John McDonnell’s Training for Distance Runners

John McDonnell is one of the most successful college coaches in the history of NCAA track and field and cross-country. His tenure at Arkansas lasted 36 years from 1972-2008 and included a stunning 40 NCAA titles. Here are some of McDonnell’s accolades from his coaching career:

  • 11 cross-country, 19 indoor track, 10 outdoor track NCAA Championships
  • 84 Conference Championships
  • 185 All-Americans
  • 54 individual national champions
  • 23 Olympians
John McDonnell, the Most Successful Coach in the NCAA

There’s not much information online about the training of some of his historic teams. Almost all of the following information is derived from his biography, John McDonnell, the Most Successful Coach in the NCAA by Andrew Maloney and John McDonnell. It’s a great book that that details almost every year of his coaching over 405 pages. There were no secrets to McDonnell’s national championships. His training was simple and easy to follow, but the most important thing was that he instilled a culture of achievement in his teams. His runners knew that they were expected to win and that led to their success.

Basic Overview:
Aerobic development was paramount for McDonnell. He believes that a runner’s aerobic engine is one of the most critical attributes for racing, even for his middle distance athletes. To him, strength was speed. However, perhaps the most critical aspect of his training that contributed to his success as a coach was the psychological preparation that he gave his athletes.

Mileage and Distance Run Pace:
During the beginning of his coaching career, McDonnell’s teams were running 100+ miles per week. While he had success with high mileage training, he never stopped tweaking his system. As he developed as a coach, he started to place more importance on the quality of training sessions rather than the quantity. During his team’s most dominant years his athletes ran about 85 miles per week at a fast pace. It was not uncommon for distance runs to be under 6-minute pace. McDonnell believed that slow miles were “junk miles” and did not contribute to aerobic development. Of course, 85 miles per week was not a hard and fast rule and instead represented the average. There were still athletes that ran 100+ miles per week and others that ran less than 85.

Long Runs:
McDonnell placed a significant emphasis on long runs throughout the entire year. His teams had a weekly long run all year round, not just during the cross-country season. The long runs were considered another workout and were designed to be challenging. Almost all of the long runs were sub 6-minute pace and often as fast as 5:30 pace per mile. What’s unique about McDonnell’s long runs is that these runs were only about 12-14 miles in length. Most elite cross-country programs at the time, and now, have 18+ mile long runs.

McDonnell took these runs seriously. There are stories in the book about McDonnell driving his team 18 miles away from campus and parking the van 14 miles back. Any runner that ran back to the van under an allotted time would be driven back to campus. However, any runner that did not make it back to the van in the allotted time would have to run 4 more miles, completing 18 on the day. McDonnell made them extend their long run because he felt that they were not running fast enough to benefit from the shorter run, making them run longer to compensate.

Pictured here, Alistair Cragg went on to run 13:03 for the 5k after his time at Arkansas

McDonnell’s workouts were brutally hard. He designed his workouts to simulate races. He did this to instill confidence in his runners to handle the fast pace of a race. During cross-country, he would utilize oxygen debt workouts to prepare for a quick first mile in races. One example of an oxygen debt workout that he used was mile repeats on Arkansas’ cross-country course. His team would start at 4:25 per mile and get slower each rep, ending at around 5:10 per mile. McDonnell also mixed the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems in many of his workouts. Arkansas was famous for ladder workouts that cut down aggressively in pace and distance.

McDonnell was always open to input from his athletes about their training. He would encourage his athletes to tell him if they were not feeling recovered enough for a workout. If that was the case, McDonnell would move the workout for the athlete until he was recovered.

Summer Training:
Arkansas’ summers were designed to prepare the team for hard workouts during the cross-country season. McDonnell prescribed only 50-60 miles per week with lots of steady running and few workouts. The impetus for low mileage in the summer was to ensure that his team came back to campus ready to handle intensity but were not so overtrained that they would be unable to maintain their fitness until the NCAA Championships. However, an important note is that while his teams were running 50-60 miles in the summer, they were doing it at a fast pace, around 6:00 per mile or faster.

Training Surface:
McDonnell believed soft surfaces were the best surface to run on to prevent injuries. He would rarely have his runners train on the pavement. Fortunately, Arkansas cross-country was allowed to use woodchips trails near campus that was an idyllic place to run.

Weights and Cross-Training:
Injuries happen, and McDonnell’s teams were not immune. Whenever an athlete was injured, McDonnell would have them cross-train in the pool to maintain, and even develop, their aerobic system. Instead of having the athlete do continuous swims, McDonnell would assign them swimming interval workouts like 40×1 minute or 20×2 minutes for added intensity.

Contrary to modern-day weight training, McDonnell only focused on upper body weight lifting. He believed that runners’ legs were already strong enough from running and further stress would only increase the chance of injury. Consequently, he never had his runners do any exercises that affected muscles below the hips.

Training Partners:
Perhaps one of the under-appreciated aspects of Arkansas’ training was the immense amount of talent they had in Fayetteville at all times. They rarely had a down year, even when they were a young team. Many of McDonnell’s athletes that started running pro would remain in Arkansas to continue training under him. Having pro runners as volunteer assistants benefited Arkansas’ training and culture. The pros reminded the younger athletes about the success of McDonell’s former runners and kept them on the right path.

Joe Falcon, a future 3:49 miler, won 6 NCAA titles under McDonnell

McDonnell was a master tactician. He would give all his athletes a plan before their race and was adamant that they followed it. His plans led to bold strategies that were suited to the needs of his team and his athletes. He believed that his athletes should be prepared to win in any way, even if it meant leading the whole race or taking control from a long way out. He trained his athletes’ strengths, not their weaknesses. If one of his runners lacked the top end speed needed to close out a race in the final 400, he would train them to be able to take the race from 800 or 1200 out, either increasing the pace gradually from that point or hitting one hard lap and then taking another easy before hitting the last lap hard again.

Peaking and Periodization:
Another tenet of McDonnell’s training philosophy, that set him apart from his contemporaries, was his peaking strategy. He did not believe in aggressive peaks. He thought that his athletes should always be close to PR shape. When preparing for important races, he did not drop his runners’ mileage much, if at all. McDonnell used each race before Nationals as preparation. His distance runners would run NCAA qualifying marks early in the season and then primarily run relays until the Conference and National championships. Additionally, McDonnell used each season as a building block for the next. Cross-country was prep for indoor track which was prep for outdoor track.

“The philosophy stayed the same: six weeks of aerobic preparation for strength then gradually during the second three weeks of the six-week period we’d start doing some leg play as I call it, or leg cadence, where we’d do 150s or 300s three times a week, and I felt like that kept their leg speed constantly there, even during cross-country season.” – John McDonnell

Psychological Preparation:
Arguably, the most significant contributor to McDonnell’s success came from the mental preparation he instilled in his athletes. One of his strengths as a coach was his ability to motivate. He learned what made each of his athletes inspired and used different tactics to motivate each one of them to reach new levels in their racing and training. He was an advocate for sports psychologists, and many of his top athletes met with them.

“People get nervous, and nerves are good if you can channel them in the right way, but if your knees are bending and all of your nervous energy is expended psychologically, there is nothing left for the physical demands of the race. You have to find a good doctor. It’s like sending guys to a dietician.” – John McDonnell

A takeaway from the book was that McDonell’s athletes were extremely loyal to him. They believed that the worst thing that they could do was to let him down by not giving 100% in races.

How to implement his system into your training:
It’s important to keep in mind that McDonnell’s athletes came from a program that demanded success, and as such, they were 100% dedicated to running. His runners made sure to take care of their bodies. McDonnell said that of all of the successful runners that he’s coached, the one thing that they had in common was that they slept at least 8 hours a night.

McDonnell’s system was simple but quite intense. It yielded its share of championships and great performances. If you’re looking at his training as inspiration and wondering how to use his principles for your own training, then consider making your easy runs faster and making your long run a staple workout. Additionally, one of the most vital parts of his philosophy that can be translated to any training program – no matter how fast the runner – is that the psychological conditioning of racing is just as important as the physical conditioning. Look at the development of your capabilities to handle the nerves and pressures of racing as an equal part of your training. It is best to work on different strategies that keep you motivated and ready to go when it matters.