Tuesday 24 November 2009

Preparing Young Athletes for the Long Run

On no other topic are my coachly musings as likely to provoke reaction as on that of kid's running and youth development in general. While my ideas do sometimes provoke arguments on other subjects, in most instances people are ultimately willing to defer to the accumulated knowledge and experience of my 30-plus years of intense involvement in the sport (they shouldn't always, but they often do).On the subject of kids' running, and long term athlete development, on the other hand, many more people tend to have their own sometimes strong views, and they tend to hold them regardless of how little knowledge and experience they might have-- and especially if they have a personal stake in the argument, as the parents and/or coaches of young runners do. In this week's installment, I offer some explanation for why this might be so, along with a quick summary of my views on the topic.

In the years since I started running, the sport has grown from a fringe activity pursued by mainly by students (older ones-- high school and university),"health nuts", and other (mainly male) "oddballs", to a mass-based, multi-billion dollar health and leisure phenomenon. The simultaneous mass growth of the sport among mainstream adults, male and female, and younger school children has meant that running has become an increasingly family-oriented activity. Kids frequently now grow up accompanying their parents to road races (and sometimes even X-C and track meets), and parents now flock to watch their children compete in school races. Signs of this transformation are everywhere. The finish areas of large road races are now frequently full of children waiting to greet exhausted mothers or fathers, and the parking lots of school races now over-flow with parents taking time from their work days to watch children as young as 6 compete in school X-C and track events. This is in stark contrast to only 20 years ago, when fewer adults with small children ran, and perhaps even fewer took time off work to watch their kids compete. (In fact, when I chat with veteran runners as young as their mid-30s, we frequently remark on how few times our parents had ever watched us compete when we were younger. And I don't think I knew anyone whose parents themselves ran competitively. My own father watched me race perhaps twice in my life, and my mother, who actually became a runner herself in middle age, perhaps five times, even though I was considered a "star" performer from about the age of 15. They were supportive, of course; but they just didn't think this entailed attending all of my races.)

The advent of running as a "family" pursuit, while generally to be welcomed, has had a few important implications where kid's running and long term athlete development are concerned. Increased parental participation in running has tended to mean that kids are now becoming involved in more serious competition and training at younger ages, with their parents often acting training partners and coaches (or, at the very least, as keenly interested bystanders). When combined with an explosion of on-line, magazine, and book-based information on all aspects of running, the result has been a vast multiplication of people with both an emotional stake in the sport via their children's involvement, and a certain amount of casual expertise. (When looking for some sports-based precedent for this phenomenon, we might consider hockey in Canada or baseball, football and basketball in the U.S., in which the figure of semi-expert "parent-coach" or "sports parent" is now a stock-- and somewhat humourously stereotypical-- one.) And, just as in other sports where the parent-coach/aficionado has become a central figure, the parents of successful age class runners in particular are often the most heavily involved, sometimes claiming an expertise and authority disproportionate to their actual level of knowledge or experience-- such as an American runner-dad who launched a website to promote his home-grown coaching theories, using his precocious daughter as the basis of his authority!

When I encounter resistance to my ideas about kids running, it is most often from the parents and/or coaches of younger and more successful kids-- those who tend to be intensely involved in the sport outside of a school program. I regularly receive inquiries about coaching from the parents of children under 13(I restrict participation in my club group to kids 13 and over), and most understand, or at least offer no resistance, when I explain to them the basis of my views on kids and running. I have, however, had some pointed disagreements on this subject, and I know that my views are not always shared by other youth coaches and parents in the sport. In my experience, the parents and coaches of heavily involved young runners almost always mean well, and believe they are acting in their young athlete's best interest. They tend to believe that, if they are only facilitating and not compelling their child or athlete's involvement, they are doing no harm as far as his or her long term development and relationship with the sport are concerned. What they often unaware of-- and sometimes willfully, because of the deep pride and sheer enjoyment they experience in watching their young charges succeed-- is that intense early involvement in the sport, and the competitive success that tends to go with it, very often leads to early difficulties and premature abandonment of the sport. And, while its it true that not all young athletes take up the sport with view to reaching its highest competitive levels, and that a few do indeed manage to reach these levels following a childhood of intense early involvement, it is, or should be, the responsibility of adults to give young athletes the best chance of reaching their full potential in the sport, just as they would in any other life-endeavour, whether athletic, academic, or cultural.

Giving young runners the best chance of reaching their full potential involves, first, understanding the specificities of the sport itself, and being open to learning as much about its science and lore as possible. I have arrived at my own views about kid's running, and long term athlete development in general, through my own experience, of course, but also through familiarizing myself with whatever formal research exists on the subject (of which there is, unfortunately, not nearly enough). For what they're worth, I would summarize the results of my observations and analysis as follow:

1. Young running prodigies, defined as kids who run far ahead of the next best in their age cohort, very rarely convert their age-group success into adult, or even senior high school, success. A casual perusal of the early age-class results for North American over a 20 or 30 year period record is sufficient to bear this out. And, in fact, former prodigies seem to drop out of the sport at about the same rate and at the same ages as non-prodigies-- which is somewhat surprising, given the apparently much greater incentive for early age group stars and record holders to continue in the sport. The precise reasons for this are subject to debate, but I suspect a number of factors are at play. My own view is that the almost inevitable evaporation of prodigies' early advantage over their peers, which may have been in the first place the result of natural physical precociousness or, more often, the early introduction of systematic training, and the age at which that loss of advantage occurs, combine to create pressures on young athletes to which quitting the sport may seem, at the time, like a reasonable response. Prodigies who are no longer winning races easily, and who have often been training hard for years (either in running or in some other aerobic sport, such as swimming), must often feel as though they are falling behind when their peers begin to match them, even while they remain among the very best in their cohort. Breaking records and winning races, often against much older competitors, must, after all, be a tough act to follow in a young life, and being reduced to simply one of the best can probably seem like failure.

2. The vast majority of today's top runners, while often very good as young runners, were not what anyone would call prodigies, and quite a few were far from it. When I began thinking systematically about this problem years ago, I made a habit of collecting stories of athletes who were very ordinary age class performers, or very late-starters in the sport, yet who managed to reach its highest levels as adults. In this file can be found everything from world record holders and Olympic champions (such as Sebastian Coe, John Walker, and Robert Cheruiyot) to some of Canada's current top athletes (such as Reid Coolsaet, who has now won more National Senior Championships than he ever won age-class medals!). This pattern, perhaps more than anything else, marks distance running off as different from most other sports, and certainly from those other sports with which most North American parents would be familiar-- e.g. hockey, gymnastics, and swimming--, where intense early involvement and age group success would seem to be a stronger predictor of long term success.

3. Complete maximization of personal potential in running takes a very long time, and those who lose their enthusiasm for the training process at an early age never become as good as they might have. It is not unusual for runners to perform lifetime bests and win Olympic and World Championships medals at ages 32-plus. The oldest Olympic champions in the marathon, for instance, were 37 for men and 38 for women, and the current men's world record holder set the mark at the age of 35. This late maturation is possible because success in the sport is a function of some very basic physiological adaptations-- adaptations that can proceed for decades with the right program, and under the right circumstances. Being a very good runner also requires a certain amount of wisdom, patience, and emotional resilience-- characteristics that are developed through life experience, and are therefore found more often in adults than in children or adolescents. Very few people who have not experienced the process, or witnessed it up close, can fully understand the extent of the difficulty of progressing from a very good age class runner to a national or world class athlete, and so it is easy for them to believe that the fastest 12 year olds are the most likely to become the most successful adult runners. In reality, a successful career in running is actually made up of two or three different careers, with the success of each dependent on the careful negotiation of the last. And the challenges in each phase are all, in their own ways, equally acute. Such is the difficulty of making it "all the way" that it is a small wonder than anyone ever does it!

The lesson that can be taken from all of this, and the one I try to impart when called upon to give advice on kid's running and long term athlete development, is that the optimal plan to ensure that young runners both enjoy the sport and retain the best chance of reaching its highest levels, is one that involves relatively late-starting (age 13 or older), infrequent and mainly local competition, and non-specialization till the age of at least 15 for girls and 16 for boys. There is no evidence to support a theory that those who start systematic, year-round training at early ages gain any long term advantage on their peers, and plenty of anecdotal evidence that such early involvement may actually be counterproductive for the average kid. And, perhaps more importantly, I see no evidence that kids who start sooner and more seriously have any more fun with the sport than those who don't!

My long term observations have thoroughly convinced me that the development model prevalent in other kids' sports is wholly inappropriate for a sport like running; which, because it is based primarily on the simple development of gross physiological capacities, is primarily dril or work-based, and lacking in a significant play element. To put it another way, competitive running is not, when it pursued seriously, truly a children's sport. And, unlike the other sports that kids typically play, it is entirely possible to reach the highest levels in running without ever having pursued it seriously as a child; in fact, later starting is probably optimal for long term success. Granted, there will always be outliers who will defy the odds and build successful adult careers on the basis of intense prepubescent involvement; but, addressing the problem of development entails consideration of what is optimal in light of the fact that the long term response to training of any individual athlete cannot be known in advance. Modeling development on what we know about the average or typical path to success of top runners is the responsibility of everyone who works with young runners, particularly when it this does not involve any sacrifice of enjoyment for these athletes. The pursuit of an experimental or counter-intuitive path to development represents a risky form of self-indulgence on the part of youth coaches and the parents who support them. Defiance of the developmental odds may pay off in individual cases, but the costs of losing this gamble can be great for the young athlete. Pursuit of a more grounded and proven path, at the very least, eliminates the basis for regrets and second-guessing if and when a young athlete decides to abandon the sport before his/her full potential has been realized.

Tuesday 17 November 2009

Fartlek: The Workout That Dare Not Speak Its Name

This week, I want to say a few words of praise and clarification about the Swedish workout with the flatulent name-- fartlek. But first, some P-K Performance of the Month Nominees.

This being November, all of the nominees made their mark in X-C events, and at the recent school and club provincial championships in particular. Here are my picks, in order of the age of the nominees, oldest to youngest:

Myra McDonald, who won the women's 50-59 age division at the provincial masters championships in her first ever race "over the country". In fact, Myra is a rookie racer in all disciplines, having only joined the group and started training seriously a year ago! Adding to her accomplishment, she ran only 50 seconds or so over her road 5k personal best over the very hilly course in Newmarket. (Times are always a tricky measure of X-C performance, but, judging by the recent performances of her competitors on certified road courses, Myra's run would certainly have been a significant P.B.)

Michael Gill (now a repeat nominee), who finished the same hilly 5k course that Myra ran in a time only 15 secs off of his already huge breakthrough road performance from last month. A very conservative estimate would put this time in the low 16min range on a standard road course, meaning that Mike has chopped at least another 30 seconds from his time in only a month, bringing his total improvement since starting in the group up to a whopping 2:30! Honestly, I have never seen anything quite like this. (And, as only I would know, he may be just getting started. There is still much more he could-- and will-- be doing in training over the next year or so.)

Nick McGraw, who dominated the junior boys race at the club provincial championships in Newmarket. For those familiar with Nick's excellent record of performance in X-C and triathlon, this won't come as as surprise. However, this was his first serious X-C race in almost 2 years! It was also the result of very little serious preparation since returning from his many travels over the past 18 months. As his long time running coach, Nick has surprised me with his performances on several other occasions; but, this may topped them all. Nick will line up again in two weeks time at the Nationals, where he will be a member of P-K's very strong-- even potential medal-winning-- junior boys team.

Jeff Archer, a local senior high school athlete who has seen remarkable improvement over the course of his season this year. Last year, Jeff placed 57th in the school provincial championships in a time some 2:30mins behind that of the winner. This month, he finished 10th in the same race, some 55 secs behind the winner-- a performance far in advance of the average rate of improvement for an athlete of his age. And, to top off his school championship performance, he finished a close 4th in the club provincial race a week later in Newmarket, and even looked like he had a chance to win it in the final km! Jeff will join Nick in two weeks as a member of the P-K junior boys team at nationals, his first trip to this fall classic.

Adrien Noble, another local high schooler. Adrien joined the group a year ago and has made very steady improvement ever since. Like Jeff, he put the exclamation point on his progress this month at the school and club X-C provincials. Not even qualifying for school provincials last season, Adrian won the qualifying race this year in convincing fashion, and finished a strong 18th at the championship itself. Then, a week later, correcting the tactical errors that probably kept him out of the top 10 in the school race, Adrien finished a close 8th in the provincial race. Too young to run for the junior boys team at nationals, Adrien will now take a well earned, albeit short, break from training.

All results from these race can be found at: www.trackdatabase.com

I will no doubt add further nominees following the Nationals weekend on the 28th, after which I will declare a November Performance of the Month, the owner of which will join October winner Lauren Taylor as a nominee for P-K Performance of the Year, to be announced some time in January. And nominations from members themselves are welcome. (If fact, I will be asking for members to help me select nominees for Performance of the Month going back to January of 09).

Fartek: The Workout That Dare Not Speak Its Name

If you're looking to feel silly and slightly uncomfortable, try saying the word "Fartlek" to a group of primary school students. Even if you're talking to a group of keen young runners, it will do no good to follow this up by explaining that the word is actually Swedish, meaning "speed-play". The point is, you will have said the word "fart" without any comic intent, and they will find it hilarious.

In its original form, fartlek running was defined by the use of spontaneous changes in speed introduced within the course of an otherwise easy, aerobic training run. Its Nordic inventors intended it as a kind of hybrid of easy, recovery-pace running and formal interval training; and, like a lot of training techniques, it was given rise to by a combination of necessity and opportunity. Fartlek training was born in the forests of Scandinavia as a means of taking advantage of the opportunity that the natural environment afforded, and of making do without easy access to a running tracks or stopwatch-bearing coaches (there was, recall, a time before convenient, affordable and easily portable hand-held timing devices). Its pioneers also intuited that it was perhaps a more accurate simulation of the precise demands of actual long distance races, and of off-track races in particular, than the then standard track interval session run at faster than race speeds and with more passive recovery periods. Early fartlek sessions would have athletes running freely and picking their own landmarks between which to do pick-ups of varying speed and length. Later, with its broader international dissemination, fartlek would become more formalized in terms of the length and intensity of the accelerations, and more tailored to the needs of athletes in specific event ranges. It remains, however, an ideal way to combine the volume of a longer, easy run with the intensity of a track interval session, as well as an occasional alternative to the grind of standard interval and tempo sessions.

It it important to understand, however, that fartlek training is not form of compromise between two more ideal forms of running-- easy recovery running and hard interval training, or simply a psychological respite; it is its own form of training, and it offers its own unique psychological and (I think) physical benefits. Fartlek training is ideal preparation for longer, off-track races in particular. What makes it ideal in this respect is the imperative to recover on the fly, to accelerate when already running at a fairly high heart and respiration rate, and to focus throughout a longer, continuous bout of running. And the top speeds in fartlek workouts are typically no faster than those reached in a race of 5kms or longer, with the average pace in a good session frequently matching exactly the athlete's proper tempo run pace. The active recoveries and the typically longer duration of the fartlek session tend to prevent athletes from ever approaching their 1500 or 3k paces, forcing them to spend more time at their actual long distance race paces rather than above or below them, which frequently happens when the training plan includes only easy runs, interval sessions and tempo runs. So, while the foundation of any correct training plan remains the MV02 interval session and the tempo run, punctuated by the easy, aerobic run, the fartlek session remains a vital adjunct. It provides both psychological respite from these other kinds of sessions; but, more importantly, it offers a useful simulation of the physical and mental demands of long distance racing, which include the ability to respond to mid and late race changes in effort and speed, and the mental discipline to maintain focus under prolonged stress.

As my most of my athletes will have learned, I have a few favourite fartlek sessions, including:

-the 60/40, in which athlete runs for 60 secs @ 5k race pace and recovers for 40 seconds at or slightly faster than typical easy run pace; and

-the 6 to 1 "hybrid" tempo and interval-pace session, in which the athlete completes a series of runs descending from 6 minutes mins down to 1 minute, taking 1 minute recoveries @ typical easy run pace between each segment, and attempting to increase his/her pace from tempo speed to down to interval speed in the final 3 segments of the session.

The fartlek form, however, allows for infinite variations, and I never tire of inventing and self-testing new combinations of speed, recovery and total volume. And the introduction of different terrain expands the possibilities that much more.

So ingenious is the idea contained in fartlek running that it was bound to be invented at some point. It's just a little unfortunate for us anglos that the Swedes, whose word for speed happens to be "fart", got there first!

Tuesday 3 November 2009

X-Country: A Race Only a Mudder Could Love

Before I rhapsodize on the unlikely virtues of cross country running-- that most gritty and exhausting of disciplines-- I'd like to recognize the first of my Performance of the Month honorees. The nod for October goes to Lauren Taylor, who continued her remarkable trajectory just this past week at the Eastern Ontario provincial qualifier. On a challenging 5k course in Renfrew, Ontario, Lauren ran 24:30 to finish 63 in a field of over 100 girls, most of them a year older than her. As I mentioned last week, in her first two years of high school running, Lauren had become used to running alone, at the back of the back. This year, however, utterly undeterred in both training and racing, Lauren has managed to make remarkable strides, shaving over a minute per kilometer(!) from her race times. This past season, Lauren has offered dramatic testimony to the remarkable power of simply sticking with it. I have met fewer than a handful of athletes with Lauren's pure drive and unblinking determination. She is a beacon for all who have chosen to accept running's simple challenge: to remake ourselves, cell by cell.

Lauren's name will go into the pot for consideration for P-K Performance of the Year, with the overall winner (chosen by me, with help from you)being announced in December. Since I only began the contest this month, I'm going to have to review performances for the entire year, starting last January, in search of suitable nominees. For the next few weeks, I'm going to ask P-K members to help me by plumbing their memories in search of worthy performances for each month of the year. And remember, the main criteria is not the objective level of the performance (or else Dylan Wykes would win every month!); it is the level of performance relative to the age, the preexisting abilities of the runner in question, and/or the conditions overcome in the accomplishment of the performance (although Dylan could still win it on these bases too). And, with X-C season still upon us, the contest is far from over.

And, I am happy to announce that the Performance of the Year winner will receive a small Mizuno prize package.

Cross country running: What is there to love about it? It is exhausting and frequently filthy. It is run during the some of the worst weather of the year, and there is no chance for a P.B. And yet so many of us, particularly we 'lifers', do love it, in spite of its unique rigours and general unpleasantness. In fact, we tend to love it almost more than we love running itself.

Like so many of the best things in life, X-C running is an acquired taste. And those of us who love it tend to have acquired this taste early in our running lives, usually in school. The taste for cross country is so slow to take, in fact, that most of us didn't even know we loved it until years after our first leafy, muddy foray. Cross country running was, for many of us, the first kind of real distance running we ever did, since it came first in the school sports calendar. Most of us simply did it because it was there, and because we liked running better, and were better suited to it in body and temperament, than the other fall sports on offer. At first, there was only the difficulty-- the cold, the mud, the steep hills, the struggling through the first colds and flus of the year, and the crowds of other competitors, pushing us, stepping on us, and blocking our way along narrow trails-- and perhaps a small taste of victory here and there. Later, though, cross country-- its intensity, feel, and its smells-- would become intermingled with our melancholy nostalgia for autumn and our early school days in general. (And runners, being naturally comfortable in our own company, and given to introspection, are often prone to melancholy nostalgia.) For those of us who continued to do the sport beyond our high school years, memories of cross country racing, and of traveling with our team mates to run cross country races, would become integral to some of our fondest recollections of early adult life. Many of us would begin lifelong friendships and love affairs on cross country training fields and race courses, and on the buses that delivered us to these places. By our mid-20s, many of us would have acquired an attachment to the sport that would one day see us return to stand on chalked start lines, beside wooden states festooned with coloured tape-- red for the left turns, right for the white, just like the political spectrum-- long after our muscles had lost their bounce and our hair, if we still had it, its original hue. To run cross country, we would discover, is to time-travel: In the throes of competition, chest burning in the cool, dry air, and nose full of the sweet, musty smells of grass, mud and fall decay-- the very same air and the same smells as on our first childhood trips "over the country"-- we discover that less about us has changed than we thought, and we find comfort in this amidst the extreme challenge of the activity itself.

I am, of course, a running 'lifer', and I share this love of cross country, for all of these reasons. As a coach of late-starting masters runners, however, I have been pleased to discover that its harsh appeal is not confined to its power to evoke the past. New runners certainly find X-C difficult, more difficult than the road races which which they are more familiar, and they are often a little baffled by the preparations required to tackle it-- the shoes with the long spikes, the special clothing required to repel the fall and winter elements, and the training over soggy, hilly, and lumpy terrain; but, once they have had a taste, they are often found returning for more. Much of the appeal of cross country running is simply the extremity of the challenge, which is exhilarating in itself. After that comes the temptation to mastery: having tried it once, many runners are often interested to see how much better they could do with a little more practice. New entrants to cross country running are also subject to infection by the enthusiasm of those us who have done it many times before. There is bound to be some curiosity to see and experience what the fuss is all about. Finally, these days, many adults are attracted to X-C as a result of watching their children take to the trails in school races (with many no doubt discovering that it is far harder than it looks!).

Lately, it has occurred to me that X-C has another universal appeal for serious runners, and in particular those living at more northern latitudes. Training for and racing X-C is, quite simply, the best way to get through November without resorting to alcohol, reclusion, and other acts of quiet desperation. Without X-C to occupy our minds and bodies, it would be far more difficult to face the prospect of increasingly dark days, the imminent prospect of winter, training on the pavement (or worse, the treadmill), and a horizon of meaningful races far to distant to even glimpse. It is true that the fruits of spring and summer success are sown in the darkest months of the year; but, that is a mere abstraction when confronted with a 4:30pm sunset, on a rainy, windy and cold Wednesday afternoon, following a trying day at work. Having the most important X-C races of the season in November nicely dispatches running's bleakest month. With the focus squarely on conquering the hills, mud and cold, and in the company of crowds of brightly clad fellow enthusiasts, November is put squarely in its place.

No matter where you are in North America, it is not too late to register for your local,regional, or national X-C championship! Check your federation or local club's website for details.