College Running Tips

College running is the pinnacle for serious high school runners. It is where the best high school runners find out how good they really are. However, before setting foot on a college campus, it is essential that incoming freshman runners prepare themselves for the “different world” of collegiate athletics.

Differences from High School Running

The first thing to know about running in college is that the atmosphere is much more serious than it is in high school. That’s not to say that participating in collegiate cross-country and track is miserable, but that everything from the coaching, to the training, and to the racing is done at a much higher level of intensity. Here are a few differences between college and high school running:

  • Mileage

  • The mileage of a college runner far exceeds that of most high school runners. While most high school athletes will never run more than 50 miles a week, the average healthy collegiate cross-country athlete logs anywhere from 70-100 miles a week. The mileage especially increases in the summer months where building a huge aerobic base is the key to a successful season.

  • Workouts

  • The workouts in college are much more intense than in high school. Although collegiate coaches use the same types of workouts as high school coaches (tempo runs, fartleks, track workouts), they are done at a higher volume and faster pace. For example, while a high school runner might run a 5 X 1000 at 3:20, in college he would be expected to run 8 X 1000 at 3:00. Or, while a 12th grader might run 20 minute tempo runs at 6:00 pace, a college athlete would run a 35 minute tempo run at 5:30 pace. Further, the long runs become much longer in college. Most collegiate long runs for cross-country runners are between 12-16 miles.

  • Weekly Schedule

  • Another difference is that while many high school programs only have one hard workout a week (not including a race), many college programs workout at least 3 times a week with a long run. A typical week might include the following:

    Sunday: Long Run
    Monday: Easy Run
    Tuesday: Hard Track Workout
    Wednesday: Easy Run
    Thursday: Tempo/Fartlek Workout
    Friday: Easy Run
    Saturday: Race/Hard Track Workout.

    It can be tough to transition to such an intense week of running, but working out frequently really helps lower times.

  • Race Distance

  • Perhaps the most obvious difference between college and high school running are the race distances. In cross-country, all races (except for Regionals and Nationals) are 8 kilometers (5 miles). It can be a little strange for freshmen runners to pass the 5k mark of a college race and realize that they still have two miles left to run. The increased distance is the main reason why the aforementioned training in college is much more intense than in high school. Your body needs to be prepared to run 5 miles at a faster pace than the 3 mile races you ran in high school.

    The race distances are also different in track. The college track and field distance races include the following:

    800 meters
    1500 meters (metric mile)
    3000 meters (indoor only)
    3000 meter steeplechase
    5000 meters
    10000 meters

    Trying to find your college race distance can be a bit of trial and error. The general rule is that if you are more of an 800/1600 guy, you’ll probably start off running primarily 1500 meters, and maybe a few 3000 meter races (in indoor), steeplechases, and/or 5000 meter races. If your 3200 meter time and cross-country performances are comparatively better than your 1600 time, you’ll probably start of focusing on the 5000m and 10000m races. Again, these are just general guidelines; there are no set rules. One thing to keep in mind is that if you want to try a different distance, don’t be afraid to talk with your coach about it. The last thing most coaches want is to have you run a distance that you have no interest in.

  • Weight Lifting/Drills

  • In college, you’ll spend a lot more time doing non-running activities that are designed to improve your times than you did in high school. Two of the most common of these activities are weight lifting and drills. Most college programs emphasize lift weights at least twice a week in order to improve leg power/upper body strength and cut down on injuries. Squats, lunges, and dumbbell presses, are just a few of the lifts that collegiate runners utilize. Additionally, most college coaches want their athletes to practice drills at least twice a week. Drills include butt kicks, high knees, and bounding are few of the most popular. Drills help improve running form and also increase muscle strength if done correctly.

Miscellaneous College Running Tips:

Here are a few tips for getting the most out of college running:

Don’t turn training runs and workouts into races: Training with a competitive group of runners can be a great benefit to your running. A solid group can really push you to run times that you could have only dreamed of in high school. However, a college running environment can also ruin your career because, all too often, the competitive nature of a team can turn what should be controlled training runs and workouts into races. This is a huge problem because you simply can not run 7 hard runs a week. You need at least 2-3 easy days a week to make sure that your body recovers from hard workouts.

For example, if you try to run a track workout on a Tuesday, turn a scheduled easy Wednesday run into a tempo run, do scheduled tempo run on Thursday you are setting yourself up for injury when you try to tackle a hard Saturday race or workout. Try as best as you can to follow a hard day with an easy day even if it means running in the back of the pack on the easy day. Your legs will thank you, and, although your teammates may beat you on Wednesdays, you’ll beat them at the end of the season races.

Take time to ice and stretch: Let’s face it, college running is incredibly time consuming. Simply putting in the mileage and workouts is a part-time job. However, if you do not take time to obsessively ice and stretch any possible injury problems, all that time will go to waste when the small pains turn into major injuries. Therefore, stretch everyday before and after you run. Especially make sure to stretch after a hard workout. Also, utilize your training room’s ice bath as often as you can. It only takes ten minutes to stand/sit in the bath, and the ice is so important in reducing inflammation and preventing frustrating injuries which make it impossible to realize your potential. Keep in mind that this can be difficult if the rest of your team does not frequently stretch/ice, but do the best you can to incorporate these essential injury prevention techniques into your daily schedule.

Stay on top of studying to ensure that you get sleep: If there was ever one truth about college running, it is this: You will suck if you frequently pull all-nighters to write papers/study. There is no way you can run 70-80 miles a week with hard workouts on only 5-6 hours of sleep a night. You need, at least, 8 hours. To ensure that you get your sleep you have to force yourself to stay on top of studying. For example, let’s say that today is Monday and you have a paper due on Friday. Instead of waiting until Thursday night to frantically write, get started TODAY. I realize that this is way easier said than done, but you almost have to convince yourself that the paper is due on Thursday or Wednesday to make sure you can get your 8 hours of sleep on Thursday. College running takes planning. Be proactive and you will not have problems balancing studying and running.

Talk to your coach: Don’t simply float through four years of mileage, workouts and racing without a clear purpose to your training. Take advantage of your coach’s office hours to ask questions about specific workouts and what races you should run. From my experience, the runners who truly understand running principles and take an active role in their training are the ones who succeed in college. Please understand that this does not mean to continually question your coach’s methods, but, rather, to keep an open dialogue with him or her to ensure that you are getting everything you can from your four years in college. Coaches respect runners who actually care about trying to get better much more than those who appear to be on the team only for social reasons or for an additional line on a resume.

Try not to party too much: This last one is pretty obvious, but I would be amiss not to mention it. You are not going to reach your potential if you party every Friday and Saturday night. For one thing, partying every weekend will make it impossible for you to be at your best for the Saturday workouts and/or Sunday long runs. Additionally, you have a high chance of getting hurt during a night of debauchery. Keep in mind that I’m not saying that you have to be a prude, however, be mindful that you only have a short four-year window in college to see how good of a runner you can be. If you use that four-year window to party non-stop, and fail to realize your true talent, you’ll likely regret it later in life.

The College Running Experience

As you can see, college running is much more intense that high school running. However, I found it to be much more rewarding. It is a lot of fun to be around highly motivated teammates who are all working towards the common goal of doing everything they can to be as good as they can be. As I hinted at above, I see college cross-country and track as a four year window where you have the coaching, resources, and time to fully realize your potential and find out how good of a runner you actually are! I am jealous of all of you who still have NCAA eligibility left. I would love to be able run in college again.

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