Many of my posts about training certainly lean towards the more experienced athlete. This post instead is focused on the beginning athlete. It is most directly targeting the middle school or high school athlete but certainly could be extended to work for any runner who is fairly new to the sport.
Unfortunately partially because of ease of organization and partially because I don't think most youth coaches know any better beginning runners are often subjected to large amounts of anaerobic intervals of many kinds. This type of training is very easy to structure and very convenient when trying to monitor and manage large numbers of young athletes. Also it appeals to young competitive children who can turn each short effort into a little mini race. Finally athletes who do this type of work tend to make some very quick improvements, at least in the beginning. Sadly for real development this is probably the worst type of training a young runner can be doing.
Why is it so bad? Well three issues really. First when you run hard your form breaks down and in young developing runners you are building their form habits and if they are constantly straining you are bringing out all their worst form habits. For the short term this will only make them less efficient which means a bit slower but not noticeably. The long term damage however is that as this runner begins at some point in their running life to start and try to build their mileage they will have all sorts of underlying form issues that will cause injuries and be very hard to fix.
Second though you see short term gains you do not develop the aerobic engine which is where long term development comes from. By focusing training on short term gains we rob ourselves of real development. Aerobic improvement can be a little slower but it is much more limitless and you can always sharpen that fitness up with anaerobic work later, where if you get anaerobic fitness first and then move to aerobic you actually will get slower for a time because you are losing that anaerobic sharpness while slowly increasing the more real and lasting aerobic fitness.
Third the interval trained athlete is going to have a real hard time transitioning to the individual runner lifestyle. For the athlete who develops into a competitor this is not a real issue. When they finish running for their middle school or high school team they simply go onto join a team at the next level but for the mid packer who will not compete at the next level the most often only run for a short while after their competitive days are over. The reality of hard intervals as a main training method is that when you start doing them without a team around you they get old very quickly. Simply put you aren't teaching the young runners a running lifestyle that is going to be naturally maintained for a lifetime.
So my solution is that the three main training sessions for the young runner should be easy steady running, strides (EVERY DAY) http://nateruns.blogspot.com/2015/01/strides.html , and Tempo Runs.
Tempo runs for the young runner should be short. They need not be structure very much. At this age the athlete is improving very fast and picking a pace based on goal or current fitness can leave you shooting at a moving target. The best option is to teach the correct effort. It is easier said than done but it is worth while both as a running life skill as well as because of the competitive results you will see from it.
The effort. As fast as the athlete can run well still feeling relaxed. I describe it as an effort at which you could talk if you had to but you certainly wouldn't want to. You should feel like you are on the edge of your legs and lungs starting to burn but not go over that edge. You will gain more by going a bit too slow than you will by going too fast so it is ok to err on the side of going a bit slow. It isn't whimping out, it is training smart!
The distance. The key to running tempos for the beginning athlete is that they should be quite short. 15 to 20 minutes is ideal. Any longer and the runners inherent lack of endurance is going to greatly harm the quality of the work. You are obviously doing regular running with some form of long run to build that endurance over time but that can take a few years so in the mean time the tempo should be right in the athletes wheel house. I have purposely put down a time not a distance on these. I realize that for some beginning athletes a 15minute tempo run may be barely more than a mile. That is fine! What matters 100% on this session is internal effort.
For teams of athletes I would suggest doing loops around a flat area. This way a coach can monitor to make sure athletes are not going too hard. Also this way there is not a pressure to set up a loop of 2 or 3 miles that now everyone covers the same DISTANCE. You want them covering the same TIME.
The way to progress these runs is to increase the time. So you work through them in cycles. Start with a tempo of just 12 to 15 minutes and then repeat this effort every 5 days to one week increasing the time by 2 to 4 minutes. The key is to try to maintain the same effort. You will find that though you were quite tired at the end of the last tempo you are able to hold it together for a couple more minutes and within a few weeks you are running 20 to 25 minutes at the same pace you held for your first tempo and that you feel quite fresh and relaxed as you pass that original 12 to 15minute point.
Once you have reached the 20 to 25 minute range you go back to the beginning of 12 to 15 minutes but you will find the same effort you used the first time out will allow you to cover greater distance in the time. In short you will go faster for the same effort.
The young athlete should be doing this pretty much every week of the year that they train. I was not the most talented athlete and as a young runner I struggled. I needed aerobic development and so I struggled as an athlete until I got it. Some would say I was a late bloomer and that is possible. However I would say I had comparable talent to a guy like Charlie Spedding but in HS he ran the equivalent of about a 4:12 mile and did well in English national cross country races. The difference? As I stagnated from my freshman through junior years, 10:20 down to only 10:06 for 2 miles in those three years, Charlie improved greatly in the same time period. Our training volumes where similarly low. Our racing schedules were similarly over stocked. Our interval workouts were similar in similarity, if mine were much more often done. However Charlie's bread and butter was a very fast 15minute run. I doubt he would have called it a tempo but that is exactly what it was and he learned very quickly to run fast with control and his aerobic system grew greatly in that time period.
What is better is that work like this sets the athlete up for success in the future. You are building with tempos, and strides, the ability to do more training and to build improvement on top of your current fitness. So often I hear coaches proudly touting that there young athletes are under trained. Meaning generally that they have done low mileage. The problem is this usually means they have done a ton of workouts and hard races without building the underlying structures needed to train harder later on. As well meaning as the coaching has been the athlete has been done a disservice. They have been built up in such a way that they are more likely to get hurt and they are underperforming in anything longer than a mile because they simply have no real aerobic development.
Far better to focus early training on three things.
(1)Steady year over year increases in volume. If an athlete can run 30 miles in his/her 3rd week of training for a team they damn well should be doing a lot more than that 4 years later. I view the idea of weekly volume averages being 25 to 35 per week as a frosh and then increase around 10 miles per week each year, 35 to 45 as a soph, 45 to 55 as a jr and 55 to 65 as a senior. Obviously some athletes will progress faster an others slower but the idea is simple. Each year you will be stronger then the year prior so the training should progress with this.
(2) These tempo runs done with incredible regularity year round- if you can add in progression runs of similar durations nearly as often all the better!
(3) strides, form drills and short hill sprints to build great smooth powerful form and great running specific muscular strength.
So there you have my tempos for new runners and a bit of extra as well.