Want to Run in College? This is What it Takes: Steve Magness of the University of Houston, by Cait Chock

Steve Magness, photo by PhotoRun.net

The state meets are done in half of the states, and many track athletes are done with their season. Cait Chock is writing a series of columns for us on how to be successful running in college. 

We think that you will like it! 

Want to Run in College? This is What it Takes: Steve Magness of the University of Houston

By: Cait Chock

Steve Magness is Head Cross Country Coach and Assistant Track Coach at the University of Houston. In leading the men's and women's distance squads, Magness takes both an individualized and scientific approach to training, emphasizing a long term approach for the athlete. Drawing on his M.S. Exercise Science, he stays on the pulse of the latest in sports science, chronicling much of it on his blog and recently published book, 'The Science of Running'. 

Magness got his start in coaching at the high school level and moved up to the professional scene in working with the Nike Oregon Project (2011-2012). Today, in addition to coaching at the University of Texas, Magness coaches professional runners Sara Hall, Jackie Areson, and Tommy Schmitz. Having raced to a 4:01 mile himself in high school, Magness knows personally the position eager young harriers are in in going through their college selection process from both perspectives.

In a series chronicling what current Division I college coaches are looking for in recruits, Magness is the first to offer his insights.

1)   What catches your eye when it comes to recruiting high schoolers? And what year do you really start keeping a particular runner on your radar? (ie: soph, jr. sr.)

Our sport is really pretty simple, the times tell most of the story. But it never gives you the whole picture. I look at it as there are certain times that HS runners can hit that puts them on my radar to start investigating further. The times are the entry barrier, but what often times makes the difference is the story behind those times. It really isn't until their Junior year that I really start paying attention. We notice athletes who run fast before that and might make a mental note, but not until their Junior year do I really start making up my recruiting list for the next year. You have to remember that as a college coach, I'm recruiting that year's Senior class at the same time as trying to keep an eye out for the Juniors, all the while actually coaching my own team! So it takes a lot more time then people realize.

2)   What are some of the key traits you look for in an athlete outside of strictly fast times? Are there certain things about a particular runner that, even with great PRs, will stop you from recruiting them?

The biggest thing is whether or not the kid fits with our program and what we are trying to. It's cliché, but you want someone who loves running, loves competing, and is willing to work. What I've come to realize is that my enjoyment in this job is directly related to how much I enjoy coaching the kids on the team. I'm fortunate that I've got a great group of men and women on the squad already, so my number one goal is to keep it that way. That means that if a young man or women has academic issues, or behavioral issues or discipline issues, those all raise red flags. I'll talk to their HS coaches, to their parents, and look at their social media. Once you do all of those things, you get a pretty dang good idea of how a kid is going to be. Especially with social media, you get an inside look on how that athlete functions on a day-to-day basis.

3)   How do you factor performance times of a runner against their training volume? Do certain times carry more weight in your opinion if they're run off of lower miles or less intensity?

The big question every wants to know. Everyone thinks that the best kids are some freak talent who ran super fast off no training, and that's true to a degree but it's not so black and white. I really don't care if the kid is a high volume or low volume. What I care about is how much is left in the tank mentally, does he have, and how open minded, is he. The problem isn't the intense or high volume of training. I wouldn't tell a Kenyan who has run 6-plus miles a day to school since he was 8 that he should stop that so that he could be fresh for pro running would I?

If the training in HS was done right, even if it was high volume, it can set them up for future success. But as I said, the difference is how tapped out are they emotionally and psychologically. Did training become a chore? Because that happens sometimes. You want a kid who even if he was running 80mpw that he's excited to run 100+ in college.  On the other hand, you want someone who doesn't think that because they trained X way in HS, that is the only way to train. You want someone to buy in. If they don't buy in, the training won't work no matter how good it is.

So the thing I watch out for is kids who are obsessed and convinced that the X program they did in HS was the only way to do it. So the bottom line is I like kids who are well coached, but haven't been mentally drained.

In my other "job" I coach professional runners aiming for Olympic games. I don't tell them, 'Hey, you've been training at an extremely high level for the past 8 years, I don't think we can improve.' That would be ridiculous. Instead, we say, 'Where can we improve, where are the gains to be found, and what can we change?' If I can take someone who runs 3:54 for the mile and tell him they've got a few more seconds in them, why would I think I can't get more out of a HS kid who has trained at a "high" level for 3 years?

4)   Throughout the recruiting process, what are some important tips you make sure to give the runner as they prepare for the upcoming transition to college?

The biggest thing is that it's going to be a change and to expect some kind of bumps and bruises along the way. You've spent 18 years of your life living in your own bubble and now you get to college and everything changes. Everything is a new challenge and stress. So the best thing you can do as a freshman is learn time management, prioritization, and staying on top of things. I really try and drill into our incoming freshman who are in college, now you have choices. We like to say that you can only be good at two things at once, and I hope those things are running and school. 

5)   How do you, if at all, individualize an incoming freshman's training?

Every freshman gets an individualized training program. This is one of my biggest rules and pet peeves. Far too often, freshman don't transition well because they just get thrown into whatever program they are joining with little to no consideration on what they've done in the past. We have a saying of 'In order to know where to go, you've got to know where you've been.' So before the summer starts, all incoming freshman fill out a training history questionnaire. It's so I get an idea of what their volume, intensity, workouts, etc. were like in HS. From there, I build an individualized summer program with the goal of transitioning what they are used to, to what I think they need to do to reach their goals.

6)   In your experience, what's separated the runners who have successfully managed the transition to college and continued to improve from those who didn't?

Two things. First, is buying in. You've got to believe what you're doing is going to work. Then it's my job and on me to design the training that transitions you well. If you buy in, do what I ask and take care of business and don't transition, then it's my job to figure out why. Second, lifestyle adjustments. The ones who succeed are the ones who prioritize track and running. They learn how to balance school and athletes and don't go crazy with social stuff.

7)   After freshman year, what is your formula for successfully progressing the athlete through to the end of their collegiate career?

Every year we try and build on what works, so the biggest thing is to keep the bulk of what has gotten you there, but gradually progress it. If we were to keep it the same, there's no stimulus for adaptation. So we gradually change the volume and intensity of the work, or add a new wrinkle in. But it's all about slowly turning the knob and increasing the stress.

8)   Finally, there's been a dramatic rise in high school performances over the last decade. Running Times recently did a feature on the girls' side (http://www.runnersworld.com/high-school-racing/why-are-these-teens-so-fast?cm_mmc=Twitter-_-RunningTimes-_-Content-HighSchool-_-FastTeens). Do you tend to agree with the major points made, do you have any personal opinions/theories about high schoolers (boys and girls) training more and getting faster? Do you see this trend as continuing?

First, let me get the big topic out of the way, I wish some of those points made in the article were true. In particular, the appearance of women and issues related to their weight. I've seen far too many coaches talk the talk but then with their athletes promote unhealthy eating and "thin norms"; I've even seen elite Olympians be called fat by coaches, which is beyond ridiculous. That being said, there are many of us who are trying to do things right, and I think the knowledge of eating disorders and healthy running has come a long way. We just need some of the old guard of "skinnier" is better to get out of the way.

The biggest things that has led to improvement on both the boys and girls level is the internet. First, you know how athletes are doing everywhere. Second, coaches can find out how everyone trains. The coaches are much better now than they were 15 years ago, simply because they have better access to information and are willing to learn. Because of this, you have boys and girls not only training harder, but smarter. Lastly though is the impact of the internet and role models created from it. Alan Webb, Ryan Hall, and those guys changed men's HS distance running. I would have never run 4:01 for the mile in HS if it wasn't for those guys, because they made it possible. Same with the women's side, you had athletes like Christine Babcock then Hasay and so forth who showed that women in HS could run fast. Now you have a bunch of super studs like Eframson and Cranny who are running out of this world. It's showing what is possible.

These things come and go in waves, I think it will continue, but inevitably there will be a slight downturn, we just have to hope it isn't for too long! What generally happens is people start forgetting that those performances are possible. They start thinking that X athlete was a freak talent, or whatever. That's when you have the backlash and drop in performances. As long as kids keep realizing that they can run fast and coaches keep learning what smart training is, it'll continue.


Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.

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