Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Thinking About Young Runners

This past weekend, Brooks hosted 135 of the most talented high school runners in the country for the PR Meet.  Everyone was blown away by the times the youngsters ran.  The winner of the girl’s one mile, Sarah Fenny, ran 4:39, my PR in college, and a time that auto-qualified me for the DI Indoor National Championships.  The rest of the field were not far behind.  Fans, coaches, my teammates, and I were all speculating about how this great leap in achievement has been possible, especially for high school girls.  And is it sustainable?  I think this article from Running Times does a great job talking about some of the reasons why high school girls are running so well:

As for sustainability, it will remain to be seen.  A lot of the runners I met this weekend seem to be in a good place; they have a healthy attitude towards training, resting, and eating.  They look strong, and, most importantly, they are having fun.  But, I worry the opportunities that are helping these girls run so fast, will also limit some of their long-term success.  High school running is starting to mirror the "professionalization of youth sports" seen in many other activities.  Professionalization of youth sport is characterized by year-round, intense training, frequent national and international competition, and a great emphasis placed on winning.  I experienced this professionalization in soccer, a sport I played year-round through my freshman year of college.  I met, and played with and against, some of the most talented players in the country.  Some of them burned out during high school, others while playing in college, and some had to give up soccer before they were ready due to severe, reoccurring injuries.  And some continued to love and flourish in the sport throughout and after their club and school careers.  I think soccer would have been sustainable for more of them (and for me) if professionalization hadn’t happened so early on. 

The risks of professionalism can be even greater for distance runners.  As the Runner’s World article discusses, one of the risks of focusing solely on distance running at a young age, particularly for young women, is the temptation to eat too little.  While there are advantages to having some weight to throw around in sports like soccer, hockey, and basketball, it may feel like a disadvantage for runners to carry “extra” weight around.

As runners who have made it through high school and college, and who are now flourishing on the elite level, my teammates and I were asked what advice we would pass along to the PR Meet runners.  This made me think of a blog post I recently read from fellow Minnesotan and Big 10 runner, Hanna Grinaker.  I like her post because she talks honestly about some of the easy pitfalls of competitive running, and she does it without being preachy.  You can under-eat, over-train, and ignore solid training advice and still achieve remarkable success in the short-term, but in order to be successful in the long-term, you have to be healthy and train with intelligence.  (

How to get injured in 5 easy steps.


Heading into my 5th and final year as a Badger, my victory lap if you will, I had big goals. What other way do you wish to end your athletic career than by finishing at the top? To be considered one of the best? To feel like you have given everything you possibly could back to a program who has given you so much?

It all started in the summer of 2010. My spring track season had been less than stellar so through a few meetings with Coach and a lot of self-talk, I headed home to the northwoods of Detroit Lakes, MN to dedicate myself fully to my training. I wouldn’t work. I wouldn’t go out with friends. I wouldn’t have any fun. The point of that summer was to mold myself into the best athlete I had been up until that point. But, if you wanna make God laugh, tell him your plans….because the summer of 2010 and the start up to my last season as a Badger was anything but what I had hoped it would be.

I got injured. Badly. I got injured so bad I didn’t run a step for 8 months. I didn’t race for another two years. Wanna know how I did it? I made 5 HUGE mistakes in my training and the way I was treating my body. If you wanna get injured like I did, just follow these steps!


1. Under fuel.

The competitive nature and strong discipline that can help make a good athlete GREAT was also the biggest piece of the equation leading to my demise. Simply put, I didn’t eat enough. Not only was I not putting enough calories in my tank just to supplement the incredible amount of activity I was doing each day, I was not giving my body enough calories to promote proper recovery. Instead of building on a solid base each day, I was digging myself further into the ground. Slowly but surely, I came to discover that an underfueled athlete is a slowed and weakened athlete. If muscles lack sufficient and proper fuel, performance is impaired. And while at first there might just be some early fatigue, as the fuel deficit worsens, actual loss of strength and muscle size can occur as the body catabolizes skeletal muscle in order to fuel essential body functions. With that progressive loss of muscle, the bones are not well supported. I think the only way my body knew that it would get a break from the way I was treating it would be to literally break itself. In my last cross season as a Badger (2 weeks prior to the Big Ten Championships), I fractured my pubic ramus and tore my hip flexor away from the bone, thus sidelining myself from the sport for (what the doctor’s thought) would be an indefinite amount of time.


2. Overtrain.

Overtraining is such an arbitrary term and frankly, I hate it (and this is exactly what got me into trouble in the first place). Doing more for the sake of doing more was my first mistake. I looked at what my competitors were doing and had the belief that if I only ran more miles, and at higher intensities than they, I would naturally be better. But more time logged on the roads doesn’t doesn’t always equate to better performances, and this couldn’t have been more evident to me than on race day. I was one of those athletes that was a world-beater when it came to practice, but when race day arrived, I was so spent from training, I literally tanked when it counted most. I should’ve learned the value of QUALITY over QUANTITY. I should’ve realized that by doing what I’ve always done, I’d get where I’ve always gotten. I realize now that Hanna the athlete performs better on less miles. Yes, LESS is BEST.


3. Do not take rest days, or easy days, or anything but hard days.

This piece of the puzzle goes hand in hand with the second item on the list. In addition to doing too much, I also was working too hard. I thought that rest days were for wimps. I thought that when other athletes would take their rest days, I would gain an advantage because it was just one more day where I was working and they were not. BUTTTTT, we don’t actually get fitter when we’re on the road. What we really do in hard workouts is apply a stimulus that elevates our heart rate, breaks down muscle fibers, causes the adrenal glands to secrete the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol and generally tells our body that the status quo won’t cut it anymore. The “getting fitter” part – the body’s response to that stimulus -comes afterward. While you eat and rest, the body gets to work repairing tissue damage, strengthening the heart and other muscles, restoring depleted fuel reserves and getting better at transporting oxygen throughout the body, making itself a little more efficient and stronger than before. Then we go out and do it again. The resting part of the puzzle is what allows us to stack up those little adaptations one on top of the other so we progress in our training. Common sense, no? I agree, but I was a stupid athlete then.


4. Don’t listen to, or trust your coach.

Because I wasn’t seeing steady improvement throughout my career, I needed someone to blame. Obviously it wouldn’t, it COULDN’T, have been my fault. I was training like a dog. I did everything my coach asked of me. You know what the problem was? I was doing MORE than he asked of me. Coaches do what they do for a reason. Most of them have been athletes themselves (like my coach had been–and he was actually really good too), so they know what works and what doesn’t. They have that 20-20 hindsight vision that so many young athletes lack. But being the hard-headed, always-wanting-to-grind-it-out athlete that I was, I didn’t listen. And I paid for it.


5. Take everything you do very seriously and here is the key point: Make sure you are never having fun. 

I made running my sole identity. I made it a business. I made it out to be SO much more than it should be. I think we are most successful when we are happy, and when you take everything so gol dang seriously, how the heck can you be happy?

Are you pounding your head against the wall yet? I bet you think I’m an idiot. Well, yes, yes I was. But I’m a little older, a little wiser, and a whole lot cooler now.

I hope you’ve appreciated my “how-to” guide to getting injured, and for the love of all things Holy, please avoid making these mistakes yourself! 

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