Working with Injury-Prone Athletes: Low Volume Training for High Level Success

College athlete Parker Valby made headlines this season when she won Cross Country Nationals running only 2-3 days a week. In a sport where, historically, champions have been created via long slow distance, Valby’s victory came as a shock to some long-time fans. However, her impressive finish is proof that mileage, while important, isn’t everything. Coaches can create champions on low-volume plans.  

Why low volume?

About a year and a half ago I was recruited to help coach a distance program for a small high school in Illinois. Our girls had some amazing talent but their star athlete, a freshman who had run close to the school record the first meet of the year, hadn’t had a healthy season running since 7th grade. Despite some incredible performances, she had never made it to the postseason. 

To prevent this, my head coach tasked me with creating her a training plan that was around 20 miles a week and would allow her to place at the state meet. A tall order for an elite cross country athlete. He told me that my motto for the season should be, “an athlete who is 90% prepared and 100% healthy will always beat an athlete who is 100% prepared but only 90% healthy.” Despite some trials and tribulations, she ended up on the podium this past cross season.

My experience is the primary reason I buy into low volume training. I’ve learned some individuals simply cannot handle the physical demands of high mileage. Your primary goal as a coach should be to keep your athletes healthy. You can have the greatest training plan and hardest working team in the world, but that won’t matter if your highest performing athletes are sitting the bench due to muscle strains or stress fractures. I’ve seen teams that have been dominant during the regular season come up short at state because their key players underperform due to injury.

Now, I’m not saying every athlete will be successful on low volume training. The fact is, the bulk of cross country programs still do well on a steady diet of long slow distance. Though research and experimentation, coaches need to figure out what their athletes respond best to. However, if you have an athlete that just can’t seem to stay healthy, consider incorporating what I’ve learned. This was a game changer for my team!

Don’t be afraid to supplement mileage: cross training is your best friend

I really underestimated the power of cross training until a friend sent me a TrailRunner article titled Yes, The Elliptical Can Create Champions. Here’s How. This article, which also heavily features Valby’s collegiate exploits, details some of the science behind the elliptical and gives you 5 pretty impressive sample workouts, all of which I have utilized with my team. I won’t rehash those here but I have linked the article above in case anyone is interested. 

Seeing its success firsthand, cross training became the bread and butter of my low-volume distance plans. My go-tos are:

  • Aqua Jogging
  • Arc Trainer
  • Biking
  • Elliptical
  • Swimming

As a general rule of thumb I have my athletes elliptical, aqua jog, or swim equal to the minutes they would normally run and bike roughly 2.5 to 3 times as many minutes. So you could replace a base run with 30-50 minutes of aqua jogging or 75-90 minutes of steady biking. Varying the mode of cross training will reduce potential overuse injuries and keep things interesting. Although it’s difficult to produce the same effect, you can get creative to replace harder workouts with cross training. Here are some ideas I’ve used in the past:

Elliptical (Intermediate)Bike (Advanced)
5-10 minute warm up
10-15 minutes at a moderate pace
3-5 minutes hard
5-10 minute cooldown
10 minute warm up
5 minutes at 65% effort
4 minutes at 70% 
3 minutes at 75% 
2 minutes at 80% 
1 minute at 90% 
5 minutes active rest
– Repeat- 
10 minute cooldown

Personally, a sustained effort of aqua jogging is my favorite mode of cross training, although my athletes consider it to be the most monotonous of the bunch. You can also replace traditional two-a-days with AM and PM bouts of cross training in order to replicate some elements of Swedish block training.

Another cross training medium I’m going to explore more this track season is utilizing an Arc Trainer. These machines are advertised as being less stress on your knees while requiring greater activation of the glutes and hamstrings (areas distance runners are often weak in). While I haven’t utilized it as much as the others I’ve mentioned, it may become my new favorite.

When you do run, focus on the essentials

If you have limited time on the track or the trail, focus on work that is harder to replicate on a machine like the elliptical or an arc trainer. Tempo and VO2Max workouts will get you the “biggest bang for your buck” in terms of training development. Let cross training take the place of your easy/base run days. A sample plan may look something like:

Monday8 miles:
2 @ Easy
4 @ Tempo
2 @ Easy
Tuesday75 minutes on the bike
Wednesday2 x (4 x 400) @ 2 mile pace w/ 400 jog between reps
Thursday45 minutes on the Arc Trainer
FridayAM: 45 minute elliptical

PM: 45 minute Aqua Jog
Saturday5 mile recovery run

When I get to mid season, I tend to combine my long and tempo runs. If you look at the plan above, Monday is performed as an 8 mile “long run” with a 4 mile descending tempo in the middle. Structuring workouts like this allowed me to cut overall volume from my training plan, as I no longer needed to dedicate an entire day to a tempo run. 

Over time, consider adding a couple light (2-3 mile) morning runs to a workout plan. Doing this will help an athlete’s body to gradually adjust to the demands of running more. There isn’t a huge physiological adaptation of doing these “mini runs”, but you can build bone density, joint, and tendon strength if you expose the body to the gravitational forces involved with running. This may help you increase mileage over the course of their career. 

My final piece of advice if you have an athlete that is injury prone: avoid the temptation to have them race every week. Instead, try to create a plan where they only race once in a 10 or 14 day cycle. If they have to race more often (like during the postseason where championship meets are back-to-back weeks) cut some VO2Max work (like Wednesday above) from your training cycle. Racing helps develop that system anyway. 

Winter is coming: my 3 favorite treadmill workouts to do as it passes by

Nothing but a treadmill to prepare for the indoor season? We’ve got you covered!

In Illinois, our high school season starts in mid-January. Some years, we are blessed with absolutely gorgeous weather. This allows for great year round training and some blistering fast times. However, most seasons January and February are cold, slushy, and miserable. Unless you are one of few coaches blessed with an indoor facility, you’re probably scratching your head wondering what to do with the first weeks of practice in these conditions. Afterall, there are only so many times you can do gymnasium stairs or hallway strides before things get stale. To help you prepare as the snow mounts, here are some of my favorite early season treadmill workouts to prepare your athletes for success in May. 

On-off mini tempo

The Workout: 45 seconds at tempo pace, 15 seconds at easy effort. Go 20-30 minutes

Why I like it: It can be hard to stay motivated to run during the season. It’s even harder indoors without scenery, variety, or entertainment. Let’s face it, running on the treadmill for long periods generally isn’t very fun, which is why I love the short burst format of this workout. 

45 seconds “on” allows the body to start adjusting to tempo pace. Then, the 15 seconds “off” is just enough for an athlete to catch their breath, but not nearly enough for them to recover. Over time, this is going to help the athlete stay in their tempo zone while making the workout more engaging through some varied pacing. 

This is an especially great workout for mid-distance runners who mentally struggle with the sustained effort involved with tempo run. If you do this workout long enough you essentially trick an athlete into doing a tempo run by disguising it as a series of short inverals. That’s a double win in my book. 

Incline Hills

The Workout: This one is a little more complicated, but gives you great results.

Set the treadmill incline between 8 and 10 percent. Then, set your speed between 10 and 14 MPH (many treadmills only go up to 12, which should be plenty for most athletes). At these settings, have the athlete run between 30 and 45 seconds. Take a 2-3 minute break, and do it again. Repeat 6 to 10 times. 

Why I like it: I’m a big believer that for modern distance athletes, speed is king. Even during the state meet for girls cross country, you’ll be hard pressed to make top 5 without going out in a 5:20 mile. Times are even faster for boys. I do speed and power work with my distance runners year round. However, it’s hard to find good weather to do so early in the season. 

Personally, I think the risk of doing speed work in cold weather is just too high. A hamstring strain or tear from running in poor conditions is a stupid, preventable mistake. That’s why I love this indoor treadmill workout so much. You can get some quality speedwork done inside where it’s nice and warm. 

If you’re more of a traditional coach and do all your speedwork the last few weeks of the season, there’s nothing wrong with that. However, you’ll be surprised at how much your athletes pick up their cadence and rhythm after doing this workout a few times. The one thing I’ll warn you about is to be careful getting on the treadmill when it gets to a high speed and incline. I’ve had athletes that weren’t paying attention fly backwards. As you should every time you use exercise equipment: use caution. 

Treadmill Burst Run

The Workout: 20-30 minutes of continuous running at an easy pace. Every 5 minutes, have the athlete do a 1-2 minute surge at mile pace.

Why I like it: Our final workout is the treadmill burst run. Out of all 3 workouts, this one target’s an athlete’s VO2 max the best. I developed it after a couple seasons of unsuccessfully trying to recreate 400 repeats (one of my favorite workouts) indoors on the treadmill. Keeping track of intervals in increments of .25 got confusing for my athletes, as did calculating distances for rest or stopping and starting the treadmill. I started doing this instead last season, and my athletes have really liked it.

If you are coaching highly talented male athletes, it can be hard for them to do mile pace on certain treadmills. That’s why I use this treadmill pace chart to convert their mile PRs. Let’s say you have an athlete capable of running 4:40. Based on this chart a 4% incline at 12.0 would do the trick. Be careful doing this workout. It looks deceptively easy at first, but high incline and paces can really push some of your higher performing athletes. Like all hard workouts, use in moderations.


And there you have it! 3 treadmill workouts to get you through a cold and snowy indoor season. If you alternate these workouts with some cross training (see my article about working with injury prone athletes if you’d like some workout ideas) it’s possible to train an athlete indoors without ever hitting the track or trail. In fact, my athlete who got 2nd at Illinois Top Times hardly worked outside at all last winter. 

My 3 favorite workouts for low-volume 800 runners (and when to do them)

Workouts every 400/800 runner needs in their arsenal.

The 800 can be a difficult event to train. Is it the longest sprint event, or the shortest distance one? Cross country and sprint coaches may never agree. To me, both are correct! There are really 2 types of 800 meter runners. A-type runners, who have great footspeed and excel on low mileage (they probably run a mean 400 too). And B-type runners who love cross country and probably also race the mile in track. As a collegiate A-type 800 meter runner, those athletes are near and dear to my heart. So today, we’ll talk about my 3 favorite workouts for those athletes:

200 Circuit

The Workout: 6-10 x 200

When to do it: Pre/Early Season

Why I like it: In college, this was a staple of my preseason training and my favorite workout. The concept is simple: run a 200 at 800 meter pace, jog a 200 for rest, then repeat. 

This workout doesn’t take too long and it’s a great way for athletes to learn the “feel” of the race. Plus, it’s easy to scale in a training plan. My coach would start our guys out at 6 or 8 200s, then add 2 reps every week. Week 4 he would “reset” the workout to make sure we were rested and adapting. Like so:

  • Week 1: 6 x 200 @ 30 seconds
  • Week 2: 8 x 200 @ 30 seconds
  • Week 3: 10 x 200 @ 30 seconds
  • Week 4: 6 x 200 @ 30 seconds  (Reset Week)

Many coaches do similar workouts towards the end of the year to prime athletes for the postseason. To do this, simply drop the times and increase the rest!

Flux 1000s

The Workout: 4-5 x 1000 (The first 400 is fast, the last 600 is tempo)

When to do it: Mid season 

Why I like it: Praised as the magic bullet by coaches Magness and Marcus, flux workouts are criminally underused by distance coaches. This surge style workout trains athletes to recover more quickly and handle a sustained workload for longer. This is a modified version I received from a friend that I’ve seen some great success with!

Start the workout off with a 400 that’s a little faster (think 2 mile race pace) and close out the remaining 600 meters of the rep like it’s a tempo run. Take a short rest (60-90 seconds) then repeat. As the season goes on, I recommend that you make the back half of the rep quicker. You’ll be amazed how your athletes fly towards the end of the season! 


The Workout: 600 at goal 800 pace, 30-45 seconds rest, then an all out 200

When to do it: End of season

Why I like it: There’s something pretty magical about this workout. I firmly believe that it’s capable of unlocking an 800 runner’s full potential. First, set a goal time that’s around 2-3 seconds faster than where an athlete currently is. Then, have them run that pace for 600 meters. Rest about 30 seconds (and be a jerk about short recovery here, you want the athletes to be tired) and have them run a 200 as fast as they can go

My high school coach used to tell me that an athlete’s total time in this workout was the 800 meter time they are capable of running. While it’s not 100% accurate, it’s been pretty close for my girls. The first year I did this workout, I had an athlete run mid 1:50 for the 600 and high 28 for the 200. She qualified for state a few weeks later with a 2:21. If you plan on doing multiple sets for this workout (which may be necessary for highly talented individuals) give your athlete a full recovery. 10-15 minutes should do the trick. 


And there you have it, my 3 favorite workouts for low volume 800 runners! Don’t forget to subscribe to RoadRunnerZX to get the latest on everything running

Volume Considerations for Young Distance Runners

Wondering how to develop your underclassman? We’ve got you covered.


Many coaches have heard the expression we don’t rebuild, we reload. While initially used to describe Michigan’s Bo Scembechler and some of his unbelievable college football teams, the phrase has been adopted in the running community to highlight programs that seem to always have talent. Whether you’re a rookie coach or a seasoned veteran you’ve likely noticed that certain teams hover consistently around the top. The secret is that these coaches are continually developing young talent. 

You never know who’s going to surprise you…

One of things I love most about running is that anyone can get better at it. In fact, some of the best adult runners I’ve known never ran in high school. And one of the best seniors I’ve worked with didn’t break 19 minutes for the 3-mile his freshman year, only to turn around and run 15:09 at state as a senior. 

A good coach should always be looking to develop younger runners. Afterall, they’ll someday be your senior leaders. 

Progressive training: week by week

Training plans for young athletes should be progressive in nature. Simply put, your goal for the end of the season should be higher mileage and faster times. However, adding too much volume too soon will, at best, peak an athlete’s career ealy and, at worst, lead to a major injury. We’ve all heard stories about the freshman wonder who never got faster or the athlete that could have been all-state but was always injured. When you design a season plan, imagine each week as a step on a staircase. An athlete won’t be able to climb a staircase that is too tall and too steep.

Jack Daniels (author of the famous Daniels’ Running Formula) suggests starting mileage low and increasing around 10% a week. In the summer, a typical male athlete may start around 20 miles. Based on Daniel’s rule he would run 22 miles his second week, 24 miles his third, and so on. Personally, I recommend a “rest” week every fourth week to ensure that the body is adequately recovering and adapting to the mileage. On the rest week, have the athlete return to their starting mileage. So a sample progression would look like:

  • Week 1 – 20
  • Week 2 – 22
  • Week 3 – 24
  • Week 4 – 20
  • Week 5 – 26 

Progressive training: season to season

With these increases, also note that you can’t increase mileage indefinitely. Coaches that prioritize the long term development of their athletes generally have a four-year progressive plan in mind. Remember our staircase, much like individual weeks, each season is its own step. If you want an athlete to run 60 miles as a senior, you’ll need to progress them in increments. Something like 30 miles as a freshman, 40 as a sophomore, and 50 as a junior will work just fine. Training like this helps prevent injury and leads to overall better and more sustainable performances.

What to do with talented underclassmen
Occasionally, you may coach runners who are very young and very talented. While uncommon, it’s not unheard of for gifted freshmen to lead varsity teams–especially with female athletes. Just because you have a highly talented runner, that doesn’t mean you should deviate from my advice above. My sub 17:00 three-miler, who is by far the best high school athlete I have ever trained, didn’t finish her freshman season. She was running high mileage and got injured before the state meet. The next year I modified her training plan to prioritize her health and gradually increase her mileage (although we intentionally never got close to how high her mileage was the previous season). Low and behold, she improved by over 20 seconds to get on the state podium last season. Gradual training creates healthy athletes and great performances!