Taking Splits: Coaching Sensibly and Preventing Burnout, First Installment

JimEhrenhaftTeaching

Jim Ehrenhaft has taught and coached at St. Albans School in Washington, DC since the fall of 1987.  Head cross country coach and at both St. Albans and its sister school National Cathedral since 1998 (and distance track & field coach at St. Albans through that time and at National Cathedral since 2001), Ehrenhaft has led St. Albans to 14 Interstate Athletic Conference cross country titles and 4 Maryland/DC Private School cross country state championships, and National Cathedral to 7 Independent School League cross country titles and 2 Maryland/DC Private School state championships.  Ehrenhaft was named the The Washington Post All-Met boys cross country coach of the year in 2009 and is a Level 2 Certified USATF Coach. Ehrenhaft is a 1983 graduate of St. Albans and a 1987 graduate of Haverford College, where he captained the cross country and track teams.

In his blog series exclusively for the DTC he will address a prevalent issue all too common in our sport; overtraining.

Combine a competitive young distance runner with a competitive coach, and a recipe quickly emerges for success, but it just as easily can lead to injury and fatigue, both mentally and physically. So often, an adolescent distance runner’s mentality reflects a hunger to take on a demanding regimen in both practice and competition. The coach’s challenge becomes how to channel that desire to produce consistent progress and a healthy, lifelong relationship with the sport. All too frequently, however, in the 27 years that I have coached cross country and track, and in the 40 years that I have trained and competed myself, I have seen young runners experience rapid development followed by stagnation and decline marked by physical breakdown and the loss of both a competitive edge and enthusiasm for the sport. The causes of burnout that I’ll address in this blog take myriad forms, but prominent among them, not surprisingly, are overtraining and over-racing. What exactly constitutes too much, too fast, too soon, and too frequently–in terms of training and competition–will be my focus, and I welcome the opportunity to engage distance coaches in a consideration of the pitfalls and best practices that thoughtful coaches should be aware of as they strive to develop young runners for both short- and long-term success.

 

Several questions that will be a particular concern in the blog series:

 

  • What is the appropriate level of volume and intensity that should mark training plans for high school runners, and what kind of limits make the most sense as runners progress through a volatile period in terms of physical and emotional development?
  • What should an optimal season schedule look like with regard to competition? How many races, what kind of races, and should postseason competition enter into the picture?
  • What does an ideal year-long training schedule look like in terms of the role played by each season? Does properly periodized training look different in the summer than it does in the winter, for instance? Does encouraging young distance runners to take on a different sport in the winter, at least competitively, make the most sense? What role, if any, should indoor track play?

 

While experience and science are powerful guides that can offer universally applicable insight, I know that every runner is unique and requires a nuanced approach. Even as we acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all training philosophy will inevitably fall short of meeting the needs of every runner, I look forward to engaging with coaches to consider where we might discern sensible thresholds in terms of volume, intensity, and frequency of training and competition over the course of a season, year, and throughout a high school runner’s career.

 

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