Smartest Training Ever of a High School Runner? — Thoughts on Grant Fisher and Mike Scannell

Three weeks ago, Grant Fisher won the 2014 Footlocker high school cross country nationals in a dominating race.

Footlocker is the individual high school XC championships. The team championships are the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), held a week earlier.

If you’re interested in the training of young runners, Fisher’s is thought-provoking. It’s described – to the extent an active elite’s training can be revealed – in an excellent article by Jeff Hollobaugh, How Grant Fisher Did It.

Grant Fisher and Mike Scannell warm down at “old-man pace.” Click to enlarge.

Grant Fisher and Mike Scannell warm down at “old-man pace.” Click to enlarge.

Grant’s future school, Stanford, is three miles down the road. I’ve watched the men’s and women’s programs over the years. They’ve had many elite teams, and they now have a fine coach in Chris Miltenberg, former Georgetown head T&F coach, who’s quickly brought Stanford back to national prominence.

Still, I worry about what will happen to Grant Fisher when he arrives in Palo Alto.

College can pose perils for a distance runner. Typically, it goes like this.

The young runner’s high school coach is wonderfully wise – think of Dr. Armando Siqueiros, Jordan Hasay’s high school coach, or Grant Fisher’s coach, Mike Scannell.

The high school coach takes excellent care of his runners – he has them rest adequately and do reasonable mileage that’s laid out hyper-efficiently to match their abilities.

And then the runner graduates and goes off to college, where the pressure on coaches to succeed is much greater.

Many college coaches, faced with the need to demonstrate their competency in three tightly spaced seasons (cross, indoors, outdoors), are tempted to take shortcuts.

Instead of nurturing the talented runner through four years of steady, progressive aerobic development, with a view to their long-term development, the coach has them do “just enough” aerobic miles and year-round speedwork.

Good results may ensue in the short term, but the college runner’s results tend to be uneven. Witness the supremely talented Jordan Hasay, who suffered baffling disappointments in major races during her four years at Oregon.

There IS a way to shepherd elite high school athletes through the college system without breaking them – this much we know from the college careers of Galen Rupp, Chris Solinsky, Cam Levins, and others.

Their coaches took the long view. Alberto Salazar groomed Rupp for success after college; as a result, he did very well while at Oregon.

Chris Solinsky’s college coach, Jerry Schumacher, built him up gradually with Lydiard-style aerobic-power-based training. Result: not long after Solinsky left college, he became the first non-African to run a sub-27:00 10,000 meters.

Chris Miltenberg is a really, really smart man, as evidenced by the Stanford men’s hugely surprising second-place finish at the 2014 NCAA XC Nationals.

In just two years at Stanford, Chris has accomplished wonderful things. In rare interviews, he stresses he’s focused on training his runners individually, with a view to their long-term careers.

This always tends to work well for a college coach. A carefully coached runner may not race hard often. He/she may even redshirt a year or skip an indoor season. But the results are likely to be good. Coach Eric Houle kept Cam Levins out of races that might interfere with his long-term development. In his junior and senior years, Levins absolutely dominated the NCAA distances.

I’m looking forward to following Fisher’s college career. Will Coach Chris Miltenberg be able to develop his talent in a way that ensures his long-term success and well-being? For selfish reasons, I hope so. It’s terrifically engaging to follow the career of an athlete who’s finding success and happiness at the same time.

It’s why I love sports – to watch how the laws of success play out for athletes. When a coach – say, a Phil Jackson, Pete Carroll, Bill Walsh, or John Wooden – creates a happy team that achieves success at the highest level, it’s immensely inspiring.

My simple faith is that happiness and sports success go together. In my experience, the best training is happy training. Training may be painful at times, but good training that challenges the body in expansive, healthy ways always leaves us feeling great afterwards.

Shawn Achor’s book, The Happiness Advantage, tells us that it never works the other way around. Happiness is a great predictor of success, but success is a very poor predictor of happiness.

Achor’s research shows that happy people are uniformly more successful than people who chase success in hopes it will make them happy.

Jeff Hollobaugh’s article on Grant Fisher takes us inside the training theories of his coach, Mike Scannell. I won’t spoil the article for you by over-quoting. A brief snippet will suffice.

Consider the following words, which offer the surprising revelation that Grant Fisher became a national champion and a 4:02.3 high school miler without doing any speedwork at all.

What?!

Scannell believes that speedwork is a much bigger deal than most runners, especially young runners and their coaches, usually realize — because it’s far more stressful and requires a much longer recovery than just about any other form of training.

In ancient Eastern terms, speedwork can be deeply contractive if it isn’t done at the right time, in the right volume, and with the right recovery. Scannell:

“I have these building blocks [of a runner’s career], and once you accomplish one, you can add another. Grant hasn’t done any speedwork. You know why? He wasn’t capable of it yet, in my opinion. He wasn’t capable of doing speedwork because he hasn’t been old enough, strong enough and couldn’t recover from it, so we didn’t do it. So this is the last building block for Grant. I’ve never had a kid get to all of these building blocks in high school. Ever. And I think Grant is ready for speedwork, because he’s getting to the point where he can tolerate the recovery from the demands of speedwork.”

Let’s say it again – Grant Fisher ran a 4:02.3 mile and won Footlocker without speedwork.

To put this in perspective, consider that former mile world record holder and triple Olympic gold medalist Peter Snell (800 and 1500) revealed that, after running 70-100 miles per week during a three- or four-month aerobic base period as assigned by his coach, Arthur Lydiard, he was very surprised to discover that he could run “close to a four-minute mile” without having done any speedwork

Lydiard’s group ran a weekly 22-mile run over mountainous train at 7:00 pace at the start of the base phase, and 6:00 pace at the conclusion. These were post-collegiate, highly seasoned professional runners.

Grant Fisher’s fastest training runs are done at tempo pace. And in stark contrast to Snell, Fisher runs just 50 miles a week.

What conclusions can we draw from these disparities? Is Grant Fisher simply a freak talent? Or are there hidden secrets of efficient training that Scannell has discovered and that he will, let’s hope, someday reveal?

Scannell points out that Fisher did no “junk miles” to accumulate impressive mileage, and that the details of every training run were planned with utmost care.

As good as it is, the article leaves many questions unanswered. For example, what is “tempo pace”? A popular definition is 85% to 92% of max heart rate. But elite marathoners are able to run aerobically well into this range. Thus, former marathon WR holder Derek Clayton (2:08:33) demonstrated in David L. Costill’s laboratory that he could run at sub-5:00 pace for a half-hour aerobically, while holding a relaxed conversation with the laboratory staff.

It’s been demonstrated that speedwork lowers race times more quickly at the 5K and 10K distances than tempo runs. On the other hand, does tempo running, as designed by a savvy coach like Scannell, develop qualities that speedwork doesn’t? Perhaps it does a better job of developing speed and endurance at the same time?

It seems we’ve got a lot to learn.

Meanwhile, a lovely thing about Scannell’s coaching is that he never, ever pushes his runners to the point of exhaustion. His firm intention is to see that they always go home relaxed and smiling.

If I were 60 years younger, there are three high school coaches I’d sign up to run for in a heartbeat: Dr. Siqueiros, Bill Aris, whose Fayetteville-Manlius HS boys and girls cross-country teams swept the Nike Cross Nationals a month ago, and Mike Scannell.

Based on sheer results, Mike Scannell might be the smartest coach of high school runners ever.


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12 Responses to Smartest Training Ever of a High School Runner? — Thoughts on Grant Fisher and Mike Scannell

  1. Gary Brimmer February 13, 2015 at 6:02 am #

    Great article. I’ve been fortunate enough to have fallen under the guidance of Mike for the past 10 years. He shares his philosophy freely (“it’s not rocket science”) and simply loves developing talent and above all mentoring. I credit much of my coaching success to the influence of this man.

    GB

  2. George Beinhorn February 13, 2015 at 8:38 am #

    Thanks – I’m inspired by Mike’s athlete-centered approach and his general coaching wisdom. Boggles my mind! – George

  3. Janet Scannell February 13, 2015 at 8:55 am #

    Thank you for this article about my husband, Mike Scannell. I had chills as I was reading it. I amazed that you have never met Mike and yet you seem to “get” him as much or more than authors who have met him and interviewed him. Thank you for your well written, amazing article that really shows Mike’s greatness and his contribution to the sport in helping to develop and mentor these young men that he coaches.

  4. George Beinhorn February 13, 2015 at 9:18 am #

    Hello Janet – I’m delighted to hear that you read the article and enjoyed it. My admiration for coaches like Mike and Bill Aris and Dr. Siqueiros is boundless, not just for their wisdom as coaches but for how they love to help young people find their way. I’m truly grateful for their example. – George

  5. Kenn Domerese February 16, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Unbelievable because I know some kids and adults that are training at his club at the same time. Sixteen 400”s under 60 to 65 seconds with 200 meter jog between each or he is told to go home sounds like speed work to me. Articles like this creates huge problems for high school coaches that must coach an entire team. Scannell refuses to coach high school teams, opting to pick off exceptional kids that he personally trains. They show up at a half a dozen meets a season while throwing their high school team under the bus. They do not train with their team because the team does not train hard enough to their standards. Grant has had great success but this behavior will wreck high school track and cross-country. They pick what they will run and when. The Grand Blanc coach does not have any say in what Grant does. How can you run a program when a couple of your athletes never come to practice and show up to whatever meets they choose. The team means absolutely nothing to them. What sport can survive with that kind of cancer. Grant is great but the real question is should he be able to compete for a high school team. He is talented enough that there are several training methods that he would of been successful doing any of them. The REAL STORY is not in this article. By the way if the soccer coach makes him practice with the team you can add a bunch of more miles to his weekly regiment. The accomplishments of Grant have been outstanding but at what cost to high school sports. If this was wide spread high school sports would be HISTORY.

  6. George Beinhorn February 16, 2015 at 1:03 pm #

    I’ll stand by what I wrote.

    What counts more, the health and happiness of the individual athlete, or “high school sports” considered as an abstraction? If I were Grant Fisher’s father, I would look for the best possible coaching and advise him to go there.

    Regarding your suggestion that Mike Scannell has his runners do “sixteen 400’s under 60 to 65 seconds with 200 meter jog between each or he is told to go home” – please tell us your source.

    You say they train at the same club. Do they train under Mike Scannell? At what stage does Mike feel they have arrived in their development through the system he describes in the quote above? Do you feel that Mary Cain and Alexa Efraimson should have stayed with their high school teams instead of going pro? Do you feel that every superstar high school talent should run in college out of loyalty to the school system even if, as Arthur Lydiard famously pointed out, the U.S. college system is dangerous for distance runners? Do you feel that Galen Rupp should not have been coached by Alberto Salazar while he was at Oregon?

    In an average high school of, say, 1200 students, how many athletes in all sports are there who’d be accepted by a coach of Mike Scannell’s qualifications? One or two? Five? I doubt high schools will soon run out of average athletes.

    And how many high school coaches are qualified to coach an athlete of Grant Fisher’s caliber? Very few.

  7. Treg Scott February 17, 2015 at 1:47 pm #

    Thanks very much for the nicely written article written about a very deserving coach and an amazing athlete. As happy as I was to hear your kind words, I was equally displeased to read the ignorant and distasteful reply by Kenn Domerese. Choosing to bash another person in a public forum is immature. Choosing to do so while spewing falsehoods is sad. Choosing to then criticize a really wonderful kid is just plain pathetic.
    As someone who has known both these people for a very long time, I can tell you without question that they are both better people than they are a coach or athlete.

    Mike Scannell is a very busy man, dedicated to his family and friends, his work, and the athletes he works with. It’s my best guess that the only reason he is still coaching at all is because of a very strong personal relationship with the entire Fisher family that spans over thirty years since Mike, myself, and Grant’s father Dan, ran together at Arizona State. So, if Mike fostered that friendship with Dan, his lovely wife Sonia and the other two children to then “pick off” Grant’s talent for his own good, he is the most evil of geniuses this world has ever known. Well done Mike!! I just love to see a well thought out plan come together like that over the course of three and a half decades.

    To clear up a couple other possible misnomers here, Grant has been a wonderful teammate and mentor to many other kids, both on his high school team and elsewhere. He has run for the past two years at a level whereby he needn’t run for a high school team at all, since it was possibly not in his best interest, but he didn’t do that. The fact is, he ran consistently for his high school team in dual meets, invitationals, and championship meets. Grant agonized over whether to play soccer in the state final his junior year or go to the state cross country championship which was scheduled for the same day. He ultimately chose soccer that day because he knew he would be giving the sport up after that game. So, I’m not sure where all these soccer miles would be coming from these days.

    As far as “speed training” goes; anyone worthy of calling themselves a coach should understand the difference between interval training which occurs somewhere near race pace and speed training, which occurs quite a ways under race pace. I, for one, can attest to the fact that if you can jog a 200 in between intervals, you are not engaged in speed training. For milers, running 400s with a 200 jog rest, for most athletes with a solid base, would represent race pace or slower when running at least 12. For a runner at Grant’s level, if he is running 400s in 53 or better, and 200s in 25 or better, I would consider that “speed training”. And when he does, my best guess is he won’t be jogging a 200 in between intervals. :))

    As Mike eluded to, this type of training takes longer to recover from, both during the workout and prior to the next workout. Hope this clears up some of the questions and misinformation. Best regards, Treg

  8. George Beinhorn February 17, 2015 at 2:06 pm #

    Big thanks for giving us all an insider’s view of a fine coach and his circle. One positive will kill a whole bunch of negatives all the time. – George

  9. Mike Scannell February 20, 2015 at 7:09 am #

    George,

    Thanks for your kind words and detailed article about training. I don’t normally refute anonymous internet posters but I feel like I owe it to your readers to set a few things straight. This is all based on the comments ‘Kenn Domerese’ makes.

    First, I coach because running has given me so much and I want to share the experience and growth with kids who are interested in being the best they can be. I don’t have any ‘standards’ to pick athletes (as alleged by ‘Kenn’). If an athlete asks me to help them, I usually do. If a parent asks me to coach their child, that’s a different story as the athlete has to be motivated to improve; not a parent.

    I do have a few things that I stick to when taking an athlete on. First, I don’t coach anyone I can’t see. So, I don’t do any Internet coaching or coaching via email. Second, I don’t coach kids younger than the Spring of their 8th grade year. And lastly, I only coach kids that are willing to set goals in school, athletics, and home (written goals). If they can’t commit to those things, I don’t take them on.

    Regarding the 16 X 400 with a 200 jog in 60-65 workout: None of the kids I currently coach have ever done this workout. Ever. I know that workouts tend to get exaggerated over time and when they are shared between people. But this is simply not a workout we have ever done. Ever. So, I want to be very clear on that for the other coaches out there reading.

    Lastly, the current HS coach at Grand Blanc, Ed, is the person who originally asked me to coach! He came to me to ask me to help him. At Grant’s level, ‘Kenn’ is right; Grant does not race all of the HS races. But he is an exceptional case. The other athletes I work with go back to their HS teams during the seasons and compete like any other athlete on the team. I mainly meet them in the off seasons (summer and winter).

    Again, thanks for the nice article.

    Mike Scannell

  10. George Beinhorn February 20, 2015 at 7:19 am #

    Mike – Thanks for the reply. The negative commenter claimed that people in your club did 16×400, etc. – and then extrapolated that Grant did the same. Thanks for making it completely clear that he was wrong. I look forward to watching Grant run at Stanford – the men’s team seems a great group with a coach who’ll help Grant make progress. – George

  11. Fernando June 4, 2015 at 2:25 pm #

    Hello George Beinhorn. And thanks for writing such an insightful article!
    Also, a BIG thanks to Mike Scannell for his clarifying comment. It’s great to see that he has a strict & specific “qualification” process for athletes that he choses to coach. It’s too bad that many of us live way out here in California & are not available to enjoy the benefits of him coaching our talented youth.
    Question, do either you (George) or Mike Scannell know of any great coaches with similar coaching talents & sincere interest in developing young runners with sincere interest & aspirations to becoming the BEST that they can be in their sport of running? My son looks at me for advice but I don’t feel qualified to bring the BEST out of him. And as any parent, I don’t want to short-change him.
    Any advice? -Fernando

  12. George Beinhorn June 4, 2015 at 3:07 pm #

    I replied to Fernando by email. In the event that what I said might prove useful to others, I’ll paste my reply here:

    Hello Fernando,

    At this point, the only thing that occurs to me to suggest is that you might locate some coaches by asking questions at local running stores. Or you could ask some school coaches about people they might know. And then it seems you’ll need to have some definite ideas about the kind of coaching you want your son to have. With a firm idea about the kind of person you think can help your son, you might be able to get a feel for the person you’re talking to.

    By the way, have you seen this excellent article on Grant Fisher’s training:

    http://www.milesplit.com/articles/156028

    I took pictures of Grant at the Payton Jordan Invitational. He seemed like a really happy guy. I think that’s a huge key – if the coach will help your son be a happy athlete. I would look for a coach who’s about taking kids where they are, getting to know them, their hopes and dreams, and helping them take a step at a time. When I did background research for an article on Bill Aris (his girls high school x-c teams have won Nike Cross Nationals nine times; the boys and girls both won last year), I was delighted to discover that he spends 80 percent of his time not planning workouts but getting to know each individual kid. A lot like Grant Fisher’s coach, Ray Scannell.

    There’s an outfit called the Positive Coaching Alliance that promotes kid-centered coaching. Don’t know how much help they would be, but I believe they have a network of coaches nationwide – might be worth checking their website: http://click.positivecoach.net/?qs=b741fb9038d329e7f602f2ac133fe0f5105ba35e1410340dc8c4e02d99fcd61b.

    I wish you success.

    George

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