What changes from High School to College?

A couple posts ago, I asked for help on a survey about transitioning from High School to College running.  It's an attempt to answer the question of why kids success or struggle with transitioning to college.

Admittedly, this question is something that strikes close to home, on two fronts.  First, I'm a college coach at The University of Houston, who has coached at the HS level and still coaches professionals. I have a vested interest in trying to figure out how best to transition HS kids to college, regardless of their background.

Secondly, I sucked at transitioning to college.  I went from HS phenom to a kid who didn't improve his HS mile best.  In particular, mine was more to do over-training (hello 120mi weeks my freshman year...), then anything else.  But the point is, I think it's a college coaches, and thus my, job to figure out how to get every kid to develop.  I don't buy the notion that some kids are tapped out in HS from training.  It just means they might need a different stimulus then someone who is under trained.  I also think, we lose a lot of those under trained/underdeveloped kids in college to a very high rate of injuries.

With all that being said, let's take a brief look at what the collected data says so far.  This is just pure raw data, no statistical analysis yet.  We might not be able to jump to any conclusions yet, but I figured it would be worthwhile to see if we could spot any trends.  What this data does is it gives us a comparison of how things change on average from HS to College.

I had about 260 people respond to the survey, so thank you for that.  It includes numerous levels of running, from walk-on college kids to Olympic finalist.

Training type:

Let's start with the training type.  This is a difficult question to ask because it requires a level of background knowledge on training to answer that.  And the likelihood is that knowledge most likely won't be present.  Given the limitations, we shouldn't put a lot of stock into the answers, but it's still interesting to see how things stack up, so I've included it.

Training- Mileage and Speed:
There is no easy way to quantify training, especially in a broad sample study.  We need to simultaneously grasp the volume, intensity, and density of the training done.  And we can't really even consider how it is periodized.  So, again, there are drawbacks, but in order to make the data useful, if we simply look at the highest average miles per week an athlete got to in HS and college, we get a decent grasp on volume.  Then if we look at how many "speed/workouts" per week and then ask the average "difficulty" of such workouts, we get an idea of how intensity changes.  These two points are provided in the charts below.

What we're left with is some fairly obvious trends.  On the volume front, there is a nice semi bell curve that occurs in HS and college.  The difference is that in college, that bell curve is shifted 2 places (or 30mpw).  So what we have is over 4 years of running, a large shift in average mileage.  The volume goes way up, which shouldn't surprise anyone.  But what is kind of surprising is the amount of shift.  As an example, we had 55 runners in HS run between 15-30mpw, while in college that number is 2.

If we look at the number of speed sessions per week, it is fairly comparable HS to college.  The number of sessions per week doesn't really change.

HS-College Miles per week and # of speed workouts:

But if we look at racing density, you can see that athletes shift completely in how often they race.  In HS, only 16 people (6.37%)  raced less than once per week, while in college you had over 50% of the athletes racing once every 2 weeks or less.  So the density of racing goes down significantly.  Which may be one reason why the training volume can increase, besides just getting older and more developed.  There is more time to train.

Workout Difficulty:
Now that we know that the number of speed workouts per week didn't change, what about a change in how difficult they were.  By looking at how difficult the average speed session is, we can get an idea of the intensity of the training.

Interestingly, there isn't a large global change.  Most athletes, whether HS or college, fell into the hard or very hard category.

What I will be curious to see is if there is any correlation between going very hard or extremely hard and being dissatisfied with your college transition or not.  As this is one of the components that people often cite when they discuss "burnout."

HS to college transition:
Now that we've looked at a lot of factors that play a role in transition to college from a training standpoint, let's look at whether or not people were satisfied with their transition, and then investigate the possible reasons why.

Surprisingly, less than half of the respondents were completely satisfied with their improvement rates in college.  This is somewhat disheartening to look at as a coach as that's a pretty poor number.  What we'd need to see is if it was too high of expectations going in, or if it was just from lack of improvement (which is a statistic I'll look at in the full analysis when I enter in the HS to college PR progression for each respondent).

If so many people weren't satisfied with their improvement, what were the major reasons why, according to the respondents?

34% of people said that injury/illness was the main reason for the lack of improvement.  Followed by "other" at 18% and then inferior training in college at 16% and over-training at 13%.

What I see as a coach is that a lot of these factors are training related.  Injuries, over-training, and inferior training are all directly tied to training obviously.  So it seems to me that there are potentially a lot of things that a coach can do to insure improvement.  I was somewhat surprised by the lower numbers of either burnout or changes in motivation/priorities.  Those were the external choices that would explain motivation changes.

To investigate this further, we can look at a snapshot of the number of injuries in HS and college.  What you see is a very large shift of the frequency of major injuries.  Keep in mind that major injuries are defined as those that keep you out for more than 2 weeks.  In HS, the majority of the respondents were injury free throughout their HS careers, with only 2% of athletes injured every year.  When we get to college, the picture changes completely.  Only 25% were injury free, and the largest group (32%) had 2-3 major injuries during their career, while 12.6% suffered 4+ major injuries.

We can infer that the large increase in training demands probably played a role, but should the injury rate jump that high just because of an increase in training demands?  Perhaps, as coaches were missing the boat on preventative strategies, or modulating the training to insure a gradual progression, instead of throwing people to the wolves.

It's important to understand that these are simply the raw numbers.  We can get an idea on how the global picture changes from HS to College, but what we really need to do is look at how the trends change on the individual level.  The next step is to look to see if we can see patterns and correlations.  In particular, I'm looking to see if we can spot differences between those who had successful transitions versus those who had mixed or negative experiences.  Hopefully we can do some statistical analysis on the data to see if there are any strong correlations or significant differences.

The goal is to figure out the why's.


  1. Hi Coach Magness,

    First off, great article! Very interesting and insightful! I know you only have the raw data, but I really think this kind of research could be taken even a step further.

    Do you believe your subject's held any previous biases? For instance, maybe there is an under-reporting of "burnout" and "change in motivation/priorities" because those who become disinterested in running in college are less likely to take a running survey after college?

    It would be fascinating to take these kind of surveys and bring them to universities and have them filled out upon entering school and again when graduating.

    Also, you mention college improvement satisfaction. Is there a way to see if the "perceived" improvement matches "actual" improvement? As a coach, you want to be held accountable, and if you take on a 9:20 high school 2 miler, it would be great to know what is considered a satisfactory improvement.

    Some other questions include: Were the athletes who changed training stimulus more likely to increase injury occurrences? And one that would be fun to explore further: What is the retention rate like in college athletics?

    There are probably answers to these questions already and I just haven't taken the time to find them, and I know this is only raw data and no correlations have been looked into yet. And I am sorry if my post and thoughts are a little sophomoric. But I think this is a great article and very thought provoking.

    Thanks for the read!

  2. The two things that stand out for me when looking at this data are:
    1. As a high school coach I'm happy to see that only 2% of respondents reports that they felt they were overtrained in HS.
    2. What the heck is causing that massive spike in injury rates? a 30mpw increase in volume? The speed work frequency and effort didn't really change, but the actual speed of those workouts likely changed a lot, which could be a factor.

  3. Very interesting indeed. Steve, does the cognitive input change, going from hs. tot college. Maybe the increase in schoolwork impeeds their recovery. A couple of Posts ago you mentioned that the cns reacts to a physical stress Aboutaleb the same way as a mental stress. Maybe your answer lies in the increase of mental stress and thus a need for more recovery time.

  4. One more thought. Does "perceived" improvement decrease during college because athletes fail to recognize diminishing returns when it comes to consistent and increased training? I would assume (with purely anecdotal evidence) that high school athletes take their initial improvement rate for granted. It is not uncommon for a high schooler to improve in the mile by 20 seconds within a given year. However, those kinds of improvements become less common as a young athlete matures into a veteran.

    And even though on paper a 1-2% improvement in a year might not be "perceived" as very good...it might actually be about all you could ask for out of the college athlete and the athlete should be very proud of their improved achievement.

    However, I do think that college athletes are still learning a lot about themselves and are still undergoing a lot of physiological changes. So maybe we should still be expecting a similar rate of improvement as they experienced during high school?

    Thanks again for mental stimulus!

  5. The increases in injuries and in training volume were interesting demonstrations. There is a natural tendency to link the two in terms of causation, especially with a relative lack of change in "speed" sessions per week and in how "hard" the work outs were.
    However, the survey (at least the posted results) failed to querry the total number of running sessions per week, and the total number of days per week (or month) with running activities.
    Instead of how "hard" the intensity session were, perhaps it would have been better to querry total volume within intensity sessions. I would expect that even as fitness progresses, perception of difficulty or RPE would stay similar, while volume at a particular RPE might increase.

  6. The injury rates are something worth investigating further.

    I wonder if diet and sleep when at college suffer once you are away from the stabilising influences of home life. If diet or sleep is compromised the ability to recovery will be reduced and injury/over training become more likely.

  7. I have found the biggest cause for injury and loss of interest from high school to college have been the huge increase by some of these college coaches. To many times have i seen a very talented 30mpw kid from my state have a tough time in college getting jumped up to 70mpw as a freshman in XC. Yes 30mpw is way to low but a jump like that is what kills kids. If i were a college coach getting a 30mpw kid i would have them move to 40mpw for XC then 50mpw for track then go to 60mpw sophomore year. I would not increase a kid past their last successful mileage without injury. If a kid goes from 40mpw to 50mpw the next year and gets hurt then maybe they need a another year at 50mpw before moving to 60mpw. In general if i have a healthy kid coming out of high school that has been running 50mpw i would go to 60mpw to 70mpw to 80mpw to 90mpw baring there is no injury issues and naturally 800 runners vs 10k volumes are different so there will be a difference in volume naturally do to that.

  8. Would you mind publishing the chart on training methods used in college?
    And also a primer on each of the methods, for those of us less knowledgeable?

  9. As a college coach, I feel that many of the factors mentioned in the article and the responses play a role. Most students transitioning to college are burdened with a much greater work load at practice and away. Many college students divide their time between 1 or 2 practices a day, increased class work, and often campus jobs. This is further impacted when one considers that many of these young people have a difficult transition from the structure of living at home to the new freedoms at college. The increased workloads coupled with likely decreases in sleep, lower quality diets, and often questionable lifestyle choices such as drinking and other factors make the transition to college very difficult. More often than not, these alone can result in degraded athletic performances and eventually injury. College coaches often deserve a portion of the blame, especially if they are not taking into consideration the training age of a new student athlete when writing and implementing a training plan. Although writing individualized training plans takes more time, and isn’t always easy, it is the best way to allow each newcomer to adapt to an appropriate training load to their experience level.


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