The 4 Types of High School Runners



The high school cross country coach often faces four types of runner as the season gets under way. While the easiest path is to give each runner the same training, the most successful coaches tailor the training to fit each type of runner. Here are my four types of high school harriers and how to coach them.


My high school mascot was the cougar, and the underlying spirit of our team was “Cougar Pride.” That meant that you did everything right to help the team. You trained and raced in a way that would make your team, your coach and yourself proud. Runners with Cougar Pride (or whatever your mascot is) are the athletes who train all summer. They do their sit-ups and pushups. They stretch and ice bath and are 100 percent committed to being a better runner. Their running takes top priority and the results show.

With these athletes, just keep them healthy and stoke the fire of motivation, and they’ll win titles year after year. The greatest risk is peaking too soon. Since they have such a great aerobic base from summer running, any speed work will bring them to a peak quickly. As a result, I suggest delaying race-specific training until the last four to six weeks before your championship meet.

I think of Cougar Pride training in two ways. The early part of the season is building the steel–getting strong with hill workouts and tempo-type work. Athletes with Cougar Pride can race fast off of the strength they have, so early season (though infrequent) racing should be successful (though the coach will get them pumped with thoughts of how good they are going to be once speed work starts). Then, in the last few weeks of the season, the steel gets sharpened with race-specific workouts. This should bring this athlete to a peak right on time.


I loved the start of practice each summer because we Cougars knew there would be a discovery or two–a person who had no idea he had talent for running but soon found that this sport was for him. He was usually a freshman or sophomore with little running experience, but boy, could he run.

With Discoveries, the coach has a careful balancing act. On the one hand, you want to pump Discoveries up with lots of encouragement and you want to bring them into the Pride. On the other hand, they’re raw and injuries are common with talented athletes with few miles under their belts. The key here is to get your team leaders to take them under their wing and show them the way. Keep these Discoveries under control for 80 percent of the training (lower, slower mileage and easier workouts) but throw them in with the big boys for some special workouts to let them strut their stuff.


There’s nothing worse for a high school coach than to have talented runners show up for fall practice having done none of the necessary summer training. If you have a talented team that can afford to lose these athletes, then it’s best to cut them from the team. It will show your commitment to the Cougars and let everyone know that your team means business.

Some coaches, however, don’t have the luxury of cutting athletes who may be first-stringers but are undisciplined. I recommend that instead of training these athletes with the Cougars and Discoveries, train them with the beginners. Start building fitness with short, fast repeats like 10 times 100 meters with 100 meters walk back to the start and slowly just get them running several times per week (three to four runs per week). They’ll come around but it will likely be later in the season so there’s no need to try to push them too hard too soon. After building some fitness with the short, fast repeats and more frequent running, add hill repeats and race them frequently to help them round into shape. Every now and then, throw them in with the Cougars to reinforce that running is a lifestyle and that success comes with discipline and dedication. Hopefully, they’ll get on board for your next season.


I’m conflicted on the Participant–the student who runs cross country for fun but not to challenge himself or give 100 percent for the team. On the one hand, more people running is great for the sport. On the other hand, Participants can be a drag on the Cougars and Discoveries as well as the coach. In the end, each program must decide what its philosophy will be–competitive or participatory or (the nearly impossible) both.

Training for the Participant should be more like PE class than cross country training. Make it fun for them, play a lot of games involving running, avoid injuries and slowly build their fitness. Keep them separate from your Cougars and Discoveries who are building Cougar Pride by giving 100 percent every day but make them see exercise as positive.

Learn more about all of the McMillan Running High School Cross Country Resources.

Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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