By Roger White
“What does it take to be one of the top middle distance runners in the NCAA championships?” one of my runners asked. I was in the midst of helping her get recruited by colleges, and we were discussing her long-term goals. As a math teacher in addition to my coaching, I love numbers. Being the analytical type, I began a search to answer her question.
I’ve noticed that track and field history has a tendency to repeat itself. I do an analysis every year with my high school athletes to determine what performances will get them to the state finals podium. I looked into the NCAA championship results to see what is necessary to do the same thing at that next level.
As I scrolled through TFRRS, some trends appeared. Both the winning and 8th place times in the 800 and 1500 were consistent between 2011 and 2014. This took me to another question: Did any school dominate certain events, or did they simply have talented runners who repeatedly made it back to the championships?
One thing became clear: many Division 1 schools have recruiting time standards. Some want sub-2:15 800 runners, others sub-2:20, and so on. Could a high school girl who runs 2:20 in the 800 have a shot at contending for the national 800 championship in college? Could a 5:00 1600m/miler contend for the 1500 title? More interesting findings emerged as I entered the runners’ high school times. (Note: I compiled those high school times using Mile Split, Athletic.net, and their collegiate biographies. If an error appears, please send me the source of the information so I can correct it.)
What follows is a collection of data from the past four NCAA Championships official results page. Also included are assumed personal best times in the 1500 (or 1500 converted from the 1600 using the Mt. SAC table). I am making no claims, just presenting the data I could find on each athlete. Here is a link to the data set: College Middle Distance Time Progressions
|1st place time||8th place time||1st place time||8th place time|
Avg HS time of the women in the data set:
800: 2:07 (2:01-2:17)
1500: 4:28 (4:14-4:59)
Schools represented most frequently
Oregon (2 athletes, 5 times)
LSU (2 athletes, 4 times)
Stanford (3 athletes, 4 times)
Oregon (4 athletes, 7 times)
Florida State (4 athletes, 6 times)
Florida (2 athletes, 5 times)
Villanova (3 athletes, 4 times)
Arkansas (2 athletes, 3 times)
Georgetown (3 athletes, 3 times)
So what does it take to become an All-American?
Girls leaving high school to run in college face new challenges. The transition from home to a new environment, new people, new coaches, new roommates, studying, overall school stress, and new training philosophies can be tough.
For insights in dealing with these and other challenges, I contacted two professional runners who had been All-Americans during their collegiate careers: Geena Gall-Lara (4x All-American, 2×800 national champion at the University of Michigan, 2005–2009) and Amanda Mergaert (1500 All-American at the University of Utah, 2010–2013).
Mergaert was a low 18-minute cross country runner in high school and a 400/800 runner in track, clocking 2:15 and 59. She wasn’t highly recruited and wasn’t even sure she wanted to run collegiately until her senior year. Talking to college coaches who recruited her gave her the sense that she would likely move up to the 1500.
Transitioning to college was difficult both mentally and physically. She moved from Michigan to Utah, far from family and friends. She had to deal with a new training environment at altitude, something she had not experienced. Mergaert felt slow and tired during her first few months. “Everything seemed hard,” she said. She felt frustrated, and the hard runs beat her up day after day. Blood work later determined she had low iron levels, which helped explain part of the fatigue issues. Yet Mergaert feels that cross country was extremely beneficial. Once a week she would run at the track and the other sessions were at a local park. The break from being at the track and just going out and running helped her mentally.
Putting a bad freshman cross country season behind her and renewing her focus on the track season, she ran a huge personal best in her first indoor 800. At this point she felt the 800 would be her event. It wasn’t until later in the indoor season at the Mountain West Conference meet that she ran the mile. A coach had spotted her potential for success at the longer distance.
Cross country was relatively new for Gall-Lara. She had been a prep basketball player in addition to running track, only turning to cross country in her senior year. Her biggest challenge as a college freshman was the increase in mileage. Even the two-mile warm-up often felt like the actual workout. Her introduction to tempo runs and strength-based training provided additional challenges.
Making her transition even more difficult, Gall-Lara sprained her ankle running on trails just before cross country started in her freshman year. The injury also impacted her knee. Missing training with her new teammates was tough, as she felt she had been in great shape going into camp. With limited movement while dealing with the injury, she gained the “Freshman 15” which took some time to lose.
Mental and Physical Qualities
Physical strength and mental toughness play important roles in becoming a successful middle distance runner. Physically, Gall-Lara felt strength-based training helped her immensely. Mentally, confidence plays a huge role. Fear before races can often impact runners’ performances. Nervousness is normal for many runners, and it was no different for Gall-Lara. Preparing for a race, Gall-Lara fed off of pep talks from her family and support circle. Before a race, her dad said, “These girls are just as scared of you as you are scared of them.” This mindset helped ease her race day tension.
The warm-up area is where competitors often check each other out. For Gall-Lara, body language spoke volumes. The look in the eyes of the other runners can tell you so much. The mental battle begins.
As a junior Gall-Lara gained more confidence and her training went great. After winning the NCAA 800 title that year, her senior year presented itself with an additional challenge: the pressure of being a champion. Though she felt that she was still considered a dark horse, she stayed focused with her “eyes on the prize” and defended her title.
For Mergaert, having a short-term memory was crucial to being a successful middle-distance runner. As is the case with most runners, it was common for her to have good days and bad ones, good races and poor ones. She journaled after races, writing down three things she felt she did well along with three things she could improve on. Putting her thoughts on paper helped her quickly move on to the next focus point of the season.
Throughout her years at Utah, she learned the value of working smart versus working hard. She admits she didn’t value recovery days as much as she should have. The extra focus on recovery days allowed her to increase the intensity for the harder workout sessions in the week.
She was not a stranger to reaching out for help. She talked with a sports psychologist to help her mental preparation and race focus techniques. He not only had an understanding of track which helped her race and train, but also an outside perspective beyond teammates and coaches.
On race day, Mergaert admits she got slightly nervous, but in a good way. She felt confident that she had done all she could to do well that day.
Time Trial Races
As training progresses throughout the year, time trials or indicator workouts may be used to assess readiness. Gall-Lara’s go-to race preparation session was an all-out 2×300 time trial with 8 minutes rest, or an all-out 600 followed by a 200. She also gained confidence from seasonal race progressions and improvements in training sessions.
Mergraet felt prepared by doing a 400-400-400-300 session at race pace. Her coach often used non-race distance time trials, something for her to run hard and not get worked up over.
Specific Training Sessions
The 800 is an interesting event, as most competitors have both speed and endurance. Lara-Gall’s favorite workouts included repeat 200s with 30 seconds rest. An example would be 2-3 sets x (3×200) at race pace, or perhaps cut-down paces. Additional sessions might include 2x3x400 at race pace or faster, with short rest.
Mergaert felt that doing 600s helped her 1500. “They are the perfect distance combination of speed and duration,” she said. Her workout times helped her gauge fitness as the season progressed.
NCAA season planning can be challenging as athletes have a conference championship, regional qualification rounds, and then the national championships. Tapering can be tricky in this situation. Mergaert’s coach would increase the intensity and drop the volume on those days, but increase the volume of the easy days to keep the same weekly levels.
Gall-Lara recalls doing one bigger workout 4-5 days out from the championships and then resting the rest of the week. An example might include a 150-200-300-250 ladder-type session.
Another challenge at the NCAAs is running rounds over the course of several days. Recovery plays a key role, and the routines of both women in their NCAA days were similar. Post-race ice tub, flush-out massage, and post-race nutrition were key elements. They also used NormaTec Recovery Systems. Still another key for both was a balance of down time on off days, staying off their feet but not isolating themselves in their hotel rooms.
At high levels of competition, tactics play a huge role. Specific runners may also dictate tactics and positioning strategies, particularly if a runner is a fast starter. Gall-Lira liked to get out in front to be in qualifying position. In a race where positioning can change toward the end of the race, keeping composure and staying focused is often the difference. That was the case for Gall-Lara in the 2012 Olympic Trials. She moved up from 5th to 2nd to qualify for the London Olympics.
As a junior in the 1500 at NCAA Nationals, Mergaret ran a personal best time but was the first runner to finish out of qualifying, a sore subject to this day. She sat in the stands next to her sports psychologist watching the final. “Next year, this is you out there, running the last 100m at Hayward Field,” he told her. “Today, we start working towards finals next year. It all begins today.”
A runner who loves tactical races, Mergaert went through a short checklist going into each race as reminders. Key points for her involved covering moves at the predicted times in the race and having a specific goal for each lap. During her senior year, she had a series of good races and finished third in the NCAA 1500.
In the videos below, you’ll see Gall-Lara in her junior year positioning herself for a finishing move. Margreaet’s race took place when she was a senior. It started out at an incredibly slow pace (about 80 seconds, slower than the 5K pace) before things picked up. You’ll see her work her way through the other runners. With about 300m to go, she was tripped up but recovered enough to finish third with a final sprint.
Video 1. Geena’s junior year race at the 2008 NCAA Track & Field Women’s 800 Championship.
Video 2. Mergaert’s senior year race at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Women’s 1500 Meters Championship.
Advice to Young Runners
For young girls aspiring to be successful mid-distance runners, these runners offer great suggestions. Gall-Lara recommends writing down your dreams and goals, both short- and long-term and staying mentally strong, especially when dealing with poor races, injuries, and other situations that may occur. “It’s very up and down,” she said. “Don’t compare yourself to others. Instead, focus on you. Surround yourself with positive, supportive people. A good coach and training group are key.”
Like Gall-Lara, Mergraet believes in goal setting. Making yourself a student of the sport helps as well. Being a great teammate was a huge factor in her success, as well as helping others. One of the most important things is to fully believe in your coach. Be extremely committed to the sport, but don’t allow it to consume your life. Have friends outside of the sport to create a balance. “When you get to the start line, have the feeling you did everything you could to prepare for that day,” she said in summary.
Please share this article so others may benefit.