This article is the third in a series of four articles that will examine how legendary distance coaches like Joe Vigil have impacted modern distance training methodology.

Dr. Joe Vigil, celebrated for his remarkable time at Adams State College, left an indelible mark in coaching distance runners. He led teams to 19 national championships and secured 12 NAIA National Cross Country Championships, showcasing his exceptional coaching prowess. His 94.2% winning record, 14 National Coach of the Year titles, and the development of 425 All Americans and 87 individual national champions underscore his profound impact on the sport. His coaching extended beyond the collegiate level, guiding athletes to Olympic success, including Deena Kastor’s 2004 Olympic Silver Medal in the marathon.

This article delves deep into Dr. Vigil’s training philosophy, unveiling the principles that shaped champions and revolutionized distance running with emphasis on how his methods can be applied to high school distance programs.

Philosophy and Mindset of the Runner

Vigil’s coaching philosophy highlights that while physical training is fundamental, mental tenacity, unwavering focus, and cultivating good habits are pivotal in achieving enduring success in distance running. As a starting point, his runners must be tough enough to endure the discomforts of a rigorous training plan. This resilience is best developed through consistency and repetition. He is famous for saying, “if you eat breakfast that day, you run that day.” He did in fact require his athletes to run in the morning 7 days a week.

Dr. Vigil also believes in developing the mind and spirit. He emphasizes the importance of family and religion and instills the virtues of hard work and clean living into his athletes. He stresses the importance of good daily habits and clean living. Vigil’s runners often practice positive self-talk and pre-race visualization to build a strong, positive mental outlook that will fortify them during competition.

Perhaps the greatest hallmark of Coach Vigil’s programs is the emphasis he places on team unity. Vigil stresses the importance of team cohesion and shared training experiences. Athletes train together, push each other during training, and talk about team goals regularly.

Vigil believes these experiences foster camaraderie and collective improvement. He writes that the athletes must have an ‘unshatterable’ belief in themselves, their teammates and their coach. When coaching at Adams State College, at the beginning of the season Vigil would put up a sign on the wall that said “If you do not believe we can have a national championship, you don’t belong here.”

Physiology of Running

Vigil employs Arthur Lydiard‘s idea of periodization. He strongly believes that both the athlete and the coach must understand the physiological changes that occur at each phase in training and how that will lead to optimal performance. He defines the stages of training periods as base, precompetitive, competitive, and transition. The interplay of volume and intensity are crucial to the development and sequence of the training plan.

  1. Base Phase: During the base phase of training the primary goal is to develop the highest percentage of VO2 max as possible. In other words, improve the efficiency and capacity of the body to convert oxygen into energy. This is accomplished through lots of aerobic runs with all training efforts under threshold pace.
  2. Precompetitive Phase: As athletes progress, the precompetitive phase introduces more specific training. Workouts become more race-specific, incorporating tempo runs, intervals, and increased intensity while maintaining volume.
  3. Competitive Phase: Closer to competitions, the focus shifts to sharpening. Intensity ramps up, workouts are designed to simulate race conditions, and tapering strategies are employed to ensure athletes peak at the right time for key events.
  4. Transition Phase: This phase allows for recovery and mental recharging after intense competition periods. It involves reducing training volume and intensity to allow the body to recuperate while still maintaining aerobic fitness.

Strength Training

Vigil is not a huge proponent of developing strength in distance runners. He’d rather spend the time having his runners run if given only a couple of hours a day to practice. Ideally, the weight routine would be separated by 6-8 hours from the running workout. His goals for high school distance runners would be to squat and bench their own bodyweight, and deadlift 1.5 times their bodyweight. Preferably, time would be spent developing elastic strength through plyometric exercises rather than working on their maximum explosive strength in the gym.

Coaching Points

Vigil is tough on his athletes. He reminds his athletes that they are there to train voluntarily. In many cases, athletes might think they are doing the coach a favor just by showing up. These athletes area a liability to the program. Every runner must train with focus and develop their mental toughness with consistency day after day.

“You have something to get up for every morning. You’re loved. You have a team.”

Coach Joe Vigil

Joe Vigil recognizes that when an athlete decides to be a part of a team program they are giving up their time and energy. These are perhaps the most valuable gifts they have to give at that age. A coach must not waste these gifts with an improperly designed program that leads nowhere.

Sample Training Sequence

  1. Base Phase: Mostly longer runs with an occasional aerobic threshold workout every other week. Example: Long run of 25-30 (15-19 miles) kilometers once every 14 days. On the alternate Sunday a shorter 20 kilometer run (12.5 miles).
  2. Precompetitive Phase: Introduction of faster running and continued diligence with long run endurance. Example: 6×800@3K pace, 400 jog recovery between reps
  3. Competitive Phase: Focus on race specific components and speed. Example: Alternate workouts every other Tuesday. One week run 60-600m at all out speed with full recovery. The next Tuesday run 4×400 all out with 5-8 minute recovery period between each effort.
  4. Transition Phase: This is the recovery and regenerative phase. The focus is on maintaining aerobic levels while reducing intensity and volume from the previous stages. Example: 60 minutes at an easy to moderate pace

Vigil’s Road to the Top

The philosophy of Joe Vigil is a symphony of iron-clad discipline, team unity, unwavering training consistency, masterful training periodization, meticulously tuned energy systems, and a foundation of high mileage, all orchestrated to create distance running champions.






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