Coaching Youth Middle Distance Runners: Introduction
Middle Distance Runners
n their book Practical Track and Field Athletics, University of Wisconsin–Madison track and field coach John Graham and Olympic champion Ellery Clark (1904) issue practical advice to novice middle distance running coaches:
With the change from the quarter to the half mile run, speed becomes of much less importance and endurance becomes an absolute necessity. Of course a first-class half-miler, a man who can beat two minutes, must be possessed of a fair amount of speed, but endurance must be cultivated at all hazards. Some cross country running during the winter, combined with gymnasium work for the upper part of the body, is the best preparation for the running season. (p. 35)
The information they offer is mostly correct, but it is also incomplete; the chapters regarding the middle distance events make up only one–tenth of the book's length. Although much has changed in the scientific and athletic communities in the last century, coaching has in many ways remained a static field dominated by inadequate and outdated methodologies. Coaches may understand the basic concepts mentioned by Graham and Clark, but knowing what makes a good runner is not the same as knowing how to coach one.
Though the benefits of rigorous exercise for young people are numerous and well documented, mere participation is not enough:
Youth do not necessarily acquire the health and health-related ﬁtness beneﬁts that many parents and other adults assume will be achieved through participating in youth sports without deliberate efforts to ensure that the amount of moderate to vigorous exercise is sufﬁciently maintained for each young person. (Bergeron, 2007, p. 37)
Furthermore, the commonly held belief that "sports build character" can also be questioned: Character development is a "process that is primarily influenced by contextual variables throughout a person's life. But if sport is part of a young person's life, then the sport experience will influence his or her character development–and hopefully in a positive way" (Doty, 2006, p. 8). Coaches, then, serve an important function: They must guide athletes in such a way as to help them find a balance between athletic success and overall wellness.
Coaches often claim that "learning by doing" is the most common way they acquire knowledge about their sport, but many have expressed a desire to learn more through guided education (Erickson, Bruner, MacDonald, & Côté, 2009). Both developmental and top-level middle distance coaches have called for more dissemination of the scientific knowledge in the field (Wiersma & Sherman, 2005; Williams & Kendall, 2007). While it is true that coaches can sometimes fail to implement the proven methods they are taught even after completing coaching education programs (Judge et al., 2013), and research on this subject is still relatively limited (Midgley, McNaughton, & Jones, 2007), there clearly exists a need to bridge the gap between researcher and coach. Therefore, this work is designed to supplement—but not replace—conventional texts with information related to coaching middle distance runners between the ages of six and 18.
As with all physical activity, great care should be taken to consider individual circumstances before an athlete can dedicate himself or herself to any training program. Regarding middle distance running specifically, some concerns have been raised regarding the age appropriateness of the sport for younger athletes, but a careful review of the available literature finds most of these unwarranted (Jenny & Armstrong, 2013). While it is true that "for both men and women, the age of peak performance increases with the length of the foot race" (Schulz & Curnow, 1998, p. 113), most young athletes can safely race at distances even beyond 5,000 m if trained responsibly (Roberts, 2007), and even preadolescent runners can benefit from a long-term distance running program (Covington, 1987). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAPC, 1990), "if children enjoy the activity and are asymptomatic, there is no reason to preclude them from training for and participating in [endurance running events]" (p. 800). More important than race distance, then, is the type and volume of training, which coaches should manage carefully so as to avoid overuse injuries or burnout (Brenner, 2007). Researchers have also raised a number of important questions regarding various aspects of training female runners (Lynch & Hoch, 2010; Prather & Hunt, 2005). To address these, this work includes several sections related to specific gender differences that may arise while training young male and female athletes.
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- Covington, N. K. (1987, April). The Effects of Long Distance Running on Preadolescent Children. Paper presented at the National Convention of the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, Las Vegas, NV. http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED282868.pdf.
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