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Coaching track in high school might be the simplest job in all of sports – despite what “track people” make it out to be. There are no plays. There are no defenders standing in your lane. There are no pre-snap reads. There are no curveballs. And there is no contact.

Track is literally just Pose, Fall, Pull. Then practice at your race-speed to get a desired stimulus; unless you need to slow it down to focus on one particular area of the Pose, Fall, Pull continuum. And if possible, do CrossFit to support the foundation.

With this formula, Brian Hassler and I conducted an experiment over the course of four seasons: can lacrosse, softball, and CrossFit athletes be molded into good track runners? It soon became our job to find the best athletes in the school from other sports and bribe the hell out of them to run for us. We talked to parents, coaches, teachers, and students offering a Nike track bag, spikes, and three months of sunshine and daisies for anyone good who wanted to come out. This, as it turned out, was a horrible idea. Not only did the best athletes decline, but the ones who ended up joining carried a lovely aura of entitlement with them. Ugh, it’s not their fault though; I was desperate.

However there was another crowd we went after. And these kids were special. They were known around school as the Champions Club.

During our first season coaching in the spring of 2010, Brian and I had been asked by a few random students to run a CrossFit program during the summer. They saw us hitting WODs at school, started tagging along, and wanted to continue. After sending out some feelers to athletes from a few different sports, we wound up with a group of 22 kids that began training with us on June 14, 2010. Since we were not affiliated at the time, Brian took to calling our group the Champions Club. For nine months we had athletes coming to us anywhere from 2-6 days per week doing deadlifts, pull-ups, handstand push-ups, cleans, and box jumps. But Brian and I always kept our eyes open for standouts in the running workouts like “Kelly,” “Helen,” and “Michael.” Luckily, we found some. Among others, Renee Shelton, Nicole Murley, Sydni Golfin, Jake Cory, and Abby Lama all showed an ability to run reasonably well. By the time March rolled around we managed to convince all of them to run track for us. (Funny story about Renee: on the first day of spring sports she actually left her house thinking she was going to Soccer practice only to have Abby and her friend kidnap her and drag her to track.)

The end result: 10 state qualifiers.

This was the black box model at its finest. We had two control groups on our team – runners who did CrossFit and those who didn’t. The end result: 10 state qualifiers in 2011. Nine of them did CrossFit. In 2012 we had 11 runners qualify; 10 of which did CrossFit. In both cases, the non-CrossFit athletes were on relay teams with 3 other CrossFitters. I’m not saying CrossFit was the reason for the success, but it sure didn’t hurt. It gave the athletes perfect conditioning for the 200m dash through the 1-mile run and it provided a foundation of strength to support the pounding on the school’s asphalt track.

But what impressed me the most about these kids was none of them even wanted to run track in the first place; they were all doing CrossFit to help them at other sports. Yet they routinely beat local competition that considered track their primary sport, and managed to hold their own on a regional and sometimes state level. And nobody personified this model more than Emma Wonsil.

Emma Wonsil (Vid credit: Chris Sinagoga)

Emma is one of the original Summer 2010 kids still with us today. From 2010-2013 she was the best CrossFitter in our ranks. She played volleyball, basketball, and softball before adding track to her routine in 2011. As a sophomore she won regional championships in the individual 400m dash and the 4×1 relay, as well as a 2nd place 4×4 team. The next year, she repeated as 400m champion and also added the 4×4 relay to the 1st place list, while her 4×1 relay team took 2nd. Up to that point her success was more due to her hard work ethic than a technical prowess in Pose. This was about to change.

I thought I knew Pose because I watched video clips. But in September 2011, Brian and I attended a CrossFit Running seminar with Dr. Romanov, Severin, and Peter in Akron, OH. Watching the doctor operate in person was humbling to say the least, but I took a new understanding back to the Champions Club where I worked with Nicole Murley, who joined the Cross Country team during her swim season, and eventually saw her qualify for states. But there still seemed to be a disconnect with running and the rest of the movements in CrossFit – at least from a teaching perspective. It wasn’t until I began to study Kelly Starrett and Carl Paoli that I could make connections between the shapes in the gym and on the track. Carl showed me that things like kipping pull-ups, burpees, and pistols can exaggerate important shapes runners will go through, while Kelly gave me a method to optimize our position. Then the final piece of the puzzle was revealed to me on October 15, 2012 in the form of Dr. Romanov’s CFJ video on unweighing. It was a tease, but it gave me a springboard to connect the missing piece: body weight perception. Now the thing is, all of this knowledge is worthless without a subject to test it on. Thank God I had Emma.

I probably watched that video 15 times in the span of three months; each time I would catch something new.

I probably watched that video 15 times in the span of three months; each time I would catch something new and relay it to Emma to see if it made sense. Emma, who was a Salutatorian on top of all the sports, did not have a class during her last hour of the school day. So instead of sticking around the school, she drove around the corner to our gym (now CrossFit-affiliated) for one-on-one sessions every day from January-May. It was then I began to officially move away from the old method for teaching Olympic lifts (triple extension, pull under, etc.) to the new way we simply and uncreatively called “unweighing.” The method was simple: define key poses based on the movement (push jerk vs. clean, or hang vs. ground), drill the unweighing movement pattern, then change support when all of the body weight is removed.

It was her falling technique from the blocks that gave her an advantage.

On top of that, we also experimented with a lot of the new mobility stuff Kelly was coming out with, especially Voodoo bands on the hamstrings, front splits and shoulder internal rotation. As for the workouts: we kept with crossfit.com as we always have, only making sure to modify with in-season variations of the workouts. Emma, also an all-state softball player, was quickly becoming known more for her work on the track than the diamond. At Regionals, she concluded her 3-peat as 400m champion with a personal best time of 101.5. More impressive, however, was her sprinting. We used the 100m dash as a warmup for the 400, but she still ended up making it to the finals and ran a 13.08 – only .09 seconds off a state-qualifying time. It was her falling technique from the blocks that gave her an advantage; had I recognized this earlier, she could have been spared from the torture that came with every 400m run. Either way, it was clear that the extra connections we made to running were paying off.

Running is the most technically demanding skill in CrossFit.

Running is the most technically demanding skill in CrossFit. It requires the stable midline position, shoulder, hip, and foot mechanics covered by all other movements. However it includes a combination of challenges not found in any other movement. It adds load (3x – 6x body weight), removes connection (unilateral loading and airborne), challenges range of motion (shoulder/hip flexion and end-range extension, full ankle dorsiflexion), constantly changes orientation, and moves the fastest speed – which leads to the most extreme movement factor of all: volume. There are approx. 340 steps in a 400 meter run. That means 170 per foot. Imagine doing 340 cleans in a workout (just for the first round). For this reason, it is nearly impossible to address positional strength when teaching running. Instead, we focus on developing the most important skill an athlete can possess: perception. In specific, the Pose method for running is the most universal and applicable way to teach body weight perception.

Because so much perception is required to maintain Pose throughout all of the reps, we don’t talk about feet-straight or belly-tight. Instead, we rely on using other exercises in CrossFit (box jumps, pistols, kipping pull-ups, and handstands) as skill-transfer movements to help the positions in running. Carl Paoli helped us see that if you do them to fit your purpose in the gym, the principles will eventually translate to the track. In addition, we can also use some movements to help develop body weight perception. Take a rope climb for instance. If our purpose for doing it was to simply build upper-body strength, the kids would just grab on and climb for their lives. But if we want to teach body weight perception, we use the traditional Spanish-wrap, only in Pose language. Start with body weight on your feet and hands. Bring your hips to the rope and do a sit-up. When you feel your body weight leave the hands, release them and reach higher up the rope. Working with gravity has a much different feel than working against gravity, and is something that needs to be continually reinforced.

In 2010, Brian Hassler and I were invited to help coach Track and Field at Bishop Foley High School in Madison Heights, MI. I was 20 years old and playing college basketball, while Brian served as the Athletic Trainer at the school (also my alma mater). While the numbers on the team were low, we knew that could be an advantage regarding how much attention we could give our athletes. This proved to be critical later in the year.

The Beginnings

Mike Rossman was a senior who finished 4th in the Division III state finals the previous year in the 400m dash. He knew me from our grade school days at St. Dennis and he trusted Brian, so when we asked him if we could change some things about his form he was about as open as anyone could be; which is kind of odd considering the lack of experience coming from Brian and myself.

I ran track in high school, but never took it as serious as basketball or football. I was good compared to local competition but not ready to compete at the state level. Brian, on the other hand, was a 215-lb. teddy bear who lifted heavy things while listening to Jack Johnson. His only track experience was 20 years earlier when he went out for one high school meet, mistakenly all-out sprinted the first 200 meters of a 400, died for a minute, then quit running forever. At the time we accepted the coaching job, we both had been doing CrossFit for four-and-a-half years. Our knowledge in running was limited to CFJ video clips  and Dr. Romanov’s Pose Method Drills. Those, it turned out, made all the difference.

When the season started we had a goal to progress slowly and simplify everything – so naturally I panicked and tried to correct every single detail at once. It lasted one practice.

Then we refined our methods. We broke our practices into two parts – technique and workout, with about twice as much time spent on technique relative to working out. While also serving as the warmup, our technique session would focus on only one element of the Pose-Fall-Pull continuum. If, for instance, falling was the point of emphasis on a certain day, we could turn a blind eye to pulling and the pose position; if they could feel the fall then we were happy. Then for the programming, Brian would use CrossFit Endurance’s principles to shape the day’s workout – such as sprint for 45 seconds, rest for 3 minutes, repeat 3-4 rounds depending on the quality. We tried to discourage people from hurdles and the two-mile because 1) they took forever and 2) it gave us more time to spend on the stuff we wanted. There were only like 15 kids on the team so they didn’t have much of a choice.

For Rossman, we showed a little more preferential treatment and got into more detail with his technique. The analysis of his races early in the year was simple: how long could he maintain Pose. It had nothing to do with time or place. At our first benchmark meet, he stayed close to the Pose frame up until the 200-meter mark, then he broke down. The next benchmark meet he stayed good up till the last straightaway then lost form.

Then he got suspended from the team for two weeks for drawing a wiener in the bus window.

The Turning Point

This was the turning point of the season and, as messed up as it sounds, was probably the single best thing to happen to us. The school told us we were not supposed to be in contact with him during the two weeks off. While we were pissed at him too, we didn’t think his adolescent prank merited isolation from the rest of the team. Plus we had our goal of winning states in mind. So Brian, myself, and Ross held individual practices during the day at remote locations. The “punishment” was an hour of technique work, then he got to be the test dummy for some workouts we had in mind. Brian’s workouts were on point, my technique training was more focused, and Ross, to his credit, was as good a student as possible. We tested out workouts like the Mile Sprint (sprint :15, rest :45, repeat till you finish a mile), and the 200, 400, 600 ladder (work up and down with a 2:1 rest to work ratio). Those ones got him pretty bad, but paled in comparison to what I think became our best training tool: The Hill.

Lamphere High School is right around the corner from Foley and they have a giant hill on their grounds with a pathway leading up and around it. Seeing that Ross had trouble maintaining Pose in the final stretch of his race, we decided to try using the hill as a way to exaggerate his form. We did not ask him to grind up the hill or increase his speed; it’s a hill fergodsakes! It will punish you. Instead, we asked him to simply maintain Pose. Don’t leave the figure-4 frame. We adjusted the starting distance to 300 meters from the top of the hill so he would finish every sprint right around 50 seconds. Four sprints with full rest in between proved to be the single most exhausting thing either of us had ever done –seeing as I had to sprint with him. Meanwhile, Ross got back on the team just in time for Regionals and saw good form up to the 350-meter mark and tied his pr of 50.3 seconds. He was 1 of of our 9 athletes to qualify for states that day.

Between that time and states, we spent a week-and-half fine-tuning some technical aspects (pulling directly into Pose was the main one) and revisiting the Hill for another dose of death. And once June 5, 2010 arrived he felt as prepared as ever.

The Race Day

He started in lane 7 and was passed up as the staggers were made up. At the 200-meter mark where I was standing he was in the middle of the pack and looked solid in Pose. He rounded the final turn with his form still intact, though he sat in 6th place. And then what I saw in the proceeding 11 seconds blew me away: Mike Rossman maintained Pose. He didn’t press. He didn’t reach. He didn’t revert to old habit. He just stayed focused on falling while pulling his foot under his hips. It was one of the most effortless things I have ever witnessed on a track and when he crossed the finish line the rest of the field was behind him. He was the MHSAA Division III 400-meter State Champion with a time of 49.8.

Now here’s something to consider: it took Mike Rossman – an already talented runner with a quick learning curve and a natural build – three months straight of daily focused technique practice and short, intense workouts just to be able to keep Pose one time around a track. Perception takes time. If you are not as talented, athletic, and genetically gifted as Ross, it will take longer. If you run a mile, or 5k, or marathon, it will take longer still. But it all comes down to the student.

If you are willing to dedicate time early on to getting the technique down, the good things tend to be more permanent. If you rush to further progressions, you will always be missing the foundation of your skill. Luckily for Brian and me, Mike Rossman proved to be a model student and set our program up for success in the years to come.