One of the trickiest parts of coaching a team is individualizing within that group structure. We’re left with a balancing act, deciding how much to emphasize group training­–taking advantage of working with a training partner– versus catering to the individual runner. In other words, do we give our workout (e.g. 5x1mile) for everyone to perform at their own paces or do we mix them in together, speeding up or slowing down runners to make sure they run with the right group? Do we make the 4:10 miler and the 4:25 miler workout together, or not? This simple question represents a conundrum in the high school and college coaching world. Whenever I speak at conferences, it’s a concern that inevitably gets raised when I discuss the importance of individualizing training. How in the world do you individualize in a group dynamic?

I want to attack this problem by looking at how two of my runners have become good training partners. One has run 7:53 (Brian) for 3k, the other, 8:26 (GJ). 30+ seconds between their 3k bests, yet they work out together…a lot. How can both be getting what they need (as Brian has PR’d by 6sec in the 3k, and GJ 14sec this indoor season).There are a few principles to keep in mind when combining guys who have different

There are a few principles to keep in mind when combining guys who have different PR’s.

How hard?

Workouts are about taking a runner to a desired level of fatigue. Before I assign a workout, I have a potential difficulty in my head. If I use a one to ten scale, with ten being a “see god” day, I might want one workout to be an 8, while the next hard session to only be a 6. In other words, I’m trying to take them to a certain degree of effort/fatigue to provide the right dose for them to adapt. Knowing the “dose” I have in mind, I can also up or down regulate the workout in real time. If they look easier, maybe I tell them to go a bit harder or tack on an extra rep.

This is counter to a lot of traditional thinking, which assumes that all “hard” workouts are done until exhaustion. I strongly believe there is more nuance to working out then the simple hard/easy dichotomy.When it comes to working out together, what I’ll often do is modulate the workouts so that GJ might have a 9 effort when Brian only has a 7 effort for the day. Because GJ should be going to the well more so than Brian, I can press him in the speed or distance direction so that both of them can work out together.

When it comes to working out together, what I’ll often do is modulate the workouts so that GJ might have a 9 effort when Brian only has a 7 effort for the day. Because GJ should be going to the well more so than Brian, I can press him in the speed or distance direction so that both of them can work out together.

While it might require more effort and planning on my part to make sure that both get pushed to the degree needed throughout each training cycle, by carefully considering how hard I want them to go, I can manipulate the workouts so that they work out together more often.

What are we targeting?

The pace discrepancies are there. GJ’s goal 3k pace is around Brian’s 5k pace. GJ’s mile pace is about Brian’s 3k pace, and so forth.

With the pace discrepancies, it means that I can have them workout together, with aims of attacking different stimuli. As coaches, we often set up our teams training with a global view. We might write “tempo” day on the schedule, and everyone is performing some sort of tempo effort. When mixing athletes together for training, instead of having designated ‘days” where everyone is working on the same thing, we may have two athletes doing the same workout, with the stimulus sought being completely different.

For example, Brian can be doing repeat 800s at 2:12 and it would be a kind of 5k cruising workout, while for GJ that is a very stressful 3k/VO2/aerobic capacity workout. Same workout; different stimulus.

When we do this, we need to take into account how we modulate the weeks to make sure no one is missing a stimulus. (For example, GJ can’t always do the same thing as Brian because then he’s always training one race distance down from Brian, so he’ll be missing some important aerobic work).

With these two concepts taken into consideration, how do we actual manipulate workouts so that both get what they need but can still do a bulk of training together?

Manipulate the rest:

One of my new favorite ways to insure that athletes work together is by manipulating the rest for the faster one. By manipulating the rest period, we can keep the speed slightly slower, while still getting the aerobic/fatigue stimulus we desire.

An example, during Cross Country, when some of the guys were doing mile repeats in 4:45 with a few minutes standing rest, Brian would run the 4:50-45 mile and then take his foot off the gas for 800m “cruise” in 2:45-50ish or so. He wasn’t fully recovering during the rest so it became a very tough high end aerobic workout. Similarly, I’ve had him do repeat 1k’s with 400m “cruise” rest while other guys have been doing repeat 800s with standing rest.

Another way I like to manipulate rests is by allowing slower runners to break the workout into sets while Brian keeps going. For example, if Brian had 8×800, I might give my next group 4×800, long break where they sit an 800m out, 3×800. That group gets 5-6 min of rest as the sit out an 800m, which is long enough for them to recover and handle the higher intensity work.


Another of my favorite ways to combine athletes is by using progression workouts. Progression workouts allow for you to incorporate “slower” runners during the early portion of the workout. Depending on how slow you start the workout, you can get almost all runners doing a portion of the workout.

The common example is having athletes do a progression run of varying length. In Cross Country, Brian migh thave an 8 mile progression, while GJ had a 6 to 7 mile one, and some of the other guys had 5-mile progression, 3min rest, 2 miles. Again, the point is to start slow enough so that a large portion of the team can all run together for an extended period. So if we start at 5:30-40 and gradually crank it down, it allows the shorter group doing 5 miles to get down to just faster than their tempo pace and finish with a 5:15-10 last mile, while it allows Brian to progress down to 4:50ish. In other words, if scheduled right, everyone finishes at their desired point, getting the aerobic stimulus they need. If someone is just getting back into it and even the progression might be a bit much, I have them go as long as it is comfortable to progress, then take a short break to recover, and finish off with another mile or two so we get in the volume of work that they need.

While progressions are traditionally thought of as runs or tempos, I’m a big fan of progression intervals. One of my favorite workouts is doing 8×800 with 2 minutes rest, starting in the 2:20s and finishing near 2 minutes for Brian. What this allows us to do is get athletes like GJ to be able to get in 6-7 800’s before he is tapped out. It also allows us to get other athletes, who might be slower, to work in with our top runners.

For example, a freshman 4:25 miler, might start early with an 800 rep or two before Brian’s workout begins, then he has a few 800s under his belt and is able to run the first 4 800’s with Brian. So he gets in 6×800 total, four being run with the big guys on the team.

Cut Down

Using the same 800m workout example, what I’ll often do is cut down athletes as a workout progresses. So that after four 800m repeats, they might do 700 meters on the next, then 600 meters on the following one, and so forth. By cutting down, you are giving the athlete slightly more rest and a slightly less demanding workout so that he/she can maintain the speed.

If we think of this in terms of manipulating the workout to get an athlete to the right level of fatigue at the right time, it makes perfect sense. As they fatigue, we are gradually loosening the demands so that they can maintain the intensity for a bit longer.

One of the questions I get a lot when I do this is what about the rest? If I have Brian doing mile repeats and GJ doing 1200m, GJ gets an extra 60+ seconds rest. Doesn’t that throw off the workout, because everyone knows that long reps should have 2-3min rest! My answer is, in this workout, is the workout or the speed the most important thing? If the shorter rest is the most important thing, then it’s not a wise move to use this type of workout. But more often than not, we overblow the importance of keeping a rest interval at a certain level because some book/guide told us to have a 1:1, 2:1, or 4:1 run/rest ratio. When the intensity and speed matters, I’m not concerned much with the rest. It’s just one variable I can manipulate

Split off:

On occasion, they will do ½ to ¾ of the workout together and split off for the last bit. I particularly like doing this for middle distance runners. On my women’s team for example, I might take my milers like Jen and Meredith and have them do the first ½ to ¾ of a workout with my top 5k/steepler, Selena. So if Selena is doing 6×800 w/ 2min rest in 2:40 down. Then Jen/Mer might do four 800s before cutting down with a set of 4x400s faster at the end. We get a nice blended stimulus of strength + speed while tired.

Similarly, it’s not unusual to have them do the first 3 miles of Selena’s 5+mile tempo before finishing off with 8xshort hills. They get a maintenance aerobic tempo and some speed development at the same time.

So what?

In the end, not everyone is going to train 100% together, nor should they, even if they have the exact same PRs! But often we can mix in “fast” and “Slow” runners, while still giving each the individualization they need.

As coaches, I think we can get obsessed with performing certain types of workouts. We all have to do 5x1mile or 6×800 or 10x400m. Why? Because we know what athletes should run in those types of repeats. It’s a lot more difficult to judge the effort and pace if I give someone 6×800 with 400m in 82 as their rest. Or to know what 800, 800, 700, 600, 600, 500 with increasing rest means to the athlete. As a coach, I don’t intuitively KNOW what that means. It doesn’t provide a nice easy predictor that I can tell the athlete they are in this type of shape. But to me, occasionally abandoning the normal constraints is freeing. It forces you as a coach to look, observe, and figure out if each athlete’s getting what they need. It’s certainly more difficult as a coach to do.

It takes some creativity in workout design, but it should show you that the idea of needing a training partner who can “push” you is a myth. If, as a coach, you manipulate the workouts right, you can make sure that runners of all levels have someone to train with.

For more on the psychology of performance, check out my NEW book Peak Performance. Available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever books are sold!

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    1. Patrick on February 20, 2017 at 7:26 am

      This has to be my favorite post ever. So often I read your stuff and I think wow, that’s awesome, but then my head explodes as I try to figure out how to integrate it on a large scale. This advice is so practical and applicable, I think every high school coach can use something from it.

    2. lightweighteats on February 20, 2017 at 7:43 pm

      In rowing, we use stagger starts on workouts, and race to the finish line. For longer pieces (4-6km), this ends up with the slowest boats starting first, and then the next fastest boat starting 10-15 seconds later, until everybody has gone (time trial style). For short pieces (500m-3km), we might have waves of starts—all the women in small boats go, then women in big boats and men in small boats, then men in big boats start last and chase everybody down. You’re not next to somebody the whole race, but you constantly have somebody to catch or to hold off, which is really fun. This may be slightly better in rowing, when you can see people coming up behind you, and feel them just in front of you, but it could also work for running, I think.

    3. Des on February 21, 2017 at 2:31 am

      Thanks Steve! With over 40 athlete attending some of my sessions with a 17 year old 3:52 runner to a 20 year old sub 34 minute 10k runner and wverything else in between good to see we are on the same page. Like they say it isnt rocket science, but it is definitly a challenge.

    4. […] I’ve got to read this again, but yes, from my initial perusal, it’s a common problem with group running. If you’ve in a specialized training block or looking to run a specific workout, running with a group may not be the best option.  Or heck, jump in with the faster group and get a great tempo run in. […]

    5. Martin on February 24, 2017 at 3:54 am

      You ask, “How can both be getting what they need.” I’m sure you’d agree, but another point to make is that there can be a psychological boost to team training. With the right team dynamic athletes believe in their training more and are going to be more committed to the sport and their training. You can use strategies such as those you have listed to get closer to the individual physical needs, but in a team setting it likely will never line up perfectly for every athlete. The only thing that might do that are individual workouts, but that creates unnecessarily extra work for the coach and while the phsyical inputs might be more tailor made, I think we can all agree many athletes lose out in that scenario. Maybe the solution you have is not perfectly tailored to the individual physical needs, but it will outperform other methods since it makes training enjoyable, competitive, and fun.

    6. Darren John on April 11, 2017 at 2:03 am

      With 300 athletes at our road running club now this is exactly the issue we’re starting to experience. 150 18 months ago was manageable quite easily. Now we’re seeing a lot more variation with only volunteer run leaders. Certainly a challenge!

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