Winning Ways

From the strength and conditioning coach who designed the program, here are the weight-room secrets to the University of Washington’s middle distance success.

By Matthew Ludwig

Matthew Ludwig, SCCC, CSCS, is an Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Washington. He can be reached at:

Coaching Management, 15.1, January 2007,

At the University of Washington, we were proud to have a pair of runners bring home middle distance titles from the 2006 NCAA Division I Outdoor Championships. Ryan Brown won the men’s 800 meters in 1:46.29, and Amy Lia was the women’s 1,500 meters champion with a time of 4:14.63.

In addition to the work they do on the track with Head Coach Greg Metcalf, our middle distance runners work hard in the weightroom. As the strength and conditioning coach for track and field here at Washington, I developed a program for them a year ago that we believe helped them reach their top performance, while remaining injury free.

One of the keys to our program's success has been starting carefully and building a solid foundation. Another has been open communication between myself and Coach Metcalf to ensure that the work we do in the weightroom complements the training athletes do on the track. In this article, I outline our strength and conditioning program for middle distance runners and detail the logic that went into its design.

Setting Goals
In our strength-training department here at Washington, we like to work closely with our sport coaches to develop programs. Therefore, my first step in setting up workouts for the middle-distance runners was to meet with Coach Metcalf. We talked about the runners’ strengths and weaknesses, their past experiences using the weightroom, and previous training they had tried. We also discussed our philosophies on the biomechanics of the events and energy system needs. At the conclusion of our analysis, Coach Metcalf and I set the following goals for the program:

Make it doable. We wanted to develop a program that would keep our runners coming back for more. The greatest strength-training programs ever written are the ones that get done! You can pour your heart and soul into a training program, but if the athletes give it minimal effort, you will get minimal results. Therefore, we keep things very simple in our weightroom and rely on the principle of progressive overload to establish strength throughout full ranges of motion.

Shin splints, knee pain, foot and ankle pain, calf and achilles pain, and hamstring and low back pain are common in middle distance runners because of the high volume of impacts on their lower bodies. Athletes who are hurting aren't going to be motivated to keep coming back, so we monitor muscle soreness and adjust our program accordingly, and we talk to the athletes often to find out how they are feeling. The more we show we care about them, the harder they will work for us.

Establish a base. Many middle distance runners are unfamiliar with the weightroom, oftentimes because strength work isn’t stressed and because of a misconception that weightlifting generates hypertrophic muscles that will make them look like football players. We explain to our runners that science has shown many times over that being involved in an organized strength-training program promotes muscle balance, enhances metabolic adaptations, and improves force production, joint stability, performance output, recovery rates, flexibility, structural stability, and motor development. But to receive these benefits, they first must establish a base. Our program for middle distance runners consists of two or three workouts a week lasting 45-60 minutes each depending on the time of year.

Improve flexibility. Any time a muscle repeatedly performs an action in a limited range of motion, it gradually becomes limited to that range of motion. Distance runners run straight ahead and rarely utilize their full stride length with maximal hip flexion and hip extension. Consequently, they end up with tight hamstrings, hip flexors, glutes, calves, internal and external hip rotators, and backs.

Incorporating static, dynamic, and PNF stretching into a runner's training program can have astounding results. Our athletes have always trained on the track before they arrive to the weightroom, so we don't have to spend time warming up. Instead, we focus on improving flexibility. As one form of dynamic flexibility training, we train every movement in the weightroom using the fullest range of motion possible. We finish the workout with static flexibility training and a PNF (contract-relax) program using elastic bands.

Improve core strength. To build core strength, we believe it is most important to teach the athlete to move his or her limbs throughout a full range of motion in space before introducing balls, gadgets, and other resistance- or balance-manipulation devices. Although these are all great tools for training, we take the time to first generate motor unit recruitment in the core through sport-specific movements like squatting, pulling, lunging, and step-ups. In addition to these exercises, we incorporate weighted abdominal work, physioballs, and static abdominal work.

Strengthen weak and lagging muscle groups. Although middle distance runners use their legs for most of the work they do, a large portion of their lower extremities are often underdeveloped. Common areas of lower-body weakness in middle distance runners include hamstrings, hip flexors, hip abductors, and hip adductors. Most middle distance runners also display some level of weakness when asked to perform any unilateral exercise. Upper-body weaknesses typically consist of weaker posterior chains compared to their anterior counterparts. Therefore, we focus our program on strengthening these muscle groups to avoid imbalances.

After we gather information through our needs analysis, it is time to get athletes into the weightroom for preseason conditioning. Our track athletes are very in tune with their bodies, and they know two things: “The better I feel, the better I will run,” and “The stronger I am, the faster I will run.” This influences our approach to their training.

We begin by introducing basic movements to establish an understanding of the motor development the athletes currently possess. Muscle soreness has to be very limited to avoid hurting performance. We know the first four weeks of learning a new exercise are mainly neurological, but if the muscles are being asked to perform in an unfamiliar range of motion, the risk of micro tears increases.

Remembering another of our goals—to create a training program that keeps our runners coming back for more—we are careful to not get overzealous on day one. You can always add to a program, but it is extremely difficult to undo overreaching in a short amount of time. I start with very low volume and very low intensity and slowly raise the volume from week to week. I don't progress the athletes to more volume or more intensity until I feel they have established a sound comfort level with the load they are initially assigned.

For example, when introducing squats, we start with sissy squats holding a 10-pound plate across the chest. Sissy squats allow the athletes to keep their torsos in an upright position and promote maximal range of motion without limitation. Hamstring strength for middle-distance runners tends to be very weak after the first 45 degrees of hip flexion. By placing the athletes in a position to use the quads and get maximum depth, we build up to performing a back squat.

Week One consists of the following exercises to begin strengthening the lower body. Each exercise is performed with one minute of rest between exercises and sets.

Sissy squat: Three sets of five reps (between each set, stretch hamstrings statically for 20 seconds.).

Body-weight step-ups: Two sets of five on each leg using 90 degrees of hip flexion (focus on using glutes and hamstrings for hip extension).

Standing single-leg hip flexion with knee extension: One set of eight on each leg.

Hanging knee-ups: Two sets of 10.

At five weeks, we are able to increase the volume using the same loads to minimize muscle soreness and show the athletes that strength training can be done effectively with minimal muscle soreness. Week Five training goes as follows, with 30-45 seconds of rest between exercises and sets:

Sissy squat: Three sets of 10 reps.

Body weight step-ups: Three sets of eight reps on each leg.

Standing single-leg hip flexion with knee extension: Two sets of 12 reps on each leg.

Hanging knee-ups: Three sets of 15 reps.

Using this program over the first five weeks of their training last season, our athletes improved their overall ability to do work from the original baseline of 53 reps in week one to 123 total reps. During the five weeks, the load never changed. This is a very basic approach to improving general physical preparedness and diminishing recovery time.

Building On The Base
The training year for our middle distance runners is divided into six mesocycles: off-season, preseason, transition, in-season, transition, and postseason. Below is a detailed look at a year-long macro cycle and how we have designed the strength-training program for each phase.

Off-season (mid June to September): We conduct two full-body workouts per week, Monday and Thursday. This training cycle focuses on recovery, restoration, and repair from the high-intensity loads experienced during the season that just ended. The athletes cut back on the total running volume in June and gradually increase from July to September. Strength training focuses on building strength endurance starting in Week One of the off-season program with a total volume of 298 reps (excluding core work) per week and building to 520 reps by week 18 (see "Off-Season Conditioning," below). Many of our middle distance runners compete in outdoor competitions in September and October, so we try to enhance both their ability to metabolize lactate and their metabolic response to training by improving oxygen consumption and fuel utilization.

Preseason (October to mid December): We progress to three full-body workouts per week. Training is now focused more on improving overall muscle strength and forcing production in preparation for the indoor and outdoor seasons. During this time period, the athlete’s volume stays at or under 120 total reps per workout (excluding core work). Set and rep ranges consist of two to four sets of five to 12 reps, depending on the exercise being performed. Athletes also spend more time with their sport coach working on their running economy and efficiency and building cardiovascular endurance.

Transition (last two weeks in December): Continuing with three full-body workouts per week, the transition phase is a short deloading period lasting one to two weeks that allows the body to recover from off-season and preseason training. A strength-training program is still in place, but the total volume of work drops to less than 80 total reps per workout (excluding core work).

In-season (January to May): We go back to two full-body workouts per week. The in-season is long and hard for our middle distance squad, which competes in both indoor and outdoor events for five solid months. We perform two workouts per week (Mondays and Wednesdays) to allow full recovery in time for weekend events. During this time, the weightroom is more of a tool for active recovery and restoration, maintaining flexibility, and prehab or rehab work. In-season is a time of specified training on the track, and the intensity must be high at every practice.

Transition (one week in May): Athletes are given on week off from training to allow for a mental and physical break. This is a time for those who are competing in conference, regional, and national events to freshen up mentally and disengage for a brief period.

Postseason (second week in May until nationals): Weightroom activities are voluntary during this time, but flexibility training after every track practice is strongly encouraged.

Collaborate For Success
Throughout the season, we strive to improve communication between myself, Coach Metcalf, and our athletic trainers. Each person involved with the progress of our athletes needs to be on the same page. The success of our program revolves around open communication.

As a staff, we meet weekly to discuss current injuries, practice plans, and each athlete’s progress in the weightroom. This ensures that we avoid overtraining and that we utilize the knowledge of our sports-medicine staff to help validate our training plans. We also revisit our overall needs analysis at least twice a year, once before the indoor season and once at the conclusion of the outdoor season.

Our program at the University of Washington works very well for us and we are proud of the athletes who have dedicated themselves to it. When our middle distance runners step on the track for competition, they know they have trained hard and can compete to their fullest ability.

Sidebar: Off-Season Conditioning
During the off-season, our middle distance runners complete two strength-training workouts per week. Listed below are the exercises performed on each day, along with the reps and sets performed on week one. To see a copy of the complete 18-week program, visit:

Back Squat.....................................3x8
Bench Press...................................4x4
DB Step Up....................................2x8, each leg
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown................2x12
Triceps Push Down or Push Up.......3x8
DB Rear Fly.....................................2x8

Core Work
•Straight-Leg Sit Up........................3x15
•Seated Russian Twist.....................3x15
•Lying Hip Abduction......................2x15, each side

DB incline bench........................................2x12
DB walking lunge.......................................2x10, each side
DB military press..........................................3x8
RDLs with barbell (hold 2 sec. on bottom)....3x6
One-arm DB row..........................................2x10
Shoulder complex*........................................2x8, each exercise
DB curl..........................................................3x8

Core work
•Elbow bridge.....................................3x30 sec.
•Side crunch.......................................2x30 sec.
•Alternating pointer............................2x12, each side
•Standing hip flexion w/ knee ext.......2x10, each side

*(The shoulder complex consists of front raise, side raise, and upright row. Athletes do all three exercises in succession, then rest.)