What Events Should a Runner Focus on in High School?

Here is a very interesting inquiry I received from a parent of a high school runner.

My daughter used to only run 100m and 200m opens and the 4×100 and 4×200 relays. Her high school coaches now expect her to be the “utility” runner. In the past 3 years she has competed in the 1500m, open 800m, 4×800, open 400m, 4x400m, 200m, 100m, 4x100m, 100 hurdles, 400 hurdles, and the shuttle hurdle relay. Sometimes she has been expected to run events back to back (4×800 anchor IMMEDIATELY followed by open 200m, for example). Her times are not consistent due to the inconsistency of which events she will be running. Any suggestions?

There are several ways to view this situation. So, let me start with some general comments and then address your specific question.

High school is a time to explore what youth athletes might be good at. I encourage athletes to try many events. Youth have not fully developed and it is difficult to know what event they may thrive in. Certainly, we like to have a focused primary event but we encourage some experimentation.

I recently had a 400 meter specialist (a senior) who was reasonably fast but not fast enough to do really well any more in the 400. With her permission, we had her practice and then compete in both the 100 and 300 hurdles. She is now #2 on the team in both events. I have a 3200 meter runner who just ran the 4×4 and had the fastest JV 400 time of the year. These are the kinds of surprises you can get from being flexible with event assignments.

The second point I’ll make is that some runners are more mature or genetically endowed and they indeed may have a wide range of events in which they will do well. These same athletes may be able to run multiple events with far less adverse effect on their performances. That still does not remove the need for focused training however for this athlete to become the best they can possibly be.

Third, smaller schools may need athletes to do everything and become “utility” runners. I attended a high school of 600 kids. We typically were lucky to have 20 kids on our entire team (boys only back then). And my senior year we had 12 out for track. I ran the quarter mile, two-mile and the 4×220 relay. I also did the long jump in some meets while I did the high jump in other meets. Because we were so small I was the #1 guy in all but the long jump. I even did the shot put once. Not pretty. In these situations coaches have to do what they have to do and individual athletic performance will always suffer.

Fourth, some runners simply love to compete and be part of a team. They want to be on every relay whether they’ve run 2, 3 or 10 events that day. They will try anything a coach wants to put them in. More power to this athlete if they enjoy this kind of participation. This athlete most likely will either end up a decathlete/heptathlete in college or not develop at all performance-wise.

All that being said, you only improve once you focus on an event or complimentary events (100/200; 400/800; 800/1600; 1600/3200; hurdle events). Training for each of these sets of events differ (at least if the coach knows what he/she is doing). You cannot train as a miler and expect to be good at 200 or 400 meters. You cannot train as a 400 meter specialist and expect to run a good 3200. That doesn’t mean you can’t run those other events. It means you will not optimize your personal potential because your training isn’t focused. Period.

For high schoolers, the NFHS rules for track and field dictate a maximum of four events per meet including relays. That however doesn’t mean an athlete should do that many. In dual and tri meets often there is very little rest between events. A big invitational meet will often be stretched out to at least offer more rest between events. And in order to get the best out of an athlete there must be sufficient rest.

A common way to work through this as a coach is to have some meets that are designated for multiple hard efforts as part of the overall training and season design. Some meets will be targeted to get that state qualifying time or PR and the athletes will run a paired down race schedule to optimize the chances of a “big” race. But this doesn’t happen by chance. A coach must have a plan.

So to answer your question:
It is very doubtful that she will fully develop in any event without focusing on an event.
It is very doubtful that she will have a single great time while running many races.
It is very doubtful she will reach any consistency in performance while running disparate events or multiple events and not focusing on the techniques and tactics unique to a single event.

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About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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