"The will to win is nothing without the will to prepare to win."
- Juma Ikangaa, 2:08 marathoner from Tanzania

If you're a high-school or college runner and decide to clutter your bookmark file with anything from this site, I hope you'll choose this page. It includes the bulk of a letter I wrote to the Bishop Brady cross-country teams in 2000 at the beginning of the summer as well a pair of timeless and printerworthy gems I wish I'd had access to as a teenager, when I thought seven miles a day was a lot of running.

What is cross-country? It's a summer sport that's played out in the fall. It is a test of physical, mental and emotional strength; it is one of the most uplifting, thankless, rewarding and frustrating endeavors you will ever pour your heart into.

I will make few promises, but here is one: On balance the cross-country experience you will have at Bishop Brady will only change your life for the better if you do not approach it with half-measures and passivity.

To a limited extent, success in distance running is - like success in any sport - predicated on natural ability. But there is NO other sport in which patience, dedication and plain hard work can better overcome a dearth of "talent." I have observed this belief for many years and have lived it myself. Whatever your main goal in cross-country - increased physical fitness, a sense of community, an individual or team championship - you are simply cheating yourself if you do not take advantage of your summer vacation and return in August in good shape, because the kids who have been training will eat you alive. It really is that simple.

The delicious flip side is that Bishop Brady high school quite possibly has the raw material for a top-three finish in the state this fall - boys and girls both. All you have to do is refine it.

SUMMER TRAINING GUIDELINES

Good news: The amount of hard running you, as a teenager, need to do over the summer is minimal. The key to boosting endurance is consistently logging mileage; daily (yes, daily) runs of low to moderate intensity. There are no shortcuts! If you're serious about cross-country, you should plan to set aside an hour a day - and often much less - for running and associated activities such as stretching, etc. If you can't or won't do that, you're welcome to participate, but you can expect a rude awakening in August and to fall short of your goals. I realize that many of you have work and other commitments in July and August, but trust me - there is no better time in your life to fully devote yourself to a sport than in high school.

THE CORE ISSUE: HOW MUCH TO RUN?

You'll almost never hear me advise you how far to run. Instead I'll suggest you run for a given length of time. There are a number reasons for this, and if you're desperate to know them, ask me.

Experienced runners (those with at least six months of consistent distance training) should aim to reach 45-60 minutes a day of running, on average, by mid-August. Newer runners (those who participated in spring track or have done some running as part of another sport) should shoot for a daily average of 30-45 minutes by the time we re-convene in August. Novice runners should attempt to reach a daily average of 30 minutes of running by this time.

When increasing your distance over a period of weeks, it's wise to "cut back" very third week to allow your body to adapt to the stress. A sample schedule for an experienced runner:

Week of 6/12: 280 min. total (40/day)Week of 7/3: 315 min. total (45/day)Week of 7/24: 350 min. total (50/day)
Week of 6/19: 350 min. total (50/day)Week of 7/10: 385 min. total (55/day)Week of 7/31: 420 min. total (60/day)
Week of 6/26: 210 min. total (30/day)Week of 7/17: 245 min. total (35/day)Week of 8/7: 280 min. total (40/day)

Understand that these are general guidelines and that the basic idea is for you to run, then run a little farther, never worrying about increasing the pace until you're comfortable with the distance.

Many people fear high-mileage training is somehow risky and can lead to "burnout." My own experience as a runner as well as an observant coach is that this is unfounded. Easy distance runs, as incorporated into African children's lifestyles, will simply make you stronger. It's one of the safest investments you can ever make. Besides, you can't burn out if you've never caught fire.

Again, whatever your goals in cross-country are, your destiny is almost entirely in your hands. This is the path I chose as a high-schooler:

9th Grade - Summer training: none best time: 19:28
10th Grade - Summer training: 30-40 mpw best time: 17:05
11th Grade - Summer training: 40-45 mpw best time: 16:19
12th Grade - Summer training: 45-60 mpw best time: 15:57

(Note: These times were all run on the same 5K course.)

I began as the 11th runner on a mediocre team (first race: 21:06) and wound up my career with a trio of top-three finishes at State Championship races. I tell you these things because they stand as proof that an athlete with only modest natural ability can ascend the ranks in this sport if he or she is willing to make a very basic commitment. I hope you'll do so, because I know the incredible feeling of self-satisfaction this can ultimately bring.

Other tips:

  • Expect to have crappy runs from time to time, especially as the weather heats up. Learn to tolerate them. The key is being consistent.

  • Run with a teammate, or in groups if possible. The mutual motivation is helpful and the training often goes by more quickly with a partner.

  • Twice a week, incorporate 6-8 20-second "strides" (near-sprints) into the middle or end of a run. This is all the "speedwork" you'll need over the summer.

  • Stay off paved roads whenever possible. Trails and dirt roads are much, much more forgiving on the legs than asphalt.

  • If you do get injured, let me know right away. Rest days are okay if you truly need them, but you should come to regard yourself as an everyday runner.

Good luck. I'm looking forward to the fall, and I hope you are too!


The Summer of malmo - which, as the name implies, also relates to training for cross-country - is aimed at more advanced athletes, but in it there are useful nuggets for all competitive runners. Finally, here's a veritable dissertation on training high-school runners from "The Great and Powerful Oz" himself - no illusory being, but a man whose wisdom you should familiarize yourself with if the flame of your heart's desire is at all fueled by dreams of maximizing your potential in distance running. The discussion revolves around the training principles employed in coaching a Texas prepatory school for eight years with enormously successful results - results that were quickly inverted when a more "traditional" coach took over for the next eight years.