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For college runners, like the rest of us, it’s been a year like no other—a year of uncertainty and upheaval, of closed campuses, quarantines, limited practices, and lost seasons. But as the competitive schedule resumes a somewhat normal rhythm (conference meets in May, NCAAs in June) athletes and coaches are starting to see what the pandemic year has done to them. Or for them.
Consider: In February, Oregon’s Cooper Teare and Cole Hocker destroyed the NCAA indoor mile record; in April, Athing Mu of Texas A&M crushed the 800m record; and in early May, Notre Dame’s Yared Nuguse broke the 1500m record. Look deeper and it’s the same story: The top 25 lists this year are faster than in any of the previous four years–even before the NCAA championship meet, which typically produces about 15% of the year’s top times.
What changed this year, besides everything? The shoes, yes; super spikes make a difference. But something else is, ahem, afoot: as of May 25 (the most recently published comprehensive USATF list), Teare, Hocker, Mu, and Nuguse all led the U.S. lists (although the Portland Invitational rewrote the 1500m list). In 2019, at this time, the top collegians were 6th in the men’s mile (Walid Suliman), 6th in the men’s 1500m (Nuguse), and 4th in the women’s 800m (Lauren Ellsworth).
How did the upheaval affect athletes? I surveyed athletes across the nation, at all levels of the NCAA, to try to find out how their training and mental approaches changed. The survey, conducted between April 19 and May 15, asked respondents about their training history (mileage, frequency of faster workouts, frequency of races, and injury / illness issues) for the two seasons pre-pandemic (for most, 2019 cross country, and 2019-2020 winter track), and for the 13-month period from March 2020 – March 2021. The survey was anonymous, and athletes were not asked to identify their college affiliation; respondents were roughly evenly split male / female, and NCAA Division 1 / Division 3 (with a handful of D2 athletes sprinkled in).
The biggest change? A sizable reduction in intensity (tables 1 and 2)—fewer hard workouts (defined as workouts at race pace or faster), fewer time trials, fewer races—which leads to an inevitable follow-up question: Is there a connection between the reduction in intensity and improvement in performance?
The change in intensity was consistent across all groups, but other aspects of training showed greater variance. While average miles per week across all survey respondents remained roughly the same (table 3), some ran significantly more and some ran a great deal less; a sizable group of respondents increased their mileage by 10% or more (table 4a).
Notably, among athletes who increased their mileage, injury rates didn’t increase (outside of the few brave souls who tried to double their pre-pandemic mileage). Sample sizes aren’t large enough for definitive conclusions, but we see no correlation between high mileage or mileage increases and injuries (tables 4a & 4b).
Intensity was the only consistent change. Pre-pandemic, athletes reported running approximately two intense workouts per week. Over the pandemic year (outside of the summer months, where one assumes athletes would mostly do base training), the average was 1.43, or roughly one fewer workout every two weeks (table 1).
Races and race simulations declined even more. Pre-pandemic, athletes reported racing roughly three times per month, with the Division 3 average (3.38) higher than Division 1 (2.79). During the pandemic year, athletes ran an average of about six races or simulations total, or roughly one every two months (table 2).
We Don’t Have All the Answers
So, can we definitively say that a sizable group of NCAA runners ran more mileage with fewer intense efforts, and are now ready to destroy the record books? Anecdotally, survey respondents who followed that formula came back faster than they expected: “In the time trials I did run I PR’d … despite doing no speed work and only increasing mileage,” said one runner. Another athlete wrote about her long mileage buildup, and said, “So far I have had massive PRs that I did not think I would ever achieve in my collegiate career.”
However, anecdotes prove nothing; evidence would only come from a controlled experiment comparing athletes who ran higher miles with fewer intense efforts against athletes trained on a more traditional program, which we do not have. Instead, we have more questions than answers. For instance:
Are there other explanations for the performances?
Maybe athletes just had more time on their hands. (H/T to Jack Daniels and the Run S.M.A.R.T. project for suggesting this as a possibility.) Some responses indicated this might be the case: “There was extra time to focus on my craft and the small things,” wrote one athlete. Another wrote, “I was actually able to better focus on physical health during the pandemic.”
Why do NCAA athletes race as often as they do?
In part, because racing is fun. The most common refrain from survey respondents about their year was some variation of “I can’t wait to race again.” NCAA athletes are a self-selecting breed—they enjoy the thrill of the race, bonds forged through competition with teammates and rivals alike, the bus rides—everything about it. In addition, races are validation: “Racing … provided you feedback on where you were physically and mentally,” wrote one runner. Many athletes reported feeling lost without that feedback.
So are NCAA athletes over-raced?
Depends on how you define “over-raced.” Jay Johnson, coach and author of Consistency Is Key and Simple Marathon Training, noted, “before we say the college system ruins kids, we need to look at Mathew Centrowitz winning an Olympic gold, and saying that having to run so many rounds in college taught him how to run tactically.” Johnson further notes that most college kids haven’t developed the ability to pace themselves emotionally through the ups and downs of a collegiate year—something athletes can only develop through practice and growth, which requires racing experience. Racing is a learning process, and the NCAA, in theory, values education. Even if racing is physically and emotionally draining, it’s a valuable teaching tool.
What does this mean as we go back to normal?
There’s no cause to throw out the traditional training plan, but athletes and coaches alike can take some reassurance from the past year: if runners who missed a year of races and normal workout routines can still crush records, maybe it’s okay to back off the intensity every now and then.
It might help to think not in terms of “giving up” workouts or races, but in terms of gaining time for other aspects of training. Each intense effort carries with it an opportunity cost—we lose the opportunity for a longer run or a lifting session. As one athlete noted, the missed seasons helped her “focus on better training runs rather than just a cycle of recovery runs and workouts.”
But intense efforts have a special allure; it’s hard to give up the satisfaction of passing the test, of conquering the pain, of feeling your body can do damn near anything. In training, runners tend to be more-is-more people: while we know that too much is detrimental, we want to push the upper bound. But we have very little sense the lower bound, how much less could we do. Exploring that lower bound could yield some interesting training insights.
Training aside, athletes aren’t going back to normal; they are returning with a healthy appreciation for the sport. Some just felt lost over the past year, like the runner who wrote, “COVID has just made running seem so unreal and unimportant.” Many found relief in running: “A good way to get out of the house,” wrote one. Nearly all realized how much they valued and relied on their teammates, expressed most simply by the athlete who wrote, “I miss human interaction.” And they vow never to take their sport for granted. The pandemic, one athlete wrote, “made me appreciate every race and run I have now because at any moment it could change.”
So, will all the NCAA records go down?
Probably not. But after a year of wandering in the desert, the top college runners have reached the promised land, Oregon’s Hayward Field. They’re facing off against the best of their peers, and primed to let loose. Anything seems possible.
Stephen Lane is a high school teacher, and the meet director for the Adrian Martinez Classic, an elite meet in Concord, MA. He has written about the statistical analysis of pacing in cross-country, trans athletes in sport, and is the author of No Sanctuary: Teachers and the School Reform that Brought Gay Rights to the Masses. He is currently working on a book about the 1984 Women’s Olympic Marathon.