I ran track in middle school, high school and college. I hated most of it.
High-volume workouts battered my body and crushed my spirit. We never spiked up in practice and never sprinted at top speed.
In high school I ran on school record 4x100 and 4x400 teams. I anchored both the 4x100 and 4x400 for my college track team. Looking back, I wonder how good I could have been. What if I would have sprinted as fast as possible, as often as possible, staying as fresh as possible? What if I would have loved my training and loved the sport of track and field?
During my first two decades as a track coach, practices were brutal affairs. They were long, frequent and hurt like hell. Now, over 40% of my track athletes' seasons are off days. Our sprinters never run longer than a 200m in practice. We don't run laps. We never jog. Love has replaced grit. Speed has replaced endurance. Our times have never been faster.
When Track Sucks (1972-1981)
My high school coach, Roger Wilcox, believed in hard work and the development of fierce competitors. Like many coaches of that era, Coach Wilcox wanted to turn boys into men (Why don't we hear anyone talk about turning girls into women?) Track was a test of your manhood. He would smile playfully as he told us, "I'm going to call you dragons, because I'm going to run you until your ass is dragging." He would often remind us of the "Seven Ps": "Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance." Roger Wilcox celebrated that fact that I threw up after workouts and races, calling me the best competitor he had ever coached. I would run through a brick wall for the guy, but I didn't like track.
Roger Wilcox coached the way he had been coached. Roger had played college football under Coach Lou Saban, a World War II veteran who later became head coach of the Buffalo Bills. Those World War II guys believed in toughness. Toughness was a core value of Coach Wilcox.
My high school training mirrored the program of Clyde Hart, the legendary former track coach for Baylor. Clyde recruited the fastest kids in the country, exposed them to high volume training, then transitioned to speed late in the season. In my opinion, the key to Clyde Hart's success was recruitment.
I practiced in my basketball shoes (Adidas Pro-Model high tops). We did nothing less than a 150m in practice. Our program was built around 400m runners and relays. We ran intervals of 150, 200, 300, 400 and 500 meters. We were given a time we had to achieve, and if we didn't make it, we had to run more. On the day before a meet, we would jog until we worked up a sweat. It all must have worked because we won our conference meet in 1976 and 1977. Success validates training, right?
I went to a small college where the head football coach was also, by default, the track coach. An alarming number of track coaches have their jobs simply because no one else wants it. My college coach read a book on training. I literally became his de facto assistant coach, which in effect, created a continuance of my high school program. We did speed endurance, tempo runs and aerobic work. We did tons of running but no sprinting. We worked very hard. I liked my coach but going to track practice was like going to the dentist.
The Cycle of Abuse (1981-1998)
We learn to parent from our parents.
We learn to coach from our coaches.
I was hired to teach five science classes at Harrisburg High School in Southern Illinois in 1981. Harrisburg was a poor coal mining town where people showed up for football games on Friday nights and went hunting or fishing on Saturday and Sunday. I was also hired to coach the offense for the freshman football team and served as sophomore basketball coach. As an afterthought, I agreed to coach track, too. Due to the incompetence of Harrisburg's head track coach, I had carte blanche with the sprinters and middle-distance runners.
I became head basketball coach the following year (1982) and got fired as head basketball coach eight years later (1990). In a bizarre twist of fate, the school board hired me as head track coach the month before they fired me as basketball coach. Harrisburg High School couldn't find anyone who wanted the head track job. I've been a head track coach ever since.
Becoming the head track coach at Harrisburg, in the absence of basketball, was a paradigm shift for me. Track is typically treated as a step-child in high school sports. Football, basketball and baseball are top-tier sports; everything else is secondary. For me, as an athlete and a coach, track had always been my lowest priority. As assistant track coach from 1981-1990, I went to basketball clinics during the spring. I devoured books about Rick Pitino, Bob Knight and Jim Valvano. Track rarely crossed my mind, even at track practice. From 1981-1990, I had not been much of a track coach. I was a basketball zealot.
As the new head track coach, my typical practice involved an arbitrary number of runs of a random distance at a sub-max speed. Sometimes we ran at slow speeds (getting into shape) and sometimes faster speeds. We never wore spikes. Sometimes we would get creative and run 10x200, each one faster than the previous. Learning to run fast when tired seemed like a brilliant idea.
I basically coached the whole team by myself with the assistance of a part-time throws coach. True story: I literally convinced my former assistant basketball coach to be my throws coach by telling him he could skip practice and go bass fishing on pretty days.
It made sense to me to create a team of quarter-milers and half-milers. Quarter-milers could move down to the sprints if they were fast enough (Everyone knew that speed was a genetic trait back then, you either had speed or you didn't). Half-milers could move up to the mile and two-mile. One coach, one training plan. Running is running. Distance guys ran 10x400. Sprinters ran 10x200. It wasn't rocket science. I had become my high school coach and had reproduced his program.
I blame inertia.
Objects continue to go in the same direction unless acted upon by an outside force. I had no outside forces acting on me, so I continued in the same direction. The cycle of abuse continued 17 years because I didn't care enough to seek an outside force. I was not looking to evolve. Like most people, I had it all figured out.
Like my own high school coach, I had enough success to justify everything I did as a track coach. In 1983, I coached Mark Bittle to the state championship in the 800m. In 1991, my team placed 3rd in the state with Brandon Shelton high jumping 6-10 and breaking the state record in the 300 hurdles. In 1995, my team won the state championship behind 7-2 high jumper Damon Lampley, who also excelled the sprints. We dominated teams in our area. From 1990-1998, my teams had won state medals in 15 relays and 16 individual events. No one worked harder. We had terrific team culture. We competed like there was no tomorrow.
But something wasn't right.
I had trouble convincing football and basketball players that track was fun. Many of my best track athletes were perpetually banged-up. They dreaded practice. One of my best all-time athletes, Chad Lakatos (1989-1992) wore a permanent look of misery, even though he won the 100, 200, 400 and Long Jump at our conference meet and ran a 48.2 split in the 4x400 at the state meet. Chad probably had double stress fractures of his shins during both his junior and senior years. Like me, Chad didn't love track.
Looking back, something that happened in 1995 planted a seed that didn't truly germinate until three years later. My 7-2 high jumper, Damon Lampley, had a unique track experience. Damon missed 20-some practices his senior year to play centerfield for our baseball team. Damon competed in meets and maybe one practice per week. He was exempt from our traditional workouts. Despite his generic look (5-10, 150 pounds), Damon cleared 7-0 or better 13 times and ran 10.64 in the 100m. Hmmm.
I reached my tipping point in 1998. My incredible group of 400/800 runners underperformed at the state meet and we lost the state championship to Chicago Leo's group of sprinters and jumpers. Later that summer, my son Alec (age 12) told me he wanted to play baseball in high school. One more important thing happened that year, I attended a track clinic.
At the Medalist Track & Field Clinic in St. Louis, Paul Souza, coach at D-3 Wheaton College (Massachusetts), spoke of specificity in jump and sprint training. Souza made me question my high-volume approach. He spoke of sprinters being "different," like cats. He spoke of training dosage that made me wish my own experience as a track athlete would have been different. He used the word "epiphany" in his presentation. My epiphany came on that day 20 years ago.
Twenty years ago, I deviated from the norm. I began a new journey. My teams would sprint to get fast. I would learn how to make practices the best part of a kid's day. To hell with a focus on the 400-800. We would focus on the 40. We would get fast and compete like champions. Love would replace grit. Speed would replace endurance.
Feed the Cats (1999-2019)
In the 105-year history of IHSA Track & Field, Harrisburg high school had placed in the 4x100 only three times. Then everything changed. Harrisburg won the 4x100 state championship in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003. Our 2001 team set a state record. We placed 4th in 2002 and 2004.
I went to Franklin, Tennessee, in 2004 for two years. I inherited only eight boys from Franklin's 2004 team. We placed 5th in the 4x100 in 2005, 7th in 2006.
I went to Plainfield North in 2006. Plainfield North was a new school. We qualified for state in the 4x100 my first year, even though our school had no seniors and only three boys under 4.60 in the 40 (last year we had 28 under 4.60). In my 12 years at Plainfield North, we have achieved an average best 4x100 time of 42.30. In the past five years, we have averaged 41.79, best in Illinois. Last year, we set a state record running 41.29.
If you wonder about the anchor split in the video above, it was 9.4. Marcellus Moore, a sophomore, age 15, also set a state record in the 100m (10.31). Marcellus won four gold medals.
These 4x1 times may not impress people in California, Florida, Texas or Georgia, but I assure you, these times are Illinois-fast. Sprinters in the sunshine states have higher dopamine levels. The sunshine advantage is, in my opinion, greater than the competitive edge of distance runners training at altitude. My team would have run 40-low in a sunshine state.
I'm not the only guy feeding the cats. One of the first coaches to implement my philosophy was a guy named Chad Lakatos who I mentioned earlier in this article. He was the guy with the look of misery on his face every day back in 1991 and 1992. In the last 12 years, Chad's teams have won four state championships. Chad's average best 4x100 time during those 12 years? 42.40
Coaches who "Feed the Cats" are now too numerous to count. However, the teams who cling to their tempo runs, speed endurance, aerobic fitness and the pursuit of manhood still vastly outnumber us. Old habits are tough to break.
My most asked question? What about your 400m runners? All my sprinters train the same. All my sprinters run the 400. My sprint-trained 4x400 teams have been All-State in 10 of the last 20 years. I've had 22 sprinters go sub-50 in 4x400 splits. Next year we could win the state 4x400 if we choose to run our best four guys. (However, Marcellus Moore plans to run the 100, 200, 400 and 4x100.)
My second-most asked question? What about your hurdlers? My son, Alec, is the best hurdle coach I know. He coached state record-holder Travis Anderson (13.59). Alec explains his program in A Hurdle System for Cats.
Let's summarize "Feed the Cats"
- Sprint as fast as possible, as often as possible, while staying as fresh as possible.
- Never let today ruin tomorrow. Accept small gains. Make "Happy and Healthy" your priority.
- "Record-Rank-Publish" to feed the competitive nature of your cats.
- Always train in spikes.
- If you're too tired to sprint your fastest, you're not getting faster.
- Do strategic low-dose lactate workouts in season to become more efficient at longer sprint distances. But always remember, lactate training is like a poison. Small doses stimulate, moderate doses inhibit, large doses kill.
- Promote-Promote-Promote. Share your athletes' successes with the world. Make track look fun.
- Remember, kids are good at what they like, and incredible at what they love. Grit is work in the absence of love. "The Grind" has somehow become motivation for people who don't like their work.
Installing Feed the Cats
"Feed the Cats" is a set of ideas, not a recipe. People who "Feed the Cats" do not copy my program, they just think like me.
This video from Championship Productions is the most comprehensive presentation of my program. It includes 135 minutes of content; 90 minutes of presentation and 45 minutes of live demonstrations. Here's a taste:
With that, here is my 19-week plan for my track team this year. If I had only 12 weeks, I would simply install the final 12-weeks of my 19-week plan (Illinois has a 19-week track season).
We have three different types of workouts:
- Speed Days
- X-Factor Days
- Lactate Days
An example of a Speed Day: 10 intense speed drills followed by the timing of three 10m flys. Total time, 40 minutes. Our biggest speed day last year was 3x35m flys on the curve. Minimum effective dose.
An example of an X-Factor Day: Cat Jumps, Depth Jumps, Lunges Series, Toe Pops, Booms, and Assisted Plyos. Total time, 40-50 minutes (All of these are explained in the Championship Productions video.)
The yellow days in the grid above are low-dose, high-intensity days which will never detract from the next day. The days in red will cause a 48-hour hangover. Every day in red is followed by an off day (green). My off days are OFF DAYS. Cats sleep 20 hours a day. 42% of the grid above is color-coded green. The green days are most important days of the season. Without rest, it's impossible to have effective practices and elite performances.
I have 10 lactate workouts scheduled for this season. Only three are scheduled during our outdoor season. Last year we did only seven lactate workouts in 19 weeks. The entire practice grid is an approximation. Weather, meet cancellations and the overall health of my team become a part of the calculus.
Our distance crew is under the direction of coach Andy Derks. Coach Derks has averaged 20 sub-5:00 milers in the past four years. We have approximately 40 distance runners every year. Coach Derks recently wrote an article detailing how a distance coach coexists in a sprint program.
Our throwers report to their throws coach. We keep approximately 12.
We only keep 30-35 sprinters, total, and that includes hurdlers and jumpers. Just like basketball coaches can't keep 50 kids, sprint coaches can't keep 50 kids. If you do, you will spread yourself so thin, you will drown in shallow water.
Our jumpers don't jump much. In matter of fact, coach Brian Damhoff believes in jumping as little as possible.
We don't stretch, warm up, or cool down (at least not in the traditional sense).
My football players lift after track practice, my other guys usually don't. Marcellus Moore plays football (multiple college offers) but does not lift. I don't see speed differences between our lifters and non-lifters.
We never run a lap. We never jog. Our longest run in practice is 200m.
Track practice is the best part of my kids' school day. My kids leave practice feeling better than they felt all day. Lactate days are the only exception (but we always take the next day off).
Sprinters who love their sport have a huge advantage over tough kids who rely on grit. Grinders are not high-performance athletes. How can you quantify the value of "Happy and Healthy?"
I've had people tell me that I speak about "Feed the Cats" like an evangelical preacher. Guilty as charged. Sometimes my clinic presentations resemble a tent revival. After 38 years of teaching chemistry and coaching track, I'm certain that kids are relentless when they love what they do. I'm also certain that prioritizing rest along with the pursuit of infinite speed will produce results that might blow your mind.
If you enjoyed this piece, you can follow Tony on Twitter at @pntrack
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