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’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.
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.