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Three Ways to Improve Now as a High School Runner

Regardless what happens to your season, or what program you’re in, you can get better focusing on these two training elements and one key mindset.

There are so many ways to improve as a high school runner. While the first thing runners and coaches focus on is running — volume, intensity and key workouts in the training plan — I want to help you embrace the importance of other, less “shinny” elements of training. Specifically, I’ll give you two things that you can control to become a better runner, and a mindset that you’ll need to adopt if you want to continue to get better, season after season.

Focus on What You Can Control

1) Sleep

One of the few bright spots for me during COVID-19 was interacting with professional coaches, professional athletes, high school coaches and exercise scientists during the Boulder Running Camps virtual camp. Two things repeatedly came up when these people shared their wisdom with the high school athletes, which are two things that every high school runner has some degree of control over.

The first, was the importance of sleep. Pete Julian, coach to American Record Holder Donavan Braizer and miler Craig Engles, said sleep is crucial for his athletes to handle the training he’s assigning them. Riley Macon, a college coach who has a master’s degree in exercise science, explained the two spikes of human growth hormone (HGH) that occur during a night of sleep. HGH is important for athletes of all ages, but especially important for the high school athlete whose bodies are adapting to the stresses of training while undergoing the physical maturation of adolescence.

high school runner sleeping
Photo: 101 Degrees West

So often high school athletes are – and rightly so – enamored with the workouts described on social media or in YouTube videos. What they don’t see is the lifestyle that supports this training, which includes much more sleep than normal adults. It’s cool to see a 10-minute highlight video of a 2-hour workout session, but it’s not interesting (or marketable) to show all the recovery needed to handle this work. Let’s be honest – sleep is boring, and sleep isn’t something a famous athlete can easily highlight in an Instagram post, yet when you ask them (and their coaches) what some of the keys are to running faster are, they’ll all say sleep.

How much sleep do you need?

You need a lot, and you likely need more than you’re currently getting.

The best tool I’ve come across to figure out what you need is from coach Paul Vandersteen, the boy’s coach at Neuqua Valley High School in Naperville, Ill. His boys have won the Nike Cross Nationals, so he knows what it takes to become an excellent high school runner. He has a simple sleep chart that shows how many hours of sleep you need based on what time you must wake up. What’s genius about the chart is that at the top of it starts with the time you need to wake up, not the time you think you should go to bed. Your wake-up time isn’t up for debate: school starts at a certain time, or there is a time you need to get up by to meet your teammates for a long run.

From there, you work backwards. On the chart there are six categories: awful, bad, minimal, mediocre, good, and champion. If your wake-up time is 6 am but you’re only willing to go to bed at 10 pm, that’s minimal – which is eight hours of sleep. Good sleep is 9 pm, which means you’ll get nine hours of sleep. (As a collegiate runner, that was my magic number: nine hours of sleep, and not a minute less. It was the only way I could support my training of 80–85 miles a week in single runs).

What I love about Coach Vandersteen’s tool is that the numbers are clear: if you go to bed at 10:30 the night before you must wake up at 6:00 am, then that’s seven and a half hours of sleep, which is bad.

Check out his table at this end of this excerpt from Consistency Is Key.

2) “The Little Things”

The second item that was repeated throughout the virtual camps is the importance of doing the “little things.” This always includes the work you do after the run – general strength and mobility, fascial release, and possibly some work in the weight room. And in some coach’s minds this includes the work you do before the workout, which is more than just a “dynamic warm-up.” While adult runners, who are pressed for time, may only be able to do leg swings prior to a hard workout, a sound warm-up for a high school athlete should include both mobility work and neuromuscular work.

You may be thinking, “Coach Jay – I know this. I know I need to do a solid warm-up and I already do 10-20 minutes of non-running work at the end of practice. This isn’t new.” True. But do you focus on these little things?

Consider this: more than one coach talked about the importance of being intentional when you do this work. You have time on your recovery runs to chat with friends, and your coach likely has some time at the start of practice for chit-chat, which is important. But once it’s time to do your dynamic warm-up you need to be focused and do the work exactly as you’ve been taught. Not only is this important for your long-term development, but it helps you slowly “build your attention span for hard work.” You’ve got to both do this work and do it in an intentional way if you want to get the most out of a practice session.

Pre-run dynamic drills Photo: 101 Degrees West

You and I can’t change who our parents are, so we can’t change the genetic talent we were born with. But one thing we can change is to build our attention span for hard work.

I encourage you to do choose to focus on little things today. Get a piece of paper and a writing utensil and write down things that are small enough to be doable, but big enough to be meaningful.

When I did this exercise, I decided that I’ll do two minutes of Phil Wharton’s hamstring active isolated flexibility work after each workout. This means that some days I’ll have to cut two minutes from the workout, something you probably won’t have to do. But I won’t commit to doing the whole 10-minute routine because I know myself, and I know I will struggle to cut 10 minutes from a workout.

Here’s the deal: If you’ve read this far then you want to become a better runner. Heck, you may even think about running several times a day. If that’s the case you likely don’t need to add more miles to your weekly training plan to improve. Instead, simply add one thing today that is small that you can control that will lead to becoming a better runner. If you can’t think of anything, do something to improve flexibility and suppleness. Fascial release work is great, as is Phil’s “rope stretching” work. Or, you can do some hip mobility from my SAM videos.

Adopt a Long View Mindset

Now that you’ve committed to getting enough sleep to support your training, and you committed to doing the little things, and doing them intentionally, there is one simple mindset you need to adopt: “Keep the long view in mind.”

What do I mean by that? As a high school athlete your year is organized into four major phases: Summer training, cross country, winter training, and outdoor track (and yes, I know you may run indoor track, but it’s not as important to you and your coach as your outdoor season). Thus, most athletes will have 8–16 seasons in which to make a jump in fitness, depending on when they start running seriously. When you look at it this way, it’s easier to see that if you want to run your fastest in your junior year of track, and then have all four phases of your senior year go well, you’ve likely got a lot of time. Yes, you should work hard in every season and yes, you should expect to make improvements most seasons, but when you take the long view of your high school career you can take a deep breath and see that you have time — time to put in the effort that results in long-term progress, not just instant results.

high school runner on empty track
Photo: 101 Degrees West

Consider this: If you were a professional athlete, and specifically a 1,500m runner, you’d be training with intent roughly 11 months a year. Yet your focus would primarily be on the months of May, June and July (and August for the very best athletes). I recently heard a coach say that his best athlete — a female U.S. 1,500m runner who has run at the World Championships — was focused on the third race of the Olympic trails. Why the third race? You must run two qualifying races — a preliminary round and a semi-final round — to make the finals, and then you must be top three to make the US Olympic Team. This happens in mid to late June, yet this woman was putting in focused work months earlier. She didn’t have more than a couple of races in the winter. So, she’s training roughly 10 months for the biggest race of her life. That’s the type of long view I’m talking about.

You need this long-term view for two reasons. The first is that you need to have the patience to have the long view of your training in mind, know that your progression from season to season will not be linear, but will have some ups and downs. Second, if one of your goals is to run in college, you and your parents should feel comfortable asking your high school coach how the four years you’ll spend with them fits into an eight-year plan. Don’t assume that you need to be “undertrained” to run well in college. In fact, the opposite might be true, especially for young men, as the volumes they’ll need to run to be ready to compete over 10,000m in cross country will be significant.

When you combine the three topics we’ve just covered, there is a recipe for success.

First, get enough sleep to support your training. Do the little things and do them with intent. Then take the long view – ideally looking at the last five phases of your high school career as the most important — and trust that patient work will lead to great running in high school, and beyond.

Coach Jay Johnson is the author of Consistency Is Key: 15 Ways to Unlock Your Potential as a High School Runner. You can learn more about Coach Jay’s training philosophies for both high school and adult runners at CoachJayJohnson.com.