Taking Splits: Coaching Sensibly and Preventing Burnout, Second Installment


This is the second of a blog series by coach and educator, Jim Ehrenhaft written exclusively for the DTC. He addresses a prevalent issue all too common in our sport; overtraining.

View the first installment here.

Making a Plan: Balancing Drive with Restraint

A number of years ago, I coached a runner, “Joe,” who as a sophomore had just finished his first full year of running which included an all-conference cross country season and a varsity spring in track where he was one of our top finishers in the 1600 meters. Exhilarating in the strength from his sustained period of running and competing, Joe trained aggressively over the summer. Although I send out clear guidelines for summer running, it became evident at our preseason camp in late August that Joe increased his mileage and intensity prematurely and was in top form already. At our first few meets, Joe excelled, placing among the top few finishers and running his personal best in only the second meet. From that point on, Joe’s times slowed, and he was unable to finish one race because of an injury which prevented him from running in the meets leading up to conference championships, where he finished several places back from the previous year and out of all-conference position. Frustration and disappointment prevailed.


Several revisions were necessary in order for Joe to rebound from his difficult season:


  • A more measured, moderate approach to training in terms of volume and intensity
  • A greater emphasis on keeping his steady, recovery-oriented runs truly steady so that they allowed for recovery
  • More consistency with core strength work and the infusion into his regimen of cross-training once a week


By the time camp arrived, Joe had a strong base but had in no way increased the intensity of his training to produce sharpness. Whereas the previous summer he had prepared for and run a mid-July road race, this summer his training consisted of steady runs; tempo runs and light fartlek, including hills at times, starting in mid-July; and weekly cross-training. The results contrasted starkly with the previous fall: his times improved consistently over the course of the fall, he was sharp and hungry for his best performances when the championship meets arrived, and he led our team to titles at both the conference (where he earned all-conference status) and state meets.

Patience and moderation were critical in Joe’s improvement. His weekly mileage (even as a senior) began at 20 to 25 and after building gradually never increased past 40-45. A transition to more anaerobic workouts never occurred until late September, and even then the focus remained more on lactate threshold, VO2-max pace running. While the previous year he had run his best races in early September, now he was primed mentally and physically for what late October and early November brought.

The biggest mistakes I have seen, both short-term and long-term, in coaching high school distance runners is the tendency to think that just because a runner can handle heavier mileage and higher intensity at certain times that he should take on that mileage and intensity. Too often I have seen runners produce their best performances either early in a season or career, most frequently owing to a shortsighted view toward the trajectory of training and competition demands. While plans should certainly vary according to individual differences and stages in development, a plan marked by appropriate demands but most importantly by patience and restraint will almost in all instances lead to short-term success and long-term development.

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