Gary is the distance coach for the highly successful Chico State cross country and track and field teams. His cross country teams have achieved D2 top 10 national rankings an amazing 24 times (11 for women, 13 for men)!
Gary is also a highly accomplished distance runner with a 2:29 marathon PR. Gary was kind enough to share his coaching philosophies and training strategies in an interview conducted on 2/27/13.
In Part 1, we’ll learn about Gary’s teams and his athletes’ competitive events, the challenge of competing in both cross country and track events, his use of periodization, how strength training plays a role in the development of distance athletes, Gary’s approach to speed work, and the use of specificity in training.
JM: I understand you’re not only the cross country coach but also the distance coach for the track team. Could you tell me a little about your teams, your role as a distance coach, and your athletes’ competitive events?
GT: Basically, cross country and track are two different sports, but a lot of the same ingredients are needed in both, such as the type of work you need to do to have success. But the fall is our cross country season. The distances in cross country–for the men, 10k is the championship distance and for the women, 6k is the championship distance. In the fall, that’s our primary goal, to be training to be successful at those distances.
Track is a different animal because I coach athletes that race as low as 800 meters and all the way up to the 10k. Even though I’m the head cross country and only technically the assistant coach for track and field, track season is maybe a bigger challenge for me because of the uniqueness of the training and the athlete and the events they’re doing. As part of track you have the steeplechase event which requires hurdle work and some of the same things the other kids are doing, but also specific stuff that you need to do as a steeplechaser. It keeps me busy and it’s a neat challenge working with different athletes. In the fall we’re shooting for the same goals; in the spring it kind of branches out.
JM: Do you have some athletes who do track and cross country?
GT: Oh yeah. Pretty much everyone. It’s rare that we have an athlete that would do only one of the two sports. Some of the kids are more successful maybe in one discipline than the other but they all understand the importance of both seasons and how one season can help the other. If you’ve got intermediate goals to have success in the season that’s in front of you at that time, it really motivates you to get in the work you need. I’ve got kids who are very focused in the fall and spring. In the big picture, it helps them develop into a better runner versus if they were just doing one discipline and the rest of the year was focused on getting ready for the next year in that discipline. There’d be a larger window between competitive cycles and their commitment level might wane a little bit.
JM: Is periodization something you use?
GT: Oh yeah, definitely. You pretty much have to–both with how we put together volumes per week or per training cycle and of course how we put together workouts. Periodization’s part of the whole process. You have to gently change training and the training’s got to evolve as a training cycle goes along and as you’re reaching for peaking at the right time of year.
JM: if you were training your cross country athletes to peak during the competitive season, how long would the season be and what would your periodization approach be?
GT: That’s a really broad question because there’s a lot to it, but in general they start training for cross country two weeks after their track season ends. For us, it’s the first of June. By mid-June, after a two week break from track, they’ll get their running going again. I set up plans for each person, individualized mileage plans that take them through each week of the summer, eventually leading up to our competitive season, which begins in the middle of September. That’s when we start competition for cross country.
The summer is a lot of base building, just gradually building the mileage. Basically we integrate harder workouts, intervals and tempo running as we get further into the summer. By the time we get back into the school year, that’s when our competitive season starts for cross country. Most of our athletes are not training together during the summer months. They’re home or working summer jobs or internships but we’re all back together by late August for the training camp in the late summer. Then we come back from camp and start official training together in early September. We build our training into the month of November, which is when our championships are for cross country.
Things transition from focusing on building mileage over the summer, to adding elements of harder running, to balancing the two by the time we’re back in September–both high volumes and some really tough workouts. We hold the volume for the good portion of the fall season. Even while we’re in the competitive season, we really focus our training on the month of November and getting ready for that. We work through a lot of the big invitationals that we compete at. We understand that the most important thing is having success at the national championships every year.
JM: What kind of mileage are your athletes looking at when building a base?
GT: That depends on the person’s background, how many years they’ve been in our program, and what their background in the sport is like. We have some kids that come into our program having run maybe 30 or 40 miles a week, which is not that much, given what we need to be doing to have success at the national level in college. And then we have others who’ve reached up to 70 or 75–or even 80–miles a week at their high schools or community colleges before they got here. It’s important that I don’t take everyone and put them in the same training plan as far as how much they’re doing per week because I might be undertraining one person or overtraining another person.
I have individual meetings with all the athletes before each season and I’m very aware of their background in the sport and lifetime mileage and what their strengths and weaknesses are. We create a training plan for each person. Volumes per week can really vary. For the men, they’re racing 10k over tough cross country courses. The type of training to have success at the 10k cross country distance is similar to the fitness that it takes to have success for the half marathon. You need to be really strong to handle running a difficult 10k cross country course—strong, not like muscular strong, but aerobically strong. You need to be very aerobically sound. So a lot of our training is geared around training the aerobic system.
Our top guys are averaging in their bigger weeks like 80 to 90 miles per week. Some get a little further up; some maybe a little under that if they’re newer to the program. For the women, since they’re only racing 6k, it doesn’t require quite as much aerobic background to have success. They’re still putting in some good volumes, even though things can really vary, depending on the person. A lot of our top runners who’ve been in the program for quite some time are getting into the 60-80 mile a week range in the bigger weeks. But that’s kind of a rough idea. Some are below those numbers and a few maybe above.
JM: is there a strength training component?
GT: Yeah, like weight training? We do some of the ancillary stuff that could be considered strength training. We do a core routine after easy days or recovery days of running. One of my former assistant coaches developed a plan that we’ve been following, and we have a weight training routine that one of my assistant coaches and I have worked on. They lift a good 2 or 3 days a week during the good majority of the season and they’re doing a core routine during the same window.
JM: Are you having them do basic squats and deadlifts–things like that–or Olympic lifts?
GT: Not so much the Olympic lifts. More stuff that’s a little controlled. I always worry with Olympic lifting; we have a lot of kids who aren’t the most gifted at movements—they’re good at running but I cringe at the thought of a kid getting injured because they’re having a really difficult time. Our lifts are a little more safe and a little less strenuous on the joints, especially knee joints. One of my fears is that I don’t want to injure ourselves doing something that isn’t going to help us or isn’t going to help us as much as the act of running. I’ve had athletes injure themselves by doing too much in the weight room and from doing ancillary stuff that put them too at-risk for injury. We steer them away from Olympic lifts but there are a variety of exercises we do in the weight room that touch on different muscle groups. Some are directly linked to the act of the running and maybe others that work on the outside muscles, maybe stabilizers that may be neglected a bit in the act of running. But yeah, that’s a little of our routine.
JM: Do you have any concerns about hypertrophy, developing too much muscle mass?
GT: Generally that’s not too big of an issue with our group. It’s funny because, as our team has gotten better, the athletes have gotten smaller. Years ago, the fastest runners in distance running, the fastest marathon runners in the world, the average weight was like 115 pounds. You don’t have to be a small athlete to be successful in our sport but a lot of the better runners are pretty small. They’re not in the weight room to get huge; they know they’re not trying to put on mass. We get a few that we have to temper the way they’re lifting. The way we have it set up with the reps and resistances is so they’re not maxing out in anything they’re doing. But yeah, you don’t want to carry any extra weight that you don’t have to. They’re pretty in tune with that.
JM: Can you tell me a little more about the speed work you do in training? How frequently and, like you said, you have athletes who are doing 800m to 10k, so how does the speed training vary?
GT: In the fall a lot of our faster running is done in the park because it’s more specific to the element that they’re running in cross country races. So trying to get used to running faster on the road and trails in Bidwell Park is going to help us more than doing our faster running on the track. And of course the element of actual speed, top end speed isn’t as much of an issue when you’re looking at cross country and having success over a 10k course or over a 6k course when their average paces are not going to be nearly as fast as what they run in track. The two seasons, the elements of speed can be quite a bit different, but then there are similarities.
I kind of operate in different systems and cycle though different systems with respect to the faster running we do throughout the year. One day we might be working on the lactate threshold system, which is, as far as exact pace, it’s roughly 10-15 seconds per mile slower than your current 10k race pace. The idea is to do 4-6 or even up to 8 miles of work within that window or that pace. The idea is that spending a good amount of time operating at that intense speed teaches the body to operate with lactic acid in the system, so it’s sort of that cusp where the body produces lactic acid but doesn’t flood the system with it. By training through that system, over the course of the season, then you’re able to race at a faster speed and deal with lactic acid more effectively.
VO2 max is another pace threshold that we work within. That’s stuff we do at a race pace, say 3k to 10k race pace, we call VO2 max work. We integrate some workouts at those paces. We’ll do 3 to maybe 5k to 10k of hard running at like VO2 max pace kind of broken up into parts, like mile repeats or kilometer repeats. But that’s another system that we try to touch on fairly regularly.
And then we’ll do anaerobic work, that’s meant to touch on the neuromuscular side of things, maybe 400 to 800 pace, that real fast stuff. Then we have some stuff that’s even higher up, like long 8-10 mile tempo runs that are maybe 20-25 seconds per mile slower than lactate threshold pace. We’ll do those (tempo) runs every so many weeks. We just kind of recycle through those systems. As we get more efficient and work through those different systems we get more and more fit.
In track, when we get to training mid distance runners, as opposed to our 5k and 10k runners, then things are even more split apart. With our 800 and 1500 runners we’re not gonna train them at the lactate threshold or aerobic threshold as much; we’re gonna touch more on the neuromuscular side, kind of lactate buffering type workouts that train them to deal with the quicker speeds. Generally we touch on faster running–well almost daily if you count strides after easy runs, but typically three days a week we’ll have a dedicated interval session or a race can certainly act as a workout within a week. It’s pretty typical to have 3 days a week with faster running and then we surround that with have aerobic runs. And we do a weekly long run, which is a big staple of our program. There’s a lot to it and we’re training quite a few systems and we cycle through the different systems. As we get into better shape through the course of the year, the paces will get faster through each of the systems.
I hope you enjoyed Part 1 of my interview with Gary. Stay tuned for Part 2! Please share this article with others and like my Facebook page. I welcome your comments below.