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To be good at indoor track, distance runners head for outdoor tracks

Sarah Coffey of Hereford leads the group in the girls 1600 meter run during the Baltimore County Indoor Track County Championship at Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.
Sarah Coffey of Hereford leads the group in the girls 1600 meter run during the Baltimore County Indoor Track County Championship at Fifth Regiment Armory in Baltimore on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015.(Matt Hazlett / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

The Hereford indoor track distance runners dealt with rough weather conditions during a workout last Christmas Eve. Despite being in early winter, the Bulls were on the school's track and battling through a cold and rainy day.

That might have raised some eyebrows years ago, but the times and beliefs about distance running in the winter have changed. Doing distance work outside in cold, windy, snowy weather is deemed as just fine now and has become the norm more than the exception. In fact, it's something people often take pride in and believe really helps distance runners.

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Brad Duvall said that in the 10 years he's worked with Hereford as a coach, the Bulls have never held an indoor practice during the winter season or canceled one unless school got called off.

"I firmly believe that track distance running is just that," Duvall said. "Our kids spend at least three days a week on the track in training. I try to limit the runs off of the track to recovery days and specific hill work. I believe that if you want to be fast on a flat surface, then you need to train on that surface because to run fast you have to train fast."

Duvall said that's why Hereford, despite having one of the toughest cross country courses in the state and the nation right on campus, won't use it much during indoor track training.

Some coaches would put their runners on it on a regular basis because of the difficulty offered, and because of the old school of thought about the more mileage someone ran, the better. But Duvall and the Hereford coaches try to narrow the focus in the winter.

Chris Mead, one of Century's coaches, also sees plenty of benefits in doing outside distance work throughout the winter. He thinks it's just difficult to get really good training indoors, so his Knights will be outside running almost all the time.

If the weather's bad, so be it. Mead pushes his runners to get through rough conditions to help them grow and become tougher and even more ready for their indoor competition.

Mead said it's not easy to get in good training inside, so his teams go outside pretty much all the time. That's why they try to make bad weather and rough conditions their friend. The concept is similar to a basketball team that wants to play tougher opponents because it makes them better.

"We use the elements to our advantage, whether it's running into the wind or trudging through inches of snow," he said. "It provides much more of a workout than sitting around waiting for the weather to break."

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Mead said he also tries to come up with unusual workouts so that the runners are enjoying themselves while still getting in their needed work. He'll use hills, trails, tempo runs and even games to put some speed into things.

But if the Knights are forced to stay inside, they'll just do things like games that involve a good amount of running and help in other ways, such as bonding. Still, Mead prefers his distance runners to be outside.

Adam Hittner, one of Pikesville's coaches, also favors putting distance runners outside as often as possible. The Panthers repeatedly use the school and surrounding neighborhoods, which have several streets that are easy to run on, for their winter distance work.

For example, if the track is covered in snow, there's a big rectangular parking lot in front of the school's entrance that lets the team do intervals, often shorter runs that can focus on speed. Hittner said they also can use those nearby neighborhood streets for the same interval work or for distance runs.

These options are a big reason Pikesville trained indoors only a few times last season. It might have been cold, but the Panthers got their work in outside.

"It's all about being flexible and adapting to what Mother Nature throws your way," Hittner said. "Have the right attitude, bring proper clothing, and you will adapt over time. You make a lot of progress and improvement in the winter season, but you just can't have the same expectations for workouts/race times as you do in springtime."

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Hittner also believes, like other coaches, that the work distance runners do through the tough conditions of winter will help set them up for the better weather in the spring. Eric Benjamin, one of the Dulaney coaches, said that if a distance runner competes "at a high level" in cross country and track, then much of the winter's work would focus on making him race-ready by February, a few weeks before the spring season begins.

The bottom line is that distance runners spend a lot of time outside in the winter now, and the work they do there clearly isn't hurting them. That's why Hereford was running in the rain last Christmas Eve and would probably do the same thing again if the same conditions arose.

"Our kids know," Duvall said, "that they are going to be running outside every day."

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