of their body, the importance of a good work ethic—for themselves, all while adjusting to the demands of college life.

Spotting the downs

Despite these two advantages, I still made many of the classic college freshman mistakes.  I ran workouts too hard, I didn't take care of my body well enough, and on a fundamental level, I just didn't understand how to race 8km (though very few freshmen do!).  Additionally, I dodged a few bullets that lead to the demise of many other freshmen.  I'll highlight them below.

Working out too hard

Running workouts too hard is probably the most common freshman mistake.  Every new college runner is hot off of his or her senior year in high school, which was usually pretty successful.  Many athletes don't really develop until their junior or senior year, and by then, they are one of the top runners on their team.  Even though you are nominally aware that this will change going into college, there is still some subconscious element in your brain that makes you want to be that "top dog" out during the workouts and races.  In addition, most high school workouts are designed to be run as hard as possible.  A workout like 12x400m at mile pace or 5x1mi at 5k pace is extremely difficult, and demands an all-out knee-grabbing effort for the last few repeats.  Often most or all high school workouts follow this pattern: very intense, very difficult efforts to teach kids how to run hard.  I think these kinds of workouts are important, but once you've learned how to run hard, it can become a very dangerous ability, since you can will your body to come very close to its physical limits on a regular basis; this can be quite destructive over time, especially in a high-mileage environment.

High school training is all about learning how to run hard, but college training is all about learning how to run fast.  Many people go through four years of college without realizing this! Take, for example, two staple workouts: one from my high school days, and one from my college days.  They are both 5x1mi; the only difference being that the high school version was done at goal 5k pace with 1:1 recovery (so 5min recovery for a 5min mile/15:37 goal 5k), whereas the college version was done at "threshold" pace (circa 92% of current 5k pace) with only one minute of recovery.

The first workout, 5xmi at 5k pace with 1:1 recovery, is extremely difficult and requires an all-out effort to complete.  The second workout, however, when done properly (at 92% of current 5k pace) is not all out, and in fact is reasonably easy if you are used to the volume.  Of course, as a freshman with a very bad case of "top dawg syndrome," I was running my threshold mile repeats way too fast.  And this extended to all of my other workouts.  Hammering all of my workouts, plus running higher mileage for longer than I'd ever done in the past, led to me burning myself out by the end of the season.  A few years later, I compared my freshman year workout times to what I ran my sophomore year, when I was in much better shape (to jump ahead a bit, the summer before my sophomore year, I ran 100-120 miles a week and did tempo runs, progression runs, and long runs every week with a small group of friends, and of course my fitness improved drastically).  The results are amusing: even though I was running a minute or so faster in my races, the workout times were practically the same! My college program was very "bread-and-butter," so we often did the same workouts at the same time every year.  I've reproduced a comparison of those workout times below to illustrate (the workouts and race results are in chronological order):

Workout/Race Freshman year times Sophomore year times
Long tempo run 8.5mi at 5:45/mi 8.5mi at 6:00-5:45/mi (no overall time)
4x2000m at 8k pace 6:54, 6:45, 7:05, 7:14 (very hot out) 6:47, 6:37, 6:36, 6:31
Pre-regional race 27:04, 66th place (nice weather, flat course) 27:09, 18th place (very muddy!)
Long tempo run 7mi at 5:40/mi 8mi at 5:36/mi
4x2000m 6:45, 6:40, 6:37, 6:35 6:39, 6:36, 6:36, 6:30
5-6x1500m 5:05-4:52 4:57-4:51
Griak Invite 27:36, 77th 26:25, 21st
Long tempo run 8mi at 5:48/mi 8mi at 5:45/mi

I could go on, but you get the picture.  Later during sophomore year, I was running my long tempo runs closer to 5:30, but this was only after my best races.  Even my fastest time of the season, a 25:34 8th-place finish at Eau Claire, was preceded by a decidedly unimpressive 5x1500m session at about 4:55 (about 5:18 mile pace) with a minute recovery and the 5:45/mi tempo run above.  I could go on for pages about the intricacies of the differences in training, but the important point was that, as a freshman, I was running my workouts too hard.  And I do mean hard, not just fast.  Running workouts too fast isn't a good idea either, but it's worse to run them too hard.  After my disappointing race at Griak my freshman year, I was talking to my coach, Dave.  "Well we thought that 5:25 at the mile would be a good pace, and that's what I ran, so I don't know what happened," I said.  "Yes, you ran about the pace, but you didn't run the right effort," Dave responded.  It took me a good nine months to understand what he was trying to say—that there is a difference between the pace you run and the effort at which you are running.  And that it's possible to run the same pace at a variety of different efforts! As a freshman, my effort level in my workouts was way too hard.  I was pretending to be a 26:00 runner when I was really a 27:00 runner, and of course that led to me running slower than 27:00 when it really counted.  I'm not alone in this position: Weldon Johnson, co-founder of the famous website, wrote a great article in 2006 called "why I sucked in college."  Indeed, being what we called a "Tuesday All-American" or "workout hero" is the downfall of many talented runners.  Don't make that mistake!

One thing that certainly played a role in my misadventures as a freshman was "benign neglect" from the older guys on the team.  Since our chances were looking good to go to nationals, and I was playing the part of the "spoiler" who could swipe a spot from one of the seniors, the upperclassmen were content to allow me to burn myself out without intervening.  For the upperclassmen reading this (and for the freshmen who will be upperclassmen in a few years), don't become complacent about this sort of thing.  Watch out for your freshmen, as it does nobody any good when someone on your team gets hurt or burns out.  On the flip side, nobody likes getting barked at by a senior when they push the pace.  Rather, a gentle reminder to stay in control during workouts is a better idea.  Often, the freshmen who do the best are the ones who have upperclassmen training partners that they can run with in workouts and races who show them the ropes and rein them in when they push too hard too often.
Taking care of your body

I was also less than stellar at taking care of myself when I got sick.  While I did usually get enough sleep and didn't party on the weekends—the two biggest ways in which college runners don't take care of their bodies—I didn't rest up when I was sick.  As I described above, I came down with an infection right after the conference meet, but still worked out with it (which of course made it worse), and then raced while sick.  Not only that, but I raced aggressively.  It shouldn't shock you that I could barely make it to dinner after cooling down, and I was confined to my bed and the bathroom for the next few days.  Had I taken a few days off right when I got sick, I would've recovered much quicker, and probably would have ran better too.  Many other freshmen self-destruct in more spectacular ways, like trying to "run through" an injury, drinking way too much on the weekends (or weekdays), or running off 3-4 hours of sleep per night.  These sorts of lifestyles just aren't sustainable, and inevitably lead to sickness, injury, and burnout.  I had one teammate (albeit not a freshman) who slept so little that his body's immune system shut down, causing him to come down with chicken pox again!

 The biggest cause of getting sick in college is probably too little sleep, but to some extent, illness is unavoidable your freshman year.  People bring all the germs from their home state or country to college, so you're being exposed to all sorts of new pathogens your body has never fought off before.  All you can really do is take care of yourself to limit the number of times you fall ill, and rest up when you do eventually get sick.

To give myself (and all college freshmen) a break, it is very difficult to quickly adjust to college life.  Learning to balance school, athletics, sleep, and a social life (an old saying says that you can only choose three of those four...) is tough, since everything is new.  You are living in a new city, you have new classes and more homework, you are meeting new friends, you are running with a new team that has a different training philosophy, and you have a new coach.  Scrambling to get 8 or 9 hours of sleep is tough, especially in a dorm setting, where it seems like there's always something fun going on at 1 or 2am.  Some college students revel in sleeping very little or drinking very heavily, but it's a heck of a lot easier when you aren't an athlete!

And that's the crux of many of the struggles of the college freshman runner: thinking he or she can get away with the things a "regular" student gets away with: partying hard, sleeping very little, poor eating habits, and extreme procrastination.  The demands of college athletics just don't make much room for those things, and it takes many freshmen a while to figure that out.  Restraint is one of the best virtues for promising young runners—having the discipline to know when you need to stay in, get homework done, and get to bed instead of heading out with your friends.  This is one of the biggest reasons competitive runners like to live together.  That way, they aren't the only one going to bed at 11pm on a Friday night or heading to the library right after dinner.  I'm sure I'll get comments about this, saying "So-and-So was a great runner, and s/he drank 5 beers a day!" or "So-and-So was an All-American and never got more than 5 hours of sleep in a night!" While I don't doubt these stories, one thing I can say for sure is that nobody ever became a better runner by sleeping 5 hours a night or drinking 5 beers a day.  And these stories are the exception, not the rule.  Just like I wouldn't advise everyone to run 180 miles a week just because it worked for a few very good runners, I wouldn't advise anyone else to drink heavily or sleep very little because a few good runners got away with it.

Understanding the 6k and 8k/10k

Everyone runs further in college.  Most men's cross country races are 8km (5mi), and regional and national races at the DII and DI levels are 10km long.  Women at all levels run 6km (3.5mi).  College cross country is significantly more challenging because of this change, since freshmen have no experience with the longer race distances.  Longer races are more punishing for foolish tactics like surges or fast early starts, and they are more rewarding to runners with a lot of mileage under their belts.  Freshman tend to be at a disadvantage in both of these categories.  Additionally, a 6k or 8k race takes longer to recover from than a 5k.  Most high schools race at least once a week, but most college programs only compete half as often.  While this is good for long term development, and teams who do race a 6k or 8k every week tend to get burned out by the end of the season, freshmen don't get too many chances to learn the ropes.  My freshman year, I only raced three times before our conference meet.  It takes several races to learn how the 8k is supposed to feel at certain points.  When should it start to get uncomfortable? When can you really start hammering? What should you feel like after one mile of running? These are all things you need time to figure out.  Most college runners don't really get a hold on the 8k until they are sophomores or juniors. 

The good news

There is a bright side to all of this, though.  First, even if you are among the freshmen who got injured pretty bad or regressed in fitness during cross country, you will likely get back on your feet during the track season.  Indoor and outdoor track offer a return to familiar territory, and events like the 3000m and 1500m, while having their own idiosyncrasies, are pretty close to the 1600m and 3200m in high school.  Additionally, indoors offers you an opportunity to "start fresh"—none of your old PRs from outdoor track are relevant.  It's silly to compare an indoor mile contested on a 200m track in January to an outdoor 1600 contested on a full-sized track in June.  So don't bother! There are also completely new events like the 600m/yd and the 1000m to try out if you are a middle distance runner.

Speaking of middle distance, one thing I should point out is that  800m runners often have an especially difficult time adjusting to college running.  Because the 800m is an event that depends heavily upon speed and "speed endurance" (the ability to run very fast for a moderately long time), a whole lot of attention is devoted to developing these qualities in high school 800m runners, sometimes at the expense of aerobic development.  While this kind of work is absolutely necessary to move a 2:01 high school sophomore to 1:56 as a senior, when that 1:56 runner gets to college, he'll find the doesn't have the aerobic capacity to support the speed and speed endurance required to run, say, 1:54 or 1:53.  So he must start all over, building back from the ground up.  This means neglecting speed and speed-endurance for aerobic strength and aerobic power.  He may even get slower as a result, which can be especially discouraging.  Additionally, some high school 800m runners may find that they simply don't have the raw footspeed to continue to run the 800m competitively in college, necessitating a move to the mile and the 1500m.  If our 1:56 high school 800m runner can only manage a 53-second 400, he might need to move up in distance—most good college half-miler runners can a 400 in 51 or 50 seconds (and often faster).  A move up in distance necessitates even more aerobic training, plus the added difficulties of learning a new race distance.  Combine all this with the fact that the standard distance for cross country races in college is ten times further (for men) than a half-miler's main event and it's easy to see why middle distance runners have it especially hard.  So for all you milers and half-milers out there, despair not!

Even if you've endured a truly atrocious season, hobbled by injuries, illnesses, and other setbacks, know that, at the very least, there are lessons you can take away from it.  I can honestly say that I gained something from every setback I had in college—whether that was a better idea of what I can handle with respect to training, the importance of taking care of myself, or simply a better appreciation of running and competing when I am healthy.  If you are continuing to struggle, don't try to endure it on your own.  Reach out to your coach and to the older runners on your team, since they've all been there before at some point or another and can help you out.  Eventually, you will figure things out! 


To sum things up, allow me to consider what would I do differently.  I wouldn't change much about my summer training and my high school preparation, as both of those gave me a leg up.  But I would have been more controlled during my workouts and restrained my urge to prove I "belonged" in the top seven on our team.  I would've used workouts to prepare for races, instead of as an opportunity to hammer as hard as I could.  One huge difference between my race pace workouts my first two years  in college was that, as a sophomore, I was actually running race pace, instead of what I wanted race pace to be.  I also would've been better about getting sleep during the season, and I would have been a lot smarter about taking care of myself when I got sick.  Fortunately, even though I was somewhat disappointed with the way my freshman year ended up, that didn't tarnish my memories of the season as a whole.  College, and especially college running, was still a lot of fun, and I hope it's that way for you too.

How did your freshman year in college go? Do you have any tips for incoming freshmen, or those who are struggling now with injuries and other setbacks? Leave a comment below!

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.

1 thought on “Running in college, part II: Making it through your freshman year”

  1. Good advice for incoming freshmen, a lot of it I learned in my time at Carleton. Heh, you should have heard the seniors talk about you and your workouts when you were a freshmen. That's a difficult subject to broach to someone from a teammates perspective though, which is probably why you didn't hear it.
    I was definitely lucky to remain pretty much injury free throughout my college career, but I belong to a camp of runners whose high school programs were much less advanced than their college ones. I was trained from a distance standpoint in high school and came from the culture of running workouts hard. Once I started with Dave in more speed-based 800 workouts I immediately responded freshman year and started running faster than the 2:00 I ran in high school. I was training under Dave and Bill and with all older guys, so it was easy for me to change my focus to running fast. I definitely came in from the perspective of not expecting too much, which was a good message of your post. That was the probably the biggest factor in my improvement. I was skeptical at first at how laid-back the workouts seemed, but then I started running fast.
    I guess the biggest thing I took away besides staying patient with expectations would be to:
    NEVER RUN WORKOUTS AT RACE EFFORT. That's what one race a week max is for. If you're struggling to complete a workout or rep, just stay relaxed and keep the effort constant instead of pushing it. Not only will that not really help, but hammering that hard more than one day a week at absolute max (and somewhat less frequent, the longer the distance) could actually be detrimental.


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