My Journey from Paltry High School Sprinter to Professional Distance Runner

I received a message yesterday from a visitor to my website named Andrew asking me how I managed to rise to the upper echelon of the NCAA and secure a contract to run professionally based on what I’d run in high school.  Since it’s a question I hear pretty frequently, I decided it would be a good idea to address it here.

To start off, the first time I ever really considered myself an athlete was in the Fall of 2002 when I was a rising freshman at Broadneck High School in Maryland.  Sure, I had been playing sports for years – I started soccer and baseball at age 5, basketball at 5 or 6, swimming at 8, etc. – but I reached a new level of commitment that summer when I was faced with the increased academic demands I was about to take on as a high schooler.  I chose to continue to pursue soccer and year-round swimming as two of my top priorities and met for practice 6 days per week for each, compared to once or twice per week prior to high school.  Shortly thereafter, I joined a nationally-ranked travel soccer team and the track team to stay in shape during the off-season.  With most of my time being consumed by soccer and track, swimming fell by the wayside and was relegated to a summer-only sport.

Because of the explosive speed I needed on the soccer field, my focus in track became the sprinting events from 55m to 300m.  I wasn’t exactly what you would call “successful” in these events but I discovered that I loved to run.  My sophomore year, a scrawny little freshman named Matthew Centrowitz joined the soccer team, but we found that we were having more fun running for punishment than we were playing soccer.  Nonetheless, we still thought of it as our “Fall sport” and track as our “Winter and Spring sport.”  That year, I moved up to cover distances ranging from 400-800m, and though I still had little success, I realized that the more I ran the happier I became.  As my junior year approached, Matthew and I were dreading playing soccer for another year, so instead we tried out for the cross country team, wondering if we’d make it (despite the fact that we heard our coach wouldn’t cut you unless you walked).  We went on to be County, Region, and State Champions two years in a row (the next time I’m back home in Annapolis, I’ll pull out and post some great old pictures of us together).  “Hmm… maybe I’m better suited for longer distances,” I thought.

I continued to move up in distance throughout my junior and senior years, committed to run for University of Richmond, and graduated in 2006 with personal bests of 2:00 for 800m, 4:24 for 1,600m, and 9:44 for 3,200m.

Now that you know how I gradually became a distance runner, rather than going year-by-year through college, I’ll talk about my holistic approach that has allowed me to progress consistently and helped me to earn a professional contract with Team USA Minnesota (in no particular order):

  1.  Health and Consistency in training.  In my opinion, this is the most important principle of competitive running.  You won’t have the chance to be successful if your training is frequently interrupted by injuries.  Therefore, you’ll need to discern what your body needs in order to stay healthy and injury-free.  The often-mentioned “base” is not built over a few weeks or months, but rather through years of dedication and lots and lots of miles.  And yes, this even includes running when it’s cold outside (sorry, Northerners).  If you make excuses not to run, don’t complain when your results aren’t what you want them to be.
  2. Rest. Without rest, your body loses its ability to repair muscles after harder efforts.  This is one principle that took me years to truly understand.  I always thought that if I ran myself into the ground every day, I’d have to improve eventually, right?  Wrong.  Going down that path will more than probably end in injury, impeding your ability to follow Principle #1 above.  Let your body recover with scheduled easy runs and plenty of sleep and you should start seeing improvements.
  3. Remember the purpose of each of your runs.  Have a reason to be doing every run or workout and think about it during that session.  Just as hard days should be hard, easy days should be easy.  If you’re not sure why you’re doing a particular workout, ask your coach.
  4. Nutrition and hydration.  This principle is ignored even by professional runners, but it should not be overlooked.  Once a Runner by John Parker popularized the belief that “If the furnace is hot enough, it will burn anything,” suggesting that it doesn’t matter what you consume if you are working out hard enough.  However, I disagree.  As a general rule, try to stay away from processed foods as much as possible.  Not sure how?  This family took on a challenge not to eat processed foods for 100 days, and it has since become their new way of life.  Their website offers great information and advice on eating a well-balanced diet that does not include processed foods.  As for liquids, most people live in a constant state of dehydration – don’t let yourself be one of them.  My drink of choice?  Water.
  5. Work on your flexibility.  There is an ongoing debate surrounding when it is best to stretch, but personally, I stretch before and after every run.  I use Active Isolated Stretching before and many of the same stretches after, but I hold them longer to get a deeper stretch.
  6. Follow a strength training program that works for you.  If implemented properly, a strength training program can certainly improve performance, but perhaps the more important role it plays is keeping you injury-free (again, see Principle #1). Notice that I did not say that it has to be a “weight training program.”  There is a difference, albeit subtle.  Strength training, while it may include lifting weights, may also be based on a foundation of body-weight exercises, resistance training, core conditioning, etc.  Also remember that your core is not limited to your abs; instead it can be defined as all of the muscular anatomy that controls and supports your spine and pelvis (and by some also extends to your shoulders and knees).  A simple search on the Internet will give you plenty of options for strengthening your core.  I to try to find different exercises to add to my repertoire every time I prepare for a core session.
  7. Confidence in your training and in yourself.  If you don’t believe in your training, then chances are you won’t execute well when the time comes to race.  Believe in all of the miles and hard work you’ve put in, believe in your coach’s ability to coach you, and most importantly, believe in yourself.

This is by no means an all-inclusive list of running principles nor do I suggest this is the secret formula to running well.  However, it reflects my opinion on some of the things that have worked to advance my career thus far.  For more running tips, visit:

Running Times Magazine

Competitor Magazine

Runner’s World

Thanks again to Andrew for the idea for the post!

ML

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