Teenage training forum: Developing strength in distance runners

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Teenage training forum: Developing strength in distance runners


Following on from the initial article that outlined the training principles behind the Beacon Hill Striders training model, Alan Maddocks describes the means used to develop ‘strength’ within the athletes under his guidance

The focus of the Beacon Hill Striders training model is on the gradual development of three key attributes: strength, speed and stamina.

In this article I shall:

  • Outline the training practices that we use to develop a young athlete’s strength
  • Detail some of the key sessions used to do so
  • Provide a case study on one of our leading athletes who has benefitted from this approach

What is ‘strength’?

Firstly, let’s define the concept of ‘strength’ as it applies to the young distance runner. Within this context, I define strength as the ability to: maintain form under pressure; apply force appropriate to the demands of her/his event; cope with the volume and intensity of training; and to cope with the demands of specific training sessions.

Building the aerobic base

Distance running from 1500m upwards is primarily an aerobic activity. Therefore, building the aerobic base is crucial. To do so, training volume is critical. It is no accident that many of the leading young runners in the country (including our own Ben Dijkstra) are triathletes. The volume of (aerobic) training – across three disciplines – undertaken by triathletes, even at a young age, is considerable; and the ‘strength’ benefits are clear.

The effects of a young athlete focusing on developing their aerobic base are significant. The two athletes within our group who have made the most striking improvements in a relatively short time were athletes who undertook the challenge of adding up to an hour of running a day (and a long run a little in excess of an hour once a week) to the two weekly training sessions they had previously limited themselves to.

In one case (Alice Daniel), this involved progressing from finishing outside the top-30 in the Midlands XC Championships as an U15 to claiming individual silver the following winter as a bottom-end U17. Thus, training volume and easy/steady (aerobic) running in particular is crucial in developing strength, as defined above.

Leicestershire: the playground ground of champions

Based in north Leicestershire, on the edge of Charnwood Forest, we are fortunate in having access to many miles of hilly, off-road terrain. This is the same ‘playground’ that has contributed to the development of local rising talents, such as Amy Griffiths, Mari Smith and Sam Stabler. It has also been the breeding ground over the years for a multitude of Loughborough University graduates, most notably David Moorcroft, Jack Buckner and Paula Radcliffe.

Making use of this local, natural terrain, three specific ‘strength’ sessions that we at Beacon Hill Striders use to develop our athletes’ strength are as detailed below.

Session 1 (Hill Circuits)
These are usually done in Bradgate Park using a circuit that includes two climbs, each of adjacent hills (Old John and Huntsman’s Hill). The circuit involves tempo running and takes our stronger athletes around 12 minutes to complete. A session would involve 2-3 repetitions of this circuit with appropriate recovery.

Session 2 (Hill Repetitions)
This session is usually done at the Beacon (near Woodhouse Eaves) and involves up to 20 minutes of continuous running up and down a relatively steep 400m hill. The effort is classed as strong on the uphill and easy on the recovery run down.

The target is to complete the session without losing pace up the hill. Younger (under 15) athletes would tend to aim for 12-14 minutes of continuous running.

Session 3 (Hilly Fartlek)
This session is based around Windmill Hill, Woodhouse Eaves and involves a mixture of track, fields and a small section of road. From the start/finish area, the athletes follow planned routes with efforts of different distances and intensities for specific (usually hilly) sections. Each route takes 6-9 minutes to complete and our stronger athletes can expect to do up to 28-30 minutes of running at different intensities during the course of this session.

Yearly training cycle

The sessions described above are interspersed across the yearly training cycle. More focus might be placed on these at periods when competitive targets are fewer or less important. So, September/October, December and April are periods when our athletes might be expected to undertake these kinds of sessions.

From a coach’s perspective, the aim of the sessions described above is for each athlete to complete a good (and appropriate) volume of strong running. Occasionally, circuits or individual climbs may be timed but this is more for reference than a specific goal or target for the athletes concerned.

A successfully completed session of the kind described above is where the athlete goes away knowing they have done some serious work, but where they are also still physically capable of resuming normal easy running within 24 hours.

Case Study: Alfie Thompson

17-year-old Alfie Thompson is one athlete who has benefitted enormously from these kinds of sessions. Alfie has an impressive range of achievements, including an individual silver medal (U17M) at the 2016 Midlands Cross Country Championships, and track times (4.04 1500m, & 8.49 3000m) among the best in the region for his age group.

But where Alfie has excelled is at fell and mountain running. Alfie won the 2014 English Schools’ (Inter Boys) fell running title and the 2015 Home Countries U17M International Mountain Running Championships. In June of this year, Alfie gained his third international vest – representing the England team – at the 2016 World Youth Cup Mountain Running Championships in the Czech Republic.

Next week, Alan will take us through the second principle: speed.

Words by Alan Maddocks
Image from Alfie Thompson (Alfie Thompson winning the Home Countries U17M International race at the World Mountain Running Championships in North Wales, September 2015)
This article originally appeared in the fourth edition of Left Spike from June 2016