What Makes Talented Young Runners Great?

If you’re interested in high school running – and even if you aren’t – give yourself a treat. Don’t miss “Why Are These Teens So Fast?” at the Running Times website.

Sarah Baxter
Sarah Baxter races Adriana Olivas. (Click to enlarge. Photo credit: Robert Johnstone, Flickr Commons.)

Long-time prep journalist and coach Marc Bloom takes a look at the factors that have helped Alexa Efraimson, Elise Cranny, and Sarah Baxter become the three most inspiring high school runners in forty years not named Mary Cain. Bloom believes their rarefied success has come because:

  1. They cross-train.
  2. They hold healthy attitudes toward food and strength training.
  3. Their coaches understand them.

I won’t ruin the article for you by cherry-picking the good parts. I’ve recently written about item #1, cross-training, in any case, so I won’t harp on that, either.

Marc Bloom’s point #2 – healthy diet and strong muscles – seems a no-brainer. Who’ll be faster – a hyper-skinny, delicate athlete, or one who’s well-nourished and has a strong frame? But I’ll comment on Bloom’s third point: coaches who understand their athletes.

Let me also point out that, reviewing the factors on Bloom’s list, they’re all expansive.

Expansive training happens when you start at ground zero – that is, when you place the needs of the individual runner first and throw out every other consideration. You do what’s best for the runner, even if it means you might not get maximum speed out of him or her right away.

Arthur Lydiard showed, 50 years ago, that runners can get faster for many years. All they have to do is put aerobic development first in their training. And that takes time – longer than coaches may be willing to wait.

In a recent article, “Any ‘Normal’ Man can break 2hrs 30 min for a marathon!”, Keith Livingstone, author of the Lydiard Foundation’s official training guide, Healthy Intelligent Training, and perhaps the world’s leading Lydiard exponent at this time, tells how several modestly talented runners from his native New Zealand were able to break 2:30 by focusing on aerobic development over a number of years.

When you put long-term aerobic development first, you slowly build the raw materials for faster and faster running. Year after year, when it’s time to start doing speedwork in preparation for a big race, you’ll be working off a larger pool of energy, and a better metabolism. Picture a steadily ascending road with little hills that represent the short-term speedwork phases. It’s simple math. You’d think every coach would understand it.

Cam Levins
Cam Levins. Not a few college juniors could start breathing again after Levins left school. (Click to enlarge. Credit: By Cwilliams90 [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.)

We can see the results in the career of Cam Levins. While Levins was a student at the University of Southern Utah, he tore up the college distance circuit. No one could touch him at 5K and 10K. And it was all because Levins’s coach, Eric Houle, an unrepentant Lydiard enthusiast, did absolutely the right, expansive thing by him. He focused entirely on Levins’s individual long-term development, even if it meant that the talented Levins would skip an entire season, or an important collegiate race.

What happened was amazing. By focusing on what was best for the individual runner, everyone thrived. The runner, the coach, and the school all gained a positive result, far beyond what they’d have achieved if they’d aimed at short-term solutions. If they had emphasized speedwork, Levins’s basic metabolism would have improved little or not at all, year after year.

In the Lydiard world, it’s believed that speedwork needs to be limited to the pre-competition peaking phase, because it destroys aerobic enzymes. It’s known today that aerobic metabolism is a lot more important, all the way down to 400 meters, than was formerly believed.

For the high school athletes profiled in Bloom’s article, success has come the same way – by focusing on what’s good for the individual person. The upshot is that, at last night’s Payton Jordan meet, one of these young women didn’t do badly at all. From a Stanford press release:

And we can’t forget Stanford recruit Elise Cranny. The senior from Niwot, Colo., became the second-fastest 1,500 runner in girls’ high school history. Competing in the fast section, against collegians and pros, Cranny was sixth in 4:10.95, about a five-second improvement upon her best, set last year at this meet. It also moved her past Jordan Hasay on the all-time high school list, trailing only Mary Cain.

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