Five steps to long-term success in high school boys' distance running

A lot of people like to overcomplicate training.  Advanced workouts, intricate training schedules, and complex strength circuits all have their place in pushing the limits of talent and race preparation, but when it comes to the real legwork of training—getting a young, talented runner into great shape, or getting big improvements out of a less talented runner—the road to success is really pretty simple. 
The following steps, in order, are the path that I believe male high school distance runners should take if they want to improve long-term.  The training progression laid out below may not be ideal for running your fastest right now, but that's not the intent—the intent is to improve long-term. 
The specifics of a training program are highly variable and depend on a lot of factors.  That's why I'm not a huge fan of pre-packaged training plans.  But despite that, there are principles that apply to nearly everyone.  There will always be exceptions: if you're very talented but highly injury-prone, for example, you'd want to adopt a substantially different plan, as consistency and health is more important than peak volume.  Runners with substantial speed (under 56 in the 400m for boys without very much training) would also likely adopt a schedule with more focus on developing speed.  But if you're a relatively durable but average, unathletic, skinny guy, this is the roadmap you want to follow during your "off season" training—i.e. the summer and the winter. 
Your off-season training is usually the part about your running where you have the most control, and it's where you'll likely make the most improvements.  Another perk is that you are pretty much guaranteed some good races if your off-season training is good.  While training and workouts during the racing season are obviously important, it's very hard for anything but a totally incompetent coach to screw you up too badly if you're already an aerobic monster. 
Many of the same principles apply to girls, but I'm not comfortable putting down concrete paces or run distances because I just haven't coached very many of them.
The below steps should be done in order, and you should not move ahead to the next step until you're able to do the previous one.  For example, if you can't run six days per week without getting injured, figure out WHY and fix it before you try to do all of your runs faster.  Avoiding injury is a big subject, one which deserves its own "roadmap to success," which I'll write up some other time. 
A few of these steps can be adopted simultaneously or in any order, and are noted below.  Do note that it will take a long time to progress through this plan.  Not "long" as in months; "long" as in years.  In most cases, the year you start running six days a week will not (or should not) be the one where you start doubling four days a week and doing fifteen mile long runs.  Running is for the patient—marshal your ambition!

1.  Run six days per week at an easy to moderate pace
To become a better runner, you need to go running.  Sounds simple, but you'd be surprised how many people think they can improve mainly by lifting weights, doing stairs, throwing around a Frisbee, doing sprint drills, or pretty much anything but running.  Early in your running career, consistency is way more important than volume.  It's better to run three miles per day six days per week than to run six or eight miles at a time, but only a few days per week.  I do not know if this is better in terms of performance NOW, but it is definitely better long-term, as it lays the foundation for the kind of training you will need to do later to become a great runner. 
Until you've gotten into the habit of running six days per week at an easy to moderate effort, there's no need to worry about the pace or to bother incorporating any real workouts.  Taking one day off per week is fine, and is probably beneficial when you're young.
2.  Do (almost) all of your runs at 8:00/mi or faster
When I advise most high school and college runners on the pace of their easy days, I'm usually telling them to slow down so they're not cooked for their workouts and races.  But there is a point where going too slow is detrimental to becoming a good runner, for three reasons.  First, the aerobic stimulus becomes pretty much nonexistent if you're slogging along at nine or ten-minute mile pace. 
Second, the running mechanics of running at very slow paces are so disconnected with the mechanics of running fast (4:30-6 min per mile) that your easy runs will only reinforce poor running form habits if you do them too slow.  A good corollary to this step is to try to move your stride frequency to 168-180 steps per minute.  Too much lower than 168 steps per minute is not likely to be an efficient way to run when it comes to stress on your body, and for distance runners doing 6:00-8:00 pace, I really prefer to see them hitting 172-180 steps per minute. 
Third, for whatever reason it seems that most good runners settle on between six and eight minutes per mile as their "easy/moderate" pace, regardless of their fitness level.  Even elite Kenyan runners go about 6:00-6:20 pace most of the time when they're just going for a run.  And there are plenty of great runners who run well into the 7:30 range on easy days.  But you're not likely to find any fast runners who run slower than eight minutes per mile with regularity.  So when in doubt, do what elites do.
3.  Run year-round
Yes, I know it gets cold in the winter and hot in the summer.  But to progress in your running, you must run.  Get up early or wait until nightfall to beat the heat, hit the treadmill when it gets too cold, or bundle up in winter gear.  If you train all summer, race cross country in the fall, and then do nothing the entire winter, you shouldn't be surprised to find yourself falling behind slower runners who actually trained come springtime.  Here in Minnesota, winter is an even better time than the summer to get in quality training because it's so long.  There's only 10 weeks or so between the end of track and the beginning of cross country, but there are 17 weeks between cross country and track.  Winter's the perfect time to push up your mileage.
These next three steps can be adopted in any order, though it is best to incorporate one at a time, not all at once. These steps—especially 4 (b)—will take you several months or years to work your way up to.  That's okay.
4 (a) Run every day
Committing to run every day and committing to run year-round are the two "major steps" towards becoming a serious runner.  At this point, you've taken one; now it's time to take the other.  You don't have to go very far on your former "off day"—just an easy three miles is fine. 
4 (b) Work up to 60min at an easy to moderate pace on a regular basis and 90min at an easy pace once every two weeks
For high school distance runners whose goal is to run well at 5k XC and 3200m on the track, I believe that this is the minimum volume of easy and moderate running that is necessary to succeed.  As the distance of a race increases, the minimum volume of training required to support great performances increases as well.  This is not to say it is impossible to run a good two-mile off 30 miles per week.  As mentioned in the introduction, a very talented runner or a "special case" could certainly do so. 
But don't forget about the point I made in step number one: to become a better runner, you must run.  This volume will end up being 52-60 miles per week if you've followed step two.  Once you've stepped into the broader world of training, you'll discover this isn't all that much running.  To run a really great 5k, you're probably looking at more like 80-90 miles per week (at least), but that can come when you're older and more experienced—you hopefully aren't going to set your lifetime PR when you're 16 years old.
When increasing your mileage, try not to increase your weekly mileage by more than 5mi or 10% per week, whichever is greater.  Your peak mileage per training cycle (a.k.a. six-month "season" of running) also ideally should not increase by more than 10-15 miles per week.  Sometimes it's necessary to break this rule.  If you're a junior in high school and you're still only doing 25 miles a week, it might be worth it to take a risk and move up to 50 or 60—gradually, of course!
4 (c) Do one "high end aerobic" workout per week
A high-end aerobic workout means some type of interval workout or continuous run that hits on the paces near the top of your "aerobic range"—the fastest paces you can maintain comfortably for reasonably long periods of time.  Putting in mileage at an easy to moderate effort most days is fine, and you'll probably end up doing some of your runs fast if you feel good, but I've come to believe that the most productive type of running you can do in terms of improving aerobic fitness is a high-end aerobic workout.
Let me be clear: The number one determinant of your long-term success at distance running is your ability to run long distances at great speeds without becoming fatigued.  This is what I call "aerobic strength."  A runner with good aerobic strength has the advantage in every situation—training, racing, recovery, and improvement long-term.
High mileage, even without any workouts, will develop aerobic strength, but the most effective way to improve your aerobic strength is to supplement high volume training with high-end aerobic workouts.
There are four types of high-end aerobic workouts that I like for improving aerobic strength.  The descriptions of each are accompanied by an example workout for a theoretical high school junior who is currently in 17:00 road 5k shape (note: current fitness is often quite different than your PR) and is running around 55 miles per week.  These four workouts are:

  • Cruise Intervals: repeats lasting 3-6 minutes (or longer for very experienced runners) at the anaerobic threshold (~92% of current 5k pace) with short recovery (~60 seconds).  The volume of fast running can be 3-5 miles for most runners.  Example: 8x3min at 5:54 mile pace with 1min jogging recovery
  • Anaerobic Threshold Runs: Done at the same pace as cruise intervals (~92% of current 5k pace) but as a continuous run lasting 15-25 minutes.  Example: 3.5 miles at 5:54 mile pace
  • Aerobic Threshold Runs: A longer continuous run at the aerobic threshold, which is about 85% of your current 5k pace.  These can last from 30-45 minutes.  Example: 5 miles at 6:17 mile pace
  • Progression Runs: A run which starts at a very easy pace and gradually accelerates to the aerobic threshold, then down to the anaerobic threshold or perhaps a bit faster over the last few miles.  These can be as far as a typical run.  Example: 7mi run starting at 8:00 pace, descending to 6:20 pace at 3.5 miles, descending to 5:54 pace by 6 miles, and down to 5:50 or 5:45 pace if you feel especially good, otherwise maintain 5:54 pace.
The intent of all of these workouts is to learn to run fast without running hard.  They are not supposed to be hard workouts—if you're grabbing your knees and feeling like you want to puke afterward, you did them wrong! The paces are only guidelines; the intent is to run by feel.  If you had to pick only one of these workouts to do, make it progression runs.  They let you work through a wide range of paces and are fairly idiot-proof.
As with step 4, these three steps can be adopted in any order, though it is best to incorporate one at a time, not all at once!
5.  (a) Do two "high end aerobic" workouts per week
After you've had a summer or winter of doing one high end aerobic workout per week, you can step up to two per week the next time around.  It's nice to mix and match, so shuffle around which ones you do to get a better training stimulus. 
5.  (b) Run 20-30min easy in the mornings 2-4 days per week, as allowed by your schedule
"Doubling," or running twice per day, is another rung higher on the ladder of seriousness about training.  It allows you to push up your mileage without having to go ridiculously far on your main run of the day.  If I were to write a training schedule for a high schooler doing 80 miles a week (which is on the high end of normal for a senior, but not outrageously so), it would have a lot of 60min / 30min days.  However, if you don't get a lot of sleep in the first place, doubling is going to do more harm than good.  Doing two to four doubles per week pretty much necessitates nine hours of sleep per night.
5.  (c) Run 14-15 miles / 1hr 45min at an easy to moderate effort every two weeks
Once you are comfortable going 90 minutes once every two weeks, you can push up your long run to as much as fifteen miles or 1hr 45min, whichever comes first.  I think it's better to only go this far once every two weeks, as it's a substantial stress on your body.  Only run a few miles the following day so you recover.  If you master the fifteen mile run, there is no reason to push up any further in distance or duration.  In my opinion, fifteen miles is a sufficient long run for racing the 5k, even at a fairly high level.  Instead, do the last few miles of your long run fast, or run it through hills.  Currently, I don't think there's any place for a two-hour long run in the training of a high school runner. 
There's a lot more to becoming a great distance runner, but the above steps sketch out a rough roadmap to success.  This will not be easy, and you will not work your way through these steps in a few weeks or even a few months.  You will likely encounter setbacks and disappointments.  Persevere.  Feel free to improvise, adapt, and break the rules as you see fit.  

Here's a handy pictorial illustration of the process: 

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.

2 thoughts on “Five steps to long-term success in high school boys' distance running”

  1. These kind of posts make your blog extraordinary interesting!
    One of the problems with the internet today is that people learn way to early in their running career
    about 2h long runs, hard track workouts etc. Your five steps should be common knowledge 🙂
    I always wondered if people starting at age (for example) 22 or 34 should approach things differently.
    They aren't masters yet, should they implement this five step progression in the same way?


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