Southlake Carroll teams powered by Paavo

Southlake Carroll runs in a pack during cross country season. The team has adopted a training regimen named for 1920s legend Paavo Nurmi. Mike Berry

Two days before last month’s Nike Cross Nationals, when the country's teams arrived in Portland to begin a weekend of festivities on the sprawling Nike campus, the first thing on the agenda for the Southlake Carroll boys of Texas was an interval workout of 15 x 400.

That was on Thursday before the Saturday meet, the most important meet of the season — or perhaps of any season for the Dragons, who were a co-favorite for the national title.

While other teams were playing ping-pong, munching chips and grooving to a pulsating soundtrack in the game room of the Tiger Woods Center, the Carroll boys stripped off their sweats and proceeded to do repeat 400s around the soccer field used by Nike-sponsored professional runners. In fact, while the Carroll boys ran, Alberto Salazar was on the field coaching 2011 world 5,000 champion Mo Farah and American 10,000-meter record-holder Galen Rupp.

Using a GPS watch, Justin Leonard, the Carroll coach, measured off 400 meters.

The team used shoe boxes from gear the athletes had been given to mark the course.

“It didn’t feel odd at all,” said Carroll junior Joe Sansone of doing an aggressive workout so close to the meet while the opposition relaxed. With that same approach, Sansone had led Carroll to an undefeated cross country season including a runaway victory in the South Regional.

“Once we got onto the field,” said Sansone, “it gave us even more pride.”

The athletes’ confidence was emboldened by an unorthodox, counter-intuitive training program called “Paavo,” which has become a hallmark of the entire Carroll program, boys and girls. Advanced many years ago by an Indiana coach named Marshall Sellers (and named after the legendary Finnish Olympic champion Paavo Nurmi), “Paavo” stresses year-around running without any days off, and interval work close to race day. Challenging the prevailing wisdom that high school runners need some time off, and that interval workouts should end well before a meet, “Paavo” calls for the opposite.

Belief System Critical to Success

“The biggest part of it is the belief factor,” said Leonard. “I don’t think Paavo is the end-all, cure-all. No matter what system you’re using, if kids believe in what you’re doing 100 percent, then they will excel. Our athletes believe in running every day.”

The coach-athlete belief system has gotten a lot of attention lately amid the dominance of Fayetteville-Manlius and the factors behind the girls’ six straight national titles. When pressed to describe his methods, F-M coach Bill Aris rarely mentions particular workouts but rather the trust that his athletes, boys and girls, have in his team-centered, values-based “Stotan” program.

One man’s Stotan is another man’s Paavo.

The Paavo mosaic of total devotion and going against the tide (again, with a nod to Fayetteville) enabled Carroll to run one of the greatest team cross-country races ever in Portland, even on the losing end of its long-awaited duel with Christian Brothers Academy of New Jersey. By most accounts, these were the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country. The final score was CBA 91, Carroll 95.

And Carroll’s girls, also undefeated regional winners, placed seventh at NXN after running their Paavo intervals the day before the championship. On Friday all of the teams -- including Carroll -- toured the course and did some light jogging, and then returned to the Nike campus. The Carroll girls went straight to the Nike track and ran 400s.

“It’s not even like speed work because we’re not going that fast,” said Rachel Harper, a senior, who led the Dragons in Portland with a 19th-place finish (in team scoring).

Harper ran her 400s, a “low” set of nine reps (as opposed to her usual 13 reps), at her prescribed pace of 80 to 82 seconds.

While her pace was actually pretty quick (mile race pace considering she had a 5:20 1,600 PR from the previous track season), what makes the pre-meet Paavo system work for those who master it are two key elements.

First, the rest between repeats is long, about three minutes for girls, so that heart rate drops back down to 120 beats per minute, or 60 percent of max, before the next repeat. In that way, the pace is manageable and, says Leonard, there is no leg-tiring lactic acid build-up in the muscles.

No Mileage Cutback Before Meets

Second, with daily running and substantial weekly mileage, the athletes have a tremendous base to work off in order to handle the seemingly high-intensity workload. The Carroll boys who ran NXN log 70 or more miles per week year-around; the girls do about 40. Leonard uses a formula to determine number of repetitions. For example, a runner hitting 60 miles a week would do 14 x 400. There’s never a cutback.

“We would never say, ‘You’re running 70 miles a week, it’s the week of Nike Nationals, we’ll cut you back to 50,’” Leonard said.

But Leonard will accommodate runners who find intervals the day before a meet a little too close for comfort. The team will experiment with doing them one or two days before meets early in the season, then tweak the plan for the championship events. That’s why the boys and girls had separate schedules for Portland.

Also, for high school runners who find running seven days a week too much, Leonard has them cross-train on a stationery bicycle on Sundays, a running recovery day.

In fact, all Carroll training is individualized by pace. The boys’ 400 repeats range from 71 to 76 seconds; the girls, from 80 to 86.

Running what amounts to race pace prior to competition keeps the cardiovascular system “open,” said Leonard, as opposed to letting it sit dormant.

The arteries become more elastic and, he said, blood flow is facilitated. Your body is primed for the oxygen transport requirements of racing.

Leonard, in his fourth year as Carroll head coach of cross-country and the distance coach in track, inherited Paavo methods from the former head coach Rob Ondrasek, who’d put Carroll running on the map. Leonard was Ondrasek’s assistant before he left the program.

Coach Leonard Sees Results, Builds on Them

Leonard was a skeptic at first.

“When I walked out onto the track,” recalled Leonard, “and saw Colby Lowe doing 16 x 400 the day before the state cross-country meet. I looked at Rob and said, ‘What are you doing?’”

That was in 2007. Lowe proceeded to win the Texas state 5A title by 25 seconds, then place second at NXN and fourth at Foot Locker that fall. In all, Lowe would collect seven state titles in track and cross country at Carroll and run PRs of 4:08.99 in the mile and 8:47.07 in the two-mile. And, dispelling some criticism that Paavo training kills runners for the future, Lowe, now a senior at Oklahoma State, is a five-time all-American who set a Cowboys record for 10,000 meters last spring and helped OSU win the NCAA cross country championship in 2009.

Leonard, seeing Carroll’s positive response to the Paavo system — runners motivated by consecutive days’ running, or “CDs,” as they refer to them, along with fresh legs and a zestful mind-set for Saturday meets — continued where Ondrasek left off. The transition was seamless.

The Paavo effect at Carroll has given the team an aura of invincibility that approaches that of Fayetteville’s. Carroll boasts the most combined boys-and-girls NXN team appearances (5 boys, 7 girls, 12 in all) and last season Carroll’s second (boys) and seventh (girls) was the best combined showing for any program.

Sansone credited his pre-NXN intervals (at 70 to 74 seconds per 400, with 2:30 to 2:45 rest) with enabling him to run his best race of the season in Portland.

“I think the workout definitely did its job,” he said. “I really felt ‘opened up,’ and loose. I had pep in my step, ready to go.”

On the Portland Meadows course, Sansone performed his team role to perfection. He crossed the line as the field’s third team scorer, just ahead of Christian Brothers’ top man, George Kelly.

“It’s 100 percent work ethic,” Sansone said. “It’s all about your mind-set.”

After NXN, while Leonard told the boys “I don’t want to see you for three weeks,” they ran on their own, with Sansone building on a CD streak that now stretches over 250 days dating back to the start of cross country base work.

Rachel Harper’s Amazing “CD” Record

Harper also had her best race of the season at NXN.

“I felt the most ‘open’ that I felt all season,” she said, echoing Sansone’s assessment. “When I got to the 800 mark where you normally start feeling it, I felt loose and could change speeds.”

Harper, whose sister Jessica ran for Carroll and now runs for Texas, bought into the “CD” idea as a freshman. She now holds the school record, close to 1,300 consecutive days and counting (even during a bout with the swine flu, she ran a mile), and hopes to finish her senior year with never having missed a single day of high school running. Harper said she’s never been injured.

“My base keeps supporting me,” said Harper, who reached a high of 49 miles a week last fall.

That’s 49, not 50. Paavo calls for detailed log books to record and assess efforts. The books (binders, not on-line programs) also serve as motivational tools. Team members brought their books to Portland for a confidence boost.

As a coach using Paavo methods, Leonard can also have more confidence, seeing the hard facts of what his athletes have run close to race time. This enables him to better nurture the nuances that can affect the outcome. He knows who is ready, and who might need some unspoken TLC.

It’s doubtful that Nurmi himself ever needed any TLC for his peak efforts.

Known as a reclusive slave to his sport in some quarters, Nurmi’s ability to run hard repeatedly was legendary, as when he won the 1924 Paris Olympics 5,000 meters 45 minutes after capturing the 1,500.

In those primitive times, Nurmi turned conventional wisdom on its head.

Almost a century later, some committed high school runners in Texas, GPS watches in hand, are doing the same.