Long Term Athlete Development: A Case Study of a 9:15 HS 2-miler becoming a sub 2:17 marathoner
LTAD is one of those buzz phrases thrown around in the athletic world. The intention is noble and worthwhile: Put some deep thought into how an athlete progresses from youth to junior to national class (and hopefully beyond). The problem with LTAD is that it’s mostly theoretical. There are too many factors to control to truly know whether or not starting with a foundation of biomechanics or speed or endurance is appropriate.
Add in the fact that in the U.S. system athletes change coaches every couple of years and it becomes near impossible to tease out any meaning to it all. While I don’t have the answer to any of those questions, I want to present a unique case study to perhaps offer a bit of clarity.
Will Nation was one of the first athletes I coached…ever. He’s a fantastic young man, who has put in a lot of work throughout the years. I started working with him when he was in high school and got to see him progress from a tiny freshman to a senior who ran 9:15.60 in the 3,200m. (In fact, you can venture back in time and see me break down Will’s form sprinting up a hill here) He went on to run at the University of Texas under John Hayes, where he ran 14:06 for 5k. He then spent a year or two under coach Hayes training post-collegiately, culminating in making the Olympic trials, before finding his way back my way for his recent marathon (2:16:59 at CIM). As you can see, Coach Hayes did a great job transitioning him into collegiate running, but since I have his high school training and his marathon build up, I figured it would be worthwhile to see the evolution. Why? Well, it’s not often that we get to see a comparison between the early and current training of someone who has achieved a fair bit of fast running.
First, his complete training:
When Will was in high school, he tended to be overcooked by the end of the year. He would be hanging on to peak fitness by the time he got to the championship meets, instead of feeling ready to go. For his senior year, we decided to insert a week-long period into the middle of the season to give him a little bit of time and space to recover.
If you looked at his strengths back then, it was obviously aerobic. A great example of that was when he ran a demanding 10-mile tempo run (a tradition at the HS) on our hill loop in 54:30. That shows excellent aerobic abilities and points towards his ability to excel at the longer distances later on down the line. His strengths were always there.
Just because he was an aerobically inclined individual, doesn’t mean that he went all in on the aerobic training. As you can see, his threshold work was generally in the 20-25 minute range in terms of volume, and he mostly hung out in the 60’s to low 70’s for volume of running when he was a Senior in high school.
Looking back, I’d even forgot how much sprint work we did. You can see a weekly sprint session during the foundation phase of training, which included the tried and true short hill sprints and 60-meter sprints on the track. It’s kind of funny to look back and think, but a future marathoner doing max 60-meter sprints or 150m speed endurance sessions, isn’t something you normally think about.
The goal at the time was to put the focus on the extremes, develop his aerobic abilities and pure speed so that he could continue to put those pieces together in college and beyond. The other thing that is interesting in looking back on things is that the volume of the hard workouts is generally quite low. It’s not like he was running 6xmile or 10xk or 16x400m. Instead, the workouts themselves were just enough to get a stimulus, and not really pressing it.
Looking back at the training, years after I last did so, is an interesting experience for me as a coach. When you write things at the time, you are predicting that the training will cause certain adaptations and set you the athlete up in a certain way. It doesn’t always turn out that way, but it’s interesting looking back and seeing how things actually did turn out.
If we compare the training of HS Will versus Marathon Will, there are some interesting observations. First, in his early years it seems like Will developed decent enough speed, running 4:17 in HS (and then 14:06 for 5k), and then spent the rest of his career lengthening out the endurance component. Which is something you always here bandied about at clinics or within coaching circles, but it’s fun to see how it plays out in the real world. My question is if Will didn’t develop his weak point (speed) and drop his mile ability down, then would he have been able to lengthen out his endurance to the same degree? Or would there have been too small of a gap between his speed and endurance?
I don’t have an answer to that question, but I’d like to think that the speed foundation served an important role.
Years later, Will is more resilient, able to handle higher volumes (100ish mpw) while working full time. In college, he developed the ability to race fast over 5k and 10k, giving him adequate speed to support his transition into the 5k and 10k. Knowing a little about Hayes’s training, he was able to handle bigger volumes of workouts, as well.
In approaching the marathon, I set out to make sure that Will got to race day feeling good. This was a simple decision that might seem quite obvious, but often we get “greedy” with training and want to force our way to quicker adaptation. In other words, how far you press a workout is important.
With your “workhorse” type who is used to handling big volumes or intensities, you can press the workouts further. You can make bigger jumps in speeds or intensities, not worried about digging a deep hole. With athletes on the other end of the spectrum, you have to be cautious, as slightly going over the edge can send fitness off a cliff.
Each athlete falls on a different spot on the continuum. And sometimes, it depends on the type of workout (i.e. some can handle pressing intensity more than volume).
With Will, given that he worked and I knew his history, we erred closer to the safe side of pressing things, letting his improvements dictate how far we pressed workouts. In this way, I tried to allow his training to be adaptation driven.
The big workout for marathoners is often the marathon paced tempo run. In the US it becomes the focus, with many feeling like if you nail that workout, you are ready to run a fast marathon. With Will, even though he excelled at similar workouts in HS (i.e. 10-mile tempo), I decided to gradually move him towards a truly challenging workout. You can see the progression of his long marathon pace work throughout the training:
- 11 weeks out- 2x4mile progression 5:40 down to 5:10
- 8.5 weeks out- 7 miles- 5:19 average, 4x1mile in 5:03avg
- 7 weeks out- Half Marathon @ 5:26 pace
- 3 weeks out- 13 miles of work: 5miles- 5:23 avg, 800m jog, 4 miles- 5:16 avg. 800m jog, 4 miles- 5:14 avg.
You can see the gradual build in volume and intensity in these sessions, culminating in the final one where he spends a large majority of his time at goal marathon pace (We were shooting for 2:18+).
There are no grand answers to Long Term Athlete Development. There are no magical insights from comparing HS vs. marathoner Will, either. But, hopefully, what you can see is how training can evolve over a career.
Far too often we get caught up in what we see right in front of us. We only see the state or conference championship, forgetting the possibilities down the road. It’s easy to retrospectively make the story about not squeezing everything out of a HS runner, but I think there is some truth to that. If I had to summarize the coaching lessons learned in reflecting on these two entirely different periods of a young runners life, it would be simple:
- Don’t go there until you need to go there.
- Establish a foundation young.
- Let the athlete’s interest guide you.
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I’ve gotta admit that I’m surprised to see you describing 13 miles, with recovery intervals, at an average pace that’s slower than goal pace, as “truly challenging.” I was under the impression that most marathoners were doing at least 30k of MP work in single sessions. FWIW, I’m a 2:30 guy, and I typically do 5×3 miles w/ 400 jog, at slightly faster than MP, and 20 miles continuous at slightly slower than MP as my big workouts.
That’s a great point. And I think it gets down to the fact that it is all relative. Some people can do 20+ miles at near marathon pace, others only 10-12 in practice. The question we should ask is WHY and what’s best for each athlete.
Great stuff Steve – thanks for sharing what a serious, but slightly conservative approach to marathon training for an OT Qualifier looks like. I think that LR 5 weeks out (11mi ez – 10mi @ marathon pace –> at the end of a 90+ mile week w/ 2 previous med-hard workouts) was also a really important workout in preparing Will for the rigors of maintaining that pace on tired legs.