Brief Thoughts: The rise, fall, and resurgence of high school distance running

 One of my favorite historical trends that I’ve used to illustrate the importance of high mileage and high quality aerobic work is the yearly count of elite high school boys performances at one and two miles, as measured by the number of miles under 4:10 and two-miles under 9:00.  The graph below, which is based on data put together by (if I recall correctly) former steeplechase American record holder George “Malmo” Malley, illustrates plainly what many coaches and longtime followers of the sport already know: high school running was at a very high level during the 1970s, but plummeted throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, eventually beginning to recover around the year 2000.  I'd love to look at similar data for girls, but due to the unfortunate history of sexism in sport, high school girls didn't even run the two-mile until relatively recently.

Note that the moving average trendline lags by a few years in the 2000s due to lack of recent data

The explanation for the rise, fall, and resurgence of top performances has usually been ascribed to the training methods popular during the various decades.  Arthur Lydiard’s Run to the Top was published in 1962, and Frank Shorter’s Olympic Marathon victory came ten years later in 1972.  These two events are generally credited with popularizing not only the sport, but what can be crudely called the “high mileage approach”—a training philosophy centered on building aerobic fitness with high mileage and high-end aerobic work.  Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, Lasse Viren, and virtually all of the top-flight runners "back in the day" were logging 15-20 miles a day and weren’t afraid to say it.  High school times rose to new heights, with over ten sub-9 two-mile times per year throughout the ‘70s.  But by the end of the decade, the top-flight performances had started to wane. 
Some believe that the injuries sustained by many high-mileage runners discouraged coaches and athletes from training at large volumes, but the rise in popularity of low-mileage, high-intensity anaerobic training, as popularized by Frank Horwill’s “5-pace system” and used by Sebastian Coe to great effect most certainly played a role.  Horwill’s system emphasizes quality over quantity.  Sebastian Coe’s famous quip that long, slow distance makes long slow runners held fast as truth for a long time.  Horwill and Coe-style training focuses on fast paces and hard workouts as the bread and butter of training.  Two, three, or even four hard days in a row is not out of the norm, and all “mileage” is done at a fast pace.  While it’s hard for me to withhold my bias here, I ought to point out that some athletes were very successful with this high-intensity low-mileage approach, most notably Sebastian Coe himself.  And, anecdotally, many coaches and athletes report that they see a rapid surge in performance after a few months of Horwill/Coe style training. 
But the numbers don’t back up the promise of the system.  The decline of American distance running in the ‘80s and ‘90s is evident both on the elite level and among top high school times.  American high school running was in the doldrums for several years; on multiple occasions, not a single high school boy broke nine minutes for two miles in the entire country.  By 1999, high school running had begun to claw its way back, and by 2004, top performances had returned to the level they were at in the ‘70s.  Several coaches and fans of the sport (including myself) believe that this is because of a return to higher mileage and aerobic development. 
Advocates of aerobic development and high(er) mileage training often have some choice words for the Horwill/Coe approach.  Take this quote from modern-day Lydiard acolyte John Kellogg:
People like Horwill and Coe set back Western running 20 years. It took the advent of internet message boards and mailing lists to bring the truth about training straight from the runners of the 1970s to the aspiring runners of the present day. That has undone much of what was destroyed by low- to moderate-mileage "running" in those bleak years.
The advent of the internet allowed coaches and athletes to draw from a much larger pool of knowledge about training.  The huge success of top athletes in the ‘70s, backed by their higher mileage and focus on aerobic, not anaerobic, development, was a powerful testament to what constitutes “proper” training.
At least, that’s the traditional narrative amongst runners who believe in the high mileage approach.  I have encountered alternative explanations over the years, none of which are satisfactory.  During the ‘90s, some people proposed that kids were living increasingly sedentary lifestyles, which prevented them from reaching their athletic potential.  But in the 2000s, childhood obesity and inactivity are as bad as ever, yet elite times have recovered.  Another explanation is that kids during the ‘80s and ‘90s couldn’t compare their times with those from around the country, though this doesn’t explain why high school running was so great in the 
But yesterday I encountered a new explanation put forth by Greg Hitchcock at, a triathlon website.  Hitchcock argues that population demographics explain all of the variance in top high school times.   He points to trends in birth rates as evidence for this.  When I looked into this, I was worried, because birth rates do indeed seem to track about 18 years (the age of a high school senior) behind the trend of running performances.  Could this spell the end of the road for the high-mileage/high-end aerobic camp? I did some digging and decided to match the number of elite mile and two-mile performances per year with the birth rate 18 years prior—essentially, calculating the rate of elite high school performances among high school boys.  To make things easier, I translated the ratios into elite performances per million 18-year-old boys.  If Hitchcock is right, then the line should be more or less flat.  This would mean that training differences were not so important, and some fraction of every million kids is destined to become an elite high school runner. 
Population demographics do not account for the trend in elite times.  Note that some years are missing.
However, as illustrated in the graph above, the trend still holds true after controlling for population demographics.  High school running is still in the doldrums for much of the ‘80s, and still doesn’t recover until about 2000.  Now, my methods are a bit crude: the number of births 18 years prior is not a phenomenal measurement of the number of 15-18 year olds in the United States, because of immigration, emigration, and a few other factors.  But I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that even after controlling for these relatively small factors, the trend would remain. 
Indeed, there are a few subtleties that bolster the different-training explanation for the rise, fall, and resurgence of high school running.  As lower mileage and hard anaerobic training become more popular, the rate of top two-mile times falls more sharply than the rate of top mile times.  This makes sense, as lower mileage programs often find success with shorter events.  The two-mile relies more heavily on aerobic fitness than the mile does, so it is logical that two-mile performances would be inferior to mile performances if the average high schooler was neglecting his aerobic fitness with low-mileage training.  Similarly, two-mile performances drop earlier and recover later than mile performances.  Given that building aerobic fitness is a long-term undertaking, this trend makes sense too.  By extension, you could even argue that the upswing in American distance running at the international level in the late 2000s through today is a direct result of better high school training during the early and mid-2000s.  
So, after a bit of statistical number-crunching, the trend holds up.  Higher mileage and a focus on aerobic development set you up for success in your later years.  And increased competition has a self-perpetuating effect too.  In my own state of Minnesota, the top high school runners were cranking out unreal performances in the mid- and late 2000s.  Now, four or five years later, many of those runners are now at the top of the sport.  Off the top of my head, I can think of four or five sub-4 milers, several NCAA DI All-Americans, and multiple Olympic Trials and US Championships qualifiers.  No doubt all of this was enabled by high school training that was designed with their long-term success in mind, not just short-term results. 

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.

3 thoughts on “Brief Thoughts: The rise, fall, and resurgence of high school distance running”

  1. Are there any records showing distance-related injuries of the elite runners during the same period, and was there a correlation? It would bolster your position if you observed significantly fewer injuries during the episodes of highest performance, eg 1976 and 2005.

  2. John,

    Some excellent research & good analysis.

    Here in the UK the lessons have by and large yet to be learned. Part of the reason is that talented youngsters tend to join "track clubs" rather than the old style "harrier clubs" that we used to have. As a result the coaching tends to be skewed in the direction of anaerobic type interval style running rather than building an aerobic foundation.

    One caveat that I would throw in .... from a personal perspective as a runner of limited talent who recorded lifetime bests of: 5K 14-30; 10K: 30 minutes; & HM: 66 minutes on an average of 60 miles per week of predominantly aerobic running ... it may not be the overall mileage (volume) that's critical but the BALANCE between aerobic & anaerobic training .... Bernard Lagat is not big mileage but his coach has him training the right balance of aerobic v anaerobic type training.

  3. I think the Horwill/Coe approach, while part of the problem, is just a part of a larger equation. I think Runner's World shares a large part of the blame. The magazine dumbed down the training and way too many high school coaches picked up Runner's World to glean their workouts rather than seek out Lydiard's book. Just my opinion, but you're right, the Internet and more specifically Dyestat reshaped the approach to high school training. Mileage was something no longer to be feared.


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