How much is too much?

We just witnessed history with two high school boys, Matthew Maton and Grant Fisher, breaking the 4-minute mile barrier as the 6th and 7th high schoolers to do so, and the first time two have achieved that feat in the same year. Both ran identical 3:59.38 times, Maton at the Oregon Twilight meet on May 8, and Fisher at the Festival of Miles meet on June 4. And both ran in fields of college and elite runners. The track season is not over, and it is possible we may see another sub-4 performance at the Adidas Dream Mile on June 13.

The high school girls have been no less impressive, with Ryen Frazier outleaning Dani Jones at the finish of the May 25 Prefontaine Classic, clocking 4:39.84 vs. 4:39.88. These times are within spitting distance of Polly Plumer’s 1982 high school mile record of 4:35.24. In fact, the top 10 girls in that race (6 of whom are not yet seniors) broke 4:45! And just as with the boys, there is still the Adidas Dream Mile coming up.

These historic performances raise the question – is this the beginning of a trend with high school distance runners (both boys and girls) reaching new highs and pushing the envelope on what is possible, or is this a one-time event and we may wait years for such rare feats to be repeated? And what is behind this possible trend? Improved training methods and techniques? Better scientific understanding of physical and mental thresholds? Nutrition? Something else? And, last but important question, what are the risks and costs? We are, after all, talking about high school student-athletes.

Time will help us answer the first question, although we need only look at the quality of the class of 2016 (led by, among others, junior Austin Tamagno), which is just as strong and deep as this year’s 2015 boys class, and the same is true on the girls side. This blog post is intended to focus on the “why” and the “so what”. Why are we seeing the density of quality distance runners at the very top, and what does it mean?

It’s useful to compare Maton and Fisher. Maton, a senior at Summit, Oregon high school, separated from his high school coach and team in late March to train and compete unattached (although he is coached by Saucony pro Parker Stinson), while Fisher continues to train with his private coach Mike Scannell and his Grand Blanc, Michigan high school team. Maton is confident he will accomplish his goals on his own, with his sub-4 mile testament that it was the right decision. Or was it? Immediately after his 3:59.38, the running community was salivating about a Maton vs. Fisher matchup at the Dream Mile. Less than 3 weeks after the meet, Maton broke the sad news that he suffered an achilles injury and pulled out of the Prefontaine Classic and the Dream Mile. And his high school career came to a sudden end.

The Maton-Fisher matchup will be put on hold until they meet again as members of the University of Oregon and Stanford University cross country and track teams, respectively.

Fisher, on the other hand, a former 2-sport star (playing soccer and running cross country as an underclassman, with his senior year focused on running) has been both healthy and undefeated since his sophomore season in 2013. In an exclusive Flotrack interview with Fisher’s private coach Mike Scannell, we learn that both training and racing is carefully planned, controlled and executed to achieve goals without unduly raising the risk of injury. Fisher trains at a relatively light 45-50 miles per week (some of the top high school boys are running almost twice that weekly mileage – Elijah Armstrong ran up to 80 miles for cross country as a sophomore). His coach doses the various workouts both in terms of volume (as percentage of overall training) and intensity (as percentage of lactate threshold, number of repeats, recovery period during workout, adaptation) and uses a portable lactate analyzer at practice to ensure Fisher does not “go to the well.” Scannell mentions “people have no idea…how controlled (Fisher’s training) is”.

Maton trains and races more than Fisher, running 60-70 miles per week (down from 80-90 miles with his high school team), with two hard workouts per week excluding races (down from three with his team), and has been gunning to break Galen Rupp’s Oregon state records with several high profile (and intense) meets this spring. One example is his 1500 meters in 3:42.54 (3rd fastest high school 1500 meters all-time) at the April 17 Oregon Relays, which Maton ran at the end of a week of hard workouts. In that meet, Maton competed against pros and college age athletes.

We witness historically fast times. High school athletes are competing in meets with elite and college runners. Some high school runners are forgoing their senior high school year or choosing not to run for their college teams, instead signing professional contracts. To be able to compete at that level, training and racing is intense. And more high school runners are training at the college level. Evidence of this are training volume that approaches 100 miles per week, double workouts (not during the summer but) during the high school year, two to three hard track workouts per week interspersed with super competitive meets, and the incessant focus on breaking historic records (Fisher’s coach said (paraphrased) “we run to win, if he breaks 4 minutes, we’ll celebrate like everyone else”. It’s one thing to run a dual meet as a workout (and not press), it’s something else to run an elite meet and then execute a track workout immediately after a record-setting performance. That may work for Galen Rupp under Alberto Salazar, but probably is not advisable for a 15-18 year old who is still developing physically, mentally and emotionally, and is a full-time student.

In our own state of Connecticut, we enjoy following several national level distance runners in Hannah DeBalsi, Alex Ostberg, Ari Klau and Danae Rivers. Unfortunately, some have experienced multiple over-use injuries, which are not uncommon for runners, but when debilitating injuries occur heading into the championship portion of the season, it’s probably a sign of “too much.” And the cost is great as it wipes out the entire season’s investment at the most important time. Therefore are gains coming through adoption of college and elite level training? Is that sustainable or does it lead to increased risk of injury? What is the risk / reward? Maybe we’ll witness a short term trend until we start to examine the “why” and the “so what”, and evaluate how much is too much. The pendulum may swing the other way. Or we continue down a slippery slope where performance enhancement enters high school distance running to compensate for the intense training and competition.

Let’s start the debate. Leave your point of view!

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2 comments

  1. I think most kids should go to college and prepare for a future that probably does not include professional running, but hopefully does include a lifetime of running.
    Regarding training, there is no improvement without recovery. One way to help monitor recovery is resting HR. Elevated resting HR could be a red flag. Limit anaerobic training/racing.

    Regarding high intensity programs; On one hand, chasing fast times, big meets and records is exciting but sometimes with a cost of injuries and not much development post-high school. On the other hand, running fast can help get college completely or substantially paid for and set a young person up for a great career, even if running ends.

    Like it or not, with the cost of college being what it is, kids who run faster and have good grades will get some terrific opportunities. I would recommend a long term development plan that includes having fun, staying healthy, keeping grades up, look for a good college match.

    There is a lot of incentive so save $100,000-200,000+

    1. Thanks Mick. Agree with your comments especially about adequate recovery and limited anaerobic training/racing. And yes the incentives are substantial, so are the risks of injury and as you mention limited development.

      Mick Grant has authored the premier book on youth and teen distance running “The Youth and Teen Running Encyclopedia: A Complete Guide for Middle and Long Distance Runners Ages 6 to 18” and coached many regional and national level youth distance runners who have successfully competed at USATF Junior Olympics, Hershey’s Games and other national level competitions. Many of them enjoyed successful high school and college running careers.

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