Coaching Youth Middle Distance Runners: Introduction

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Coaching Youth
Middle Distance Runners

In 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athletic communities in the last century, coaching has in many ways remained a static field dominated by inadequate and outdated methodologies.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.


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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)

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. Though a majority of surveyed coaches claim that "learning by doing" is the most common way they acquire knowledge about their sport, many have expressed a desire to learn more through guided education (Erickson et al., 2008). 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 et al., 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 6 and 18.


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As with all physical activity, great care should be taken to consider individual circumstances before athletes can dedicate themselves to any training program. Coaches should also be concerned with the early detection of injuries, which can differ from those suffered by adult athletes due to growth-related issues (Krabak et al., 2016). This work will address how to correct some common contributing factors to injuries. Some concerns have also been raised regarding the age appropriateness of middle distance running for younger athletes, but a careful review of the available literature finds most of these unwarranted (Jenny & Armstrong, 2013). Most young athletes can safely race at distances even beyond 5,000 m if trained responsibly (Roberts, 2007). 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 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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Wherever possible, this work follows the style guidelines set forth in the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th Edition. Local style points include:

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To see the most recent version of this work, visit: Youth Middle Distance Runners


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American Academy of Pediatrics. (1990). Risks in distance running for children. Pediatrics, 86(5), 799–800. 
Bergeron, M. (2007). Improving health through youth sports: Is participation enough?. New Directions for Youth Development, (115), 27–41. doi:10.1002/yd.221. 
Brenner, J. S. (2007). Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics, 119(6), 1242–1245. doi:10.1542/peds.2007-0887. 
Erickson, K., Bruner, M. W., MacDonald, D. J., & Côté, J. (2008). Gaining insight into actual and preferred sources of coaching knowledge. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching, 3(4), 527–538. doi:10.1260/174795408787186468. 
Graham, J., & Clark, E. H. (1904). Practical track and field athleticsFox, Duffield & Company. 
Jenny, S., & Armstrong, T. (2013). Distance running and the elementary-age child. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 84(3), 17–25. doi:10.1080/07303084.2013.763709. 
Judge, L. W., Petersen, J. C., Bellar, D. M., Craig, B. W., Bodey, K. J., Wanless, E. A., . . . Benner, M. (2013). An examination of pre-activity and post-activity stretching practices of cross country and track and field distance coaches. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(9). doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318257703c. 
Krabak, B. J., Snitily, B., & Milani, C. J. (2016). Running injuries during adolescence and childhood. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, 27(1), 179–202. doi:10.1016/j.pmr.2015.08.010. 
Lynch, S. L., & Hoch, A. Z. (2010). The female runner: Gender specifics. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 29(3), 477–498. doi:10.1016/j.csm.2010.03.003. 
Midgley, A. W., McNaughton, L. R., & Jones, A. M. (2007). Training to enhance the physiological determinants of long-distance running performance: Can valid recommendations be given to runners and coaches based on current scientific knowledge?. Sports Medicine, 37(10), 857–880. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737100-00003. 
Prather, H., & Hunt, D. (2005). Issues unique to the female runner. Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation Clinics of North America, 16(4), 691–709. doi:10.1016/j.pmr.2005.03.002. 
Roberts, W. (2007). Can children and adolescents run marathons?. Sports Medicine, 37(4–5), 299–301. doi:10.2165/00007256-200737040-00007. 
Wiersma, L. D., & Sherman, C. P. (2005). Volunteer youth sport coaches' perspectives of coaching education/certification and parental codes of conduct. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 76(3), 324–338. doi:10.5641/027013605X13080719840870. 
Williams, S. J., & Kendall, L. (2007). Perceptions of elite coaches and sports scientists of the research needs for elite coaching practice. Journal of Sports Sciences, 25(14), 1577–1586. doi:10.1080/02640410701245550.