Interview with Coach Steve Magness on Youth Running

Steve Magness is the head cross country coach at The University of Houston and the author of "The Science of Running" and the upcoming "Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success" coming out on June 6, 2017. When it comes to the science of running, Steve Magness is one the top minds in the world. The Colorado Coyotes thank Steve for taking the time to answer a few questions via email on youth running.

Thank you for taking some questions from the Colorado Coyotes! You have a new book coming out in June called “Peak Performance” what can you tell us about it?

Part of my quest in becoming a better coach and runner is to look outside of our narrow field. Peak Performance is a culmination of that journey. I talked to world-class musicians, artists, venture capitalists, CEO’s, and thinkers, and tried to find what made them able to reach the top of their fields, but also stay there. In Peak Performance, I go through what both the best and brightest do, and what the research says. The lessons learned cross domains, and I really think there are key ideas that an artist might take from a runner or vice versa. That’s where I see future breakthroughs coming from.

What’s your opinion on the state of youth running in America? In particular, the middle school and high school programs that you see? What do we do well and what can we improve upon?

They do a really good job of getting kids excited to run and train. Where I think we sometimes fail is transitioning that into a life long pursuit of the sport, and in making sure that the kids keep developing throughout their teens and twenties.

When it comes to youth runners, what running workouts deliver the highest ROI?

It’s not about getting the most improvement now, but instead setting yourself up for the most long term improvement. At those ages, it’s important not to get greedy. Establish the foundation off which you can build your running career. That means establishing good mechanics, developing an aerobic foundation, and an enjoyment of the sport. To me, the extremes (i.e. good form and sprint work along with good easy running) are the foundation for this age.

One question I get asked a lot is about footwear. I’m a proponent of minimalist running shoes and flat shoes for the school day. I know people’s opinion differs when it comes to running shoes, but what’s your take on running shoes for young runners?

When we’re young we can establish movement patterns a lot easier than when we’ve got hundreds of miles underneath our feet. When it comes to shoes, I’m a fan of trying to develop good natural mechanics and strength in the feet. That means, allowing the foot to develop and function as much as possible.

When you recruit high school runners to the U Of Houston, what does that process look like and how many scholarships are available?

With each school, it varies on scholarships. By NCAA rules, men have 12.6 total and women 18 total to use for an entire track team. That’s not per year, that’s total. So you think of all of the different events and it’s really hard to get a significant chunk of that pie. At Houston, what we look for, even more so than times, is how you will fit in and are you willing to put in the work. A negative attitude kills talent.

When evaluating talent and girls in particular, do you have an effective gauge to tell what kids will improve once they get into your program? Also, how do you compare runners who may have run faster times but were running a lot of mileage in high school versus a runner who came from a lower mileage program?

I always do a deep evaluation of their past training. What I’m looking for is does the kid have somewhere to go. Meaning, we get better when we can add a stimulus to the training program. So is he or she maxed out in almost every variable or are there some holes in the training where we could easily fill them?

I feel like most cross-country coaches know the benefits of a dynamic warm-up versus static stretching. I actually see more static stretching pre-game at high school basketball and football games. Is there still a place for static stretching in a middle school or high school running program?

I’m not a huge fan of static work regardless. If people feel like they need it, then afterwards it isn’t bad.

What are your favorite strength and mobility exercises for youth runners?

I’m a big fan of developing movement in different plains. So anything that challenges runners to become athletes is good in my book. We do a lot of med ball work right by the track because it gives us the flexibility to get work in without being constrained by a weight room.

The push for sports specialization in America has never been higher and now clubs are more than willing to take parents money and train their child year round. What are your thoughts on sports specialization and if a youngster has a strong desire for running, what would be a good age to specialize in running?

It’s a real shame the direction we are headed. You do NOT need to specialize in order to reach your potential. In fact, specializing early is more likely to ensure that you never get the most out of your talent. There’s a reason that in school we make sure that all students learn math, reading, arts, science, and a wide range of subjects before we get into advanced degrees and specialize. The body and brain both function best in the same way. They need a wide base of support before the specialist/specific work needs to be developed.

You had a great Twitter post titled “Women Vs Men” which showed a group of women on the track running 3-4 abreast and a group of men running single file. In Po Bonson’s book “Top Dog” he wrote about how women and men differed when it came to competition and to your point women are more likely to run in groups to keep the status quo, whereas men have no problem hammering each other in practice. I’ve noticed this in Coyotes practices with the girls running in groups, where a faster girl will slow herself down for the sake of the group. What’s the solution here?

You have to recognize the differences between men and women and coach to them. Neither is necessarily better or worse, they are just different. For instance, women will be just as competitive, if not more so, than men, but they need to feel like they have a chance in the fight. If they don’t, they won’t try. Men on the other hand are delusional, they always think they have a chance. So, the solution is to know your athletes and set up the environment to get the best out of them. In our women’s group, we do a lot of mixing and matching and less strict group training. We rotate people in and out.

Final question, what advice do you have for youth running coaches and for parents of youth runners?

Youth coaches are the most important. They set up the patterns for which their athletes will view the sport for the rest of their life. Take that responsibility seriously! At the college and even professional level, you can trace the mindsets of the runners back to their early competitive days. If they had a hard nosed coach they were afraid of, 10 years down the line, the athlete still displays a fear of failure when racing. As youth coaches, you control how the athlete sees themselves and their sport for life. Send the right message.

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