How to Create a Distance Champion in America -- A Guide for Those Working With Young Athletes

04/10/2008 - 15:21

By Pete Rea/Running Journal/November 2006

Each month here at ZAP Fitness, Foundation President Zika Palmer, and I receive countless e-mails with questions about training strategies. These correspondences come from athletes around the country of all age and ability. Needless to say we do our best to respond to each one with sound advice. Every so often we receive a letter from a parent or coach with a question pertaining to a subject about which I am more than slightly passionate: what is the best approach for the training of younger distance runners (age groupers under 15)? A letter addressing this very issue recently landed on my desk. Verbatim the letter read "My daughter is a sixth grade girl with a great deal of running ability. I have been having her run races around the Southeast including 5Ks, 10Ks and track races. I have also found a coach who has her doing college-type workouts on the track." The letter continued with questions about diet, shoes, and mileage. One of the longer letters I have ever penned took much of my next hour.

Distance Running versus Fine Motor Skill Sports

You would have a hard time finding someone who has not heard of golfer Tiger Woods. At the time of this writing the 30-year-old Woods has won 11 "Major" tournaments and 50 professional tournaments in all. Introduced to golf by his father Earl at the age of two, Tiger was groomed to be a pro virtually since birth, beating his first carded pro before his 10th birthday. Similar stories of athletes training and competing at a very high level as very young athletes and subsequently going on to glory are almost weekly occurrences in sports such as gymnastics, baseball, basketball, football, and soccer. In fact, it is rare to find an athlete who takes up one of these "fine motor skill" sports later in life and finds great international success.

In running the truth could not be a starker contrast. Ironically it is more often than not the runners who perform at the highest levels in distance running events in their pre- double digit to middle school years who are nowhere to be found on the senior post collegiate elite levels. One needs to look no further than a recent study that looked at childhood distance running superstars. The study found that of 500 Junior Olympic Track & Field individual Champions in events 800 to 3,000m (age categories 7-8 to 13-14 and under) between 1980 and 1990 only five (yes a mere five!) went on to become collegiate All-Americans and only one became an Olympian. The reasons for this phenomenon vary, but the most widely accepted reason (and the one I wholeheartedly buy into) is that anaerobic training and racing in young distance runners inhibits the development of the aerobic threshold -- the most important factor in the performance levels of endurance athletes. The translation here is something few coaches will teach young athletes and their coaches: it isn't the mileage that ruins young athletes but rather the intensity i.e. speed work and racing. Fans of 1980s long distance running surely remember the California running Garritson family. Each weekend this family of 12 (many in the 6- 10 age categories) children could be seen at road races around the West running 5Ks, 10Ks, even half-marathons. National age group records fell virtually every month for the Garritsons. Sadly none produced as collegians let alone as post collegians.

Creating Champions/Is the Kenyan Model Possible in America?

We are all fully familiar with the success of the Kenyan, Ethiopian, and Tanzanian distance runners during the last four decades as well as the now expected story of the East African child who ran leisurely (with an emphasis on leisurely) great distances to and from school only to find international success years later. This is the ideal model for the training of a young runner. Large amounts of the right kind of running for youngsters: aerobic mileage at a young age to improve the assimilation, transportation, and utilization of oxygen (before ever approaching competition and/or anaerobic training). This is the tried and true formula now seen largely as the formula for long term success. But is this model possible here in the US? Unless parents are willing to have little Johnny running down Peachtree St. in Atlanta with his books in his hand, I would venture to say no. Geographically and culturally replicating this exact model is virtually impossible in the West. So what is the best way to approach training a young runner if the goal is long term success?

Young Gun Lesson/Pezzullo's Transition from Soccer to Running

Stephanie Pezzullo grew up in soccer crazy Rhode Island. A star on the high school and Olympic Developmental circuit she continued to excel as a member of the Penn State Nittany Lions women's team from 2000 to 2004. With her collegiate soccer career over in the spring of 2005 she decided to attempt to walk on the Penn St. track team. "I had always loved the running aspect of soccer," said Pezzullo. "I figured I had nothing to lose by trying." Within a handful of races "Pez" (as she is known in athletic circles) had improved from her first mile race (5:04) to a 4:29 1,500m (a roughly 4:49 mile). As a result of her obvious running prowess, Pez joined team ZAP in the winter of 2006 and within eight months had run her first ever 3,000-meter race (9:19) as well as her 5,000-meter debut as well (16:23). How had this rookie to the sport jumped to a top tier so rapidly in only her first year running? The answer is the American version of and the answer to the African system: having our youngsters spend lots of time in sports requiring vast amounts of time on their feet i.e. soccer, basketball, etc. "I would commonly be on my feet for up to five to six hours a day," said Pezzullo. Children growing up in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s spent far greater blocks of time outside running, jumping than today's American youth. This dearth of aerobic exercise in youth is directly correlative to the decline in our top tier.

Please do not confuse my suggestions regarding long term performance goals with an anti-fitness stance. In terms of long term fitness and a healthy active lifestyle our sixth-grade female in focus is undoubtedly better off running than not running. I am speaking directly to the issue of the best way to have our nation reemerge as a distance power. To quote from Gosta Holmer, the outstanding Swedish coach from the 1930s, "If you can get a teenager to train and not race until he or she is mature, then you have laid the foundation for a future Olympic Champion."

My letter of response to the curious father detailed all of the above points and more. I realize that few think of 10, 15 years down the road when considering training and racing for adolescents. But much like the top youth coaches in golf, baseball, and soccer, perhaps it is time we started.

ZAP Fitness is a Reebok sponsored non-profit facility that supports post-collegiate distance runners in Blowing Rock, NC. ZAP puts on adult running camps during the summer and is available for retreats all year. The facility has a state of the art weight room, a bio-lab for physiological testing and a 24-bed lodge. Coaches at the facility include two-time Olympic Trials Qualifiers Zika Palmer and Randy Ashley as well as head coach Pete Rea. For more information go to

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