My coaching style and philosophy have evolved from season to season, based on my practical experience coaching high school distance runners. Each athlete possesses distinct characteristics, such as physiology, talent, experience, mental fortitude, ambition, and willingness to put in effort, that makes them unique. Dr. George Sheehan wrote that “Life is the greatest experiment. Each of us is an experiment of one-observer and subject-making choices, living with them, recording the effects.” However, given the number of athletes they work with, coaches have a unique opportunity to distill their observations and experiences into some general principles that can benefit the vast majority of athletes. The first principle, as Coach Tony Holler puts it, is “don’t burn the meat.”

When I began coaching, I did what many new coaches do, I borrowed heavily from my own experiences. Unfortunately, much of what I remembered from high school track and field is grounds for termination these days. Boot camp mentality, hazing and verbal abuse have no place in modern track and field programs.

I embraced the idea that if hard work resulted in fast times, than even harder work would result in even faster times. Looking back at some of my early years as a high school distance coach, I’m surprised I had as much success as I did. I credit the athletes who managed to thrive despite my misguided, but well-intentioned attempts. There were lots of fast, competitive, puke-fest workouts that mirrored my own experience.

After completing several USATF courses, reading a ton of literature, browsing helpful sites, and paying close attention to other successful distance coaches, I’ve learned that working harder isn’t the answer. Working smarter is the key to longevity and success. Athletes must be given ample time to recover and get stronger.

Undertraining is the secret to limiting injuries, avoiding burnout, and keeping athletes engaged and confident throughout the season. Overtraining is a downright dangerous approach taken by a greedy coaches looking for short-term gains at the expense of an athlete’s long-term progression. The “just right” Goldilocks idea of perfection is such a small target that we are better off erring on the side of caution, especially with new and young runners who are still developing physically.

How do we do it? It depends. There are many roads to the same destination. Take a look at a handful of successful 800m champions, you will find contradictory training methods that nevertheless resulted in peak performance for every athlete. The best coaches know their runners well enough to train them in ways that stimulate maximum adaptation and result in peak performance. The bottom line is that everyone is different, so their training should be different as well.

I believe every coach should borrow from the Hippocratic oath and pledge first to avoid those things that could cause more harm than good. We want to teach athletes how to be hard workers, resilient competitors, and dedicated athletes. This requires pushing their boundaries both physically and mentally while exercising restraint and caution when necessary.

Here are 10 important guidelines for coaches to avoid overtraining their runners:

  1. Limit intense workouts or races to a maximum of two per week.

  2. Run mostly easy.

  3. Reserve race-level effort for actual races.

  4. Take into account the athlete’s personal life and make necessary adjustments during stressful times.

  5. Set realistic workout goals and times to build confidence and trust.

  6. Individualize training based on time rather than their place among peers.

  7. Ask everyone how they are feeling everyday. Adjust their training accordingly.

  8. Avoid overwhelming athletes with too many events on meet days. Be mindful of the time between races and cumulative distance.

  9. Encourage athletes to leave “one more rep on the track” and to never completely exhaust their reserves.

  10. Empower runners to make choices by offering a range of minutes or miles on easy days.


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