5 Foundational Lessons I Learned from High School Track

Can you believe that I used to loathe running?

It’s true – in middle school PE, I avoided all of the running events during Track & Field week by throwing the shotput.

Less than a year later, I was plotting my personal bests in Excel, clipping team results from the newspaper, and dreaming about a sub-5 minute mile.

What a difference a year makes! Look at the running geek I blossomed into:

Throwback to Lexington High School cross country!! #tbt #xc

A photo posted by Jason Fitzgerald (@jasonfitz1) on

High school track was formative; the lessons I learned from my teammates and 5+ coaches were invaluable. I would not be the runner – or coach – that I am today without those experiences.

I want you to know those same lessons, as well.

Some were learned immediately. Others took the entirety of my HS running career to fully understand. And some, like a fine wine, matured over the last decade.

Below are five lessons that high school track taught me – and that I know will help your running.

#1 The Discipline to Train Consistently

I was required to go to practice every day after school. And sometimes on Saturdays.

Running was immediately a consistent, regular part of my life (even if some of those runs were just 20-30 minutes) that ingrained discipline around the sport of running.

It didn’t matter if I had a final exam or paper due the next day.

It didn’t matter if there was a party, ski trip, or holiday.

No matter what – even on 9/11 – I was at practice, building my fitnesss (and more importantly, the habit of consistent running).

Too many runners skip their training because of travel, parties, the weather, or they woke up feeling tired.

I’m not here to coddle you – I’m here to help you reach your potential. If you want to improve and see what you’re capable of, it’s going to take discipline and consistency over a very long period of time.

Make running a consistent habit by developing the long-term discipline to train regularly.

It’s likely the most important aspect of being a successful runner.

#2 Strides, Strides, Strides

Starting to run as a 14-year old has its benefits: primarily, I took advantage of raging hormones and an active lifestyle to turn that into (relatively) fast race times.

But part of that was that I learned how to run fast and did it frequently with strides.

Running strides regularly (often barefoot) are a fundamental, critical, and deeply basic exercise that every runner must do 2-3 times per week.

Almost every week – no exceptions.

They make running at close to top speed comfortable. They develop neuromuscular coordination. They refine your running form and increase efficiency.

If you started running yesterday or in 1962, or you’re training for the 800m or a 100-mile ultramarathon, you must run strides regularly.

#3 What is it like to “see God?”

Runners will often say that they “went to the well” or “saw God” during a workout or race. This means that the workout was grueling, long, and tested them in every way imaginable.

When you go to the well, you suffer. Except with running, you actively seek out more suffering because it’s the only way to run fast.

Running track taught me what it felt like to see God. To push beyond what you think is possible. To run toward pain and welcome it as a byproduct of fast racing.

It seems that every week a runner tells me they want to set a new personal best “comfortably” or finish a marathon “feeling good.”

These runners are delusional. Racing hurts – there’s no way around it. My favorite quote on this subject is from University of Colorado head cross country coach Mark Wetmore:

In football, you might get your bell rung, but you go in with the expectation that you might get hurt, and you hope to win and come out unscathed.

As a distance runner, you know you’re going to get your bell rung. Distance runners are experts at pain, discomfort, and fear. You’re not coming away feeling good. It’s a matter of how much pain you can deal with on those days.

It’s not a strategy. It’s just a callusing of the mind and body to deal with discomfort. Any serious runner bounces back. That’s the nature of their game. Taking pain.

Only when you’re comfortable being comfortable, when you’re callused enough to deal with discomfort, and when you’re ready to take pain will you be ready to achieve your potential in running.

#4 Variety in Speeds

From 1998 to 2002, I ran eight different race lengths:

  • 200m
  • 400m
  • 800m
  • 1,000m
  • 1,200m (during the distance medley relay)
  • Mile (or 1600m)
  • 2-mile
  • 5k (cross country races ranged from 2.5 miles to 5k)

There’s significant value in delaying when you start running long races because they don’t require much speed  – which is a learned skill.

Once you develop speed, it transfers very well to longer races. But if you never run short races, you’ll never build the skill of speed.

I firmly believe that short races build more coordinated, powerful, and skilled athletes than longer races. The long stuff can come later when your training age is higher and you’ve matured as a runner.

Until then, focus on setting personal bests in short races up to 10k. You might think you’re not helping your ultimate goal of finishing a marathon or breaking 2-hours in the half, but that’s not true.

PR’s lead to PR’s, as I’m fond of saying. And as pro ultra and mountain runner Andy Wacker told me: “Fitness is fitness.”

#5 Effort > Pace

I feel like an old guy writing this, but I started running way before GPS watches. We had no Garmins, FitBits, or smart phone apps that connected to satellites.

We had the stopwatch function on cheap Timex watches. Our coaches assigned runs by time and effort rather than distance and pace.

Distance runs were “45 minutes easy” instead of “6 miles at 7:30 per mile.”

This forced us to listen to our bodies rather than our watches – to focus on internal data rather than external data. And our paces varied widely depending on so many factors:

  • If we were running trails, our pace was a LOT slower
  • If it was hot, humid, or raining, we were running slow
  • If we had raced the day before, we were running slower than usual

And on and on. In fact, I bet my appropriate easy pace was usually a lot slower than what it “should” have been because the pace calculators are usually generous and don’t factor in these variables.

Far too many runners are a slave to their devices. We’ve succumbed to data madness – and it’s not helping our running.

Just watch any Olympic track race. The athletes are not checking their watches – they’re competing. They’re racing.

And when Kenyan runners can start their easy runs at 9:00 / mile (four minutes slower than marathon pace), that tells me us mere mortals can run easy by effort, too.

Want More?

Since 1998, I’ve admittedly been a huge running geek.

My collection of running books is staggering.

I’ve written over 500 free articles on Strength Running with the singular goal of helping as many runners as possible improve their training and reach their biggest goals.

If you enjoy these “bite-size” lessons I’ve learned over the last few decades, you have two options:

  1. Check out my top-rated book 101 Simple Ways to Be a Better Runner. I cover even more diverse topics in easily digested lessons – no jargon, no technical science terms.
  2. Get my free Beginner’s Running Course where I’ll walk you through the top things you can start doing today to get faster.

Good luck with your running – and run strong!

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