high school girl runners line up for the mile at state meet
(Photo: 101 Degrees West)

High School Runners: Want to Shine in Championships? Here’s How.

6 Keys to be ready for a great championship season of outdoor track, from training to tactics.

high school girl runners line up for the mile at state meet
Jay Johnson

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The last four weeks of the outdoor track season are when most athletes will run their season PRs. In this special time of year there are six keys you’ll need to do to ensure you’re ready to run your best races of the season at the most important time of the year.

1) Sleep

Sleep is crucial for great performance this time of year. Sleep ranked number one in importance in my article on  ways to improve as a high school runner, and it only increases in importance during the championship season.

In addition to supporting the training loads and academic workloads you’ve been doing for the past months, you now have the addition of key races. You’re focused for these races and often using a bit more mental energy for the important races. In the same way a concrete foundation supports the structure of your school and your outdoor track, your sleep is the foundation for all your activities.

The problem with this recommendation is it’s much less exciting than race tactics, which I’ll discuss in a moment. But if you ask the best runners in the world how much they sleep invariably they’ll say 9-10 hours a night, plus a nap most days. Most high school runners can’t sleep in as late as they want, so you need count back from when you wake up and be disciplined to go to bed early enough to get at least 8 hours.

While you won’t see your favorite collegiate or professional athletes talking about sleep on the social media feeds, know that it’s crucial to their race performance, and it’s crucial for you if you want to run PRs.

high school boys running on track in windy weather
Photo: 101 Degrees West

2) Make Peace with Bad Weather

Racing well in bad weather is difficult. It’s also frustrating when you’re fit and you and your coach know that in better weather you’d likely run a PR. Yet the weather will be bad for most teams for one or more meets in the last four weeks of the season. Accept that now, then simply say, “I can run a great race in bad weather. And I might even run a PR.”

You may get off the bus to a cold rain and strong winds. Or here could be a heat wave, and on top of that gusty winds. Be prepared for both extremes now so that when the day comes you’re not bothered by this reality. Plus, you’ll no doubt beat a competitor or two, even one that is fitter or more talented, because you had the right mindset and are eager to compete, regardless of the conditions.

3) Execute Your Race Plan

You and your coach no doubt have a thoughtful race plan going into each race. Once this is established, you need to do your best to execute that plan. Because you can get a 200m split and a 400m split in the first lap of a race, you’ll get the feedback you need early in the race to run a smart race. After the race you two can analyze what happened and see what adjustments you can make for the next race.

Often the plan will have you running a negative split race, which simply means the second half of the race is faster than the first half of the race. Let’s use a 1,600m race as an example. An evenly run first 1,500m, then a 100m kick, still counts as a negative split race since the last 100m comes in the second 800m of the race. You can have an even more dramatic negative split if you finish going fast, faster, fastest for your final 4-500 meters, which we’ll discuss in a moment. You do not want to run a positive split race, one where you run hard in the first half of the race, only to fade at the end. It’ll be hard for you and your coach to learn much about your fitness or see if there should be adjustments made in training, since your poor race tactics dominated the result.

Have a plan, execute the plan, then be open to feedback that sets you up to run faster in the next race.

4) Be Ready to Cover Moves

The best runners in the world can “cover moves.” This simply means that when a competitor (or two or three) suddenly speed up, you speed up as well. If you’re going to win a race, or place as high as you and your coach are hoping for, you’ll need to stay close to your competitors. If you let a gap between you and them form, even if it’s just 10 meters, it will be much harder to close this gap in the final 400m of the race.

Another way to say this is that you need to “keep contact” with them, often running on the outside shoulder of the leader if you are confident you can beat them. It should be noted that all of this assumes you can execute a negative split race, yet the winner, as well as the other top finishers in late season races, will be running a negative split. And since, to compete with them, you and your coach have some version of a negative split race in mind, being able to cover moves so that you can maintain contact with your competitors is crucial.

high school runners on track
Photo: 101 Degrees West

“But Jay – you just described what an athlete needs to do when they’re trying to win. What should runners who are trying to run fast, yet will finish in the middle of a race, especially the 3,200m, do?” Great question.

You’ll still have to cover moves in the 3,200m, even when you’ll end up finishing in the middle of the race (or even the back third of the race – which could still mean a PR in a competitive field). And I’d argue that the skill of covering moves in these races for younger athletes is the best way to learn to cover moves for the coming years.

What happens if you don’t cover moves, or let yourself slowly get gapped? It’s harder to maintain a pace when you’re running by yourself. It takes exceptional mental fortitude to run lap after lap 20-30-40 meters behind your nearest competitor.

If you have doubts about the pace you can maintain, make sure you have a conservative plan for the first half of the race. Which sets you up to run faster the second half of the race (the negative split execution).

5) Prepare Yourself to Run Fast, Faster, Fastest

If you were to break down 100m splits in a 1,600m race – which most coaches don’t, and that’s fine – you’ll find that in 2021 the athletes who win 1,600m races run their fastest 100m last. And their second fastest 100m or 200m came before that. And often, the 100m-300m before that is run faster than the pace they ran the first half of the race. In this case, they ran a certain pace, then changed gears three times: they went fast, then faster, then they ran their fastest in the last 100m.

Just this week a coach asked me how their athletes should race the 1,600m. I asked them if they had a copy of my book Consistency Is Key and they did, so I suggested they read the section titled “Practice Running Fast, Faster, Fastest.” In this section I describe a race where a runner runs the first two laps of a 1,600m at an even pace. Then they run 300 more meters at the same pace. Now they have 500m left in the race: the home stretch and one full lap.

The goal now is to run fast for 200m, faster for 200m, then run their fastest 100m of the race in the last 100m. If we watched this race, they’d run the homestretch to the 300m hurdle mark fast (200m), then speed up and run the backstretch and second curve faster (200m), then have a great finishing kick and run the last 100m as their fastest running of the race. Even if you can’t win a race this is a great race plan to execute as you’ll surely be passing athletes in the last 500m of the race.

But like many things in running, this is easier said than done and you must practice “shifting gears” in practice. Obviously, you can’t run race simulations that are 1,600m long each week. But you can run 300s and practice the early pace of the race, then with short recoveries, run some 300s where you run 200m fast, then speed up for 100m. You can even run a couple of 300m at the end of the workout where you run fast, faster, fastest for each 100m segment.

The bottom line here is you and your coach can’t expect you to be able to execute fast, faster, fastest in a race if you haven’t practiced it before the race. Even if you have a big aerobic engine, you still need to learn the skill of changing gears when you’re fatigued.

6) Trust Changes in Training

The final point I want to make is a simple one, yet it’s likely going to be the hardest for some runners.

Your training should change in the last four weeks of the season. In some general sense you’ll likely decrease the mileage you’ve been running (though many of the best coaches in the country don’t decrease it by more than 10 percent). And often there are harder hard workouts and easy recovery days.

This type of training isn’t new, but it is being employed by more thoughtful coaches. While the changes in training will be subtle, there will likely be something a bit different in these last few weeks. While I no longer believe in the paradigm of “build a big base, then taper and peak” I do think a modest decrease in volume, coupled with more work that has athletes running fast, faster, fastest with “fresh” legs, is a recipe for success.

It’s your job to trust that these minor adjustments are going to lead to faster racing. If your coach didn’t think so, they wouldn’t be doing it. And that said, you should ask your coaches why you’re doing what you’re doing. A good coach will always be able to explain the rationale behind these decisions (and the best coaches will have you excited about the changes).

I wish you the best during the last four weeks of the season. Get as much rest as you can as the first priority, and follow the suggestions above to put yourself in the best position to run PRs and advance to the next meet.

Jay Johnson helps high school runners through his website, www.coachjayjohnson.com, and through his YouTube channel, which has over 2 million views. You can find him on social media @coachjayjohnson.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: 101 Degrees West