Saturday Night Lights: Nadel, teammates break training 'rules' yet still thrive

Samantha Nadel hands off to Jessica Donahue in last weekend's NB Collegiate. The school has 2 US#1s in relays this year, plus Nadel is US#1 in two events. Derek Alvez/ESPNHS

Will the record book or the rule book take a beating at the Armory Track & Field Center on Saturday night?

Seeking to continue a hot streak that has made her the female prize of the indoor season, Samantha Nadel of North Shore High on Long Island stands to give both a working over while defending her title in the Millrose Games girls’ high school mile.

The record on the line is Nadel’s own Armory girls’ mile all-time best of 4:46.11 set on January 7 in the Hispanic Games. That performance broke the 12-year-old facility mark held by a certain 2012 Olympic marathoner and 2008 Olympic 10,000 medalist, Shalane Flanagan, when she was running for Marblehead High of Massachusetts. Also at risk on Saturday is the New York State indoor record of 4:42.64 set in 2010 by another Long Islander, Emily Lipari of Roslyn High, who now competes for Villanova.

The rule in question is actually a battery of training and racing “rules” that constitute conventional wisdom, but have been under assault by Nadel all winter. Buoyed by her coach’s daring and unorthodox approach, the Georgetown-bound senior has relied on an ease with simplicity to do her best running ever.

Photo Finish: Nadel is All Smiles

The result has been… well, check out any finish line photo of Nadel--like the one from the Jan. 28 U.S. Open mile in which she set a Madison Square Garden girls’ record of 4:47.66—and what do you see? A great, glowing smile and can’t-stop-running body language that makes one wonder if racing could possibly be more fun.

No anguished countenance or collapsing at the finish for Nadel. She’s been feeling so great she almost can’t believe it. “I feel fresh every time out there,” Nadel told me after her U.S. Open victory. She continued glowing well past the finish line, adding, “I attribute it to my strong base.”

But don’t all outstanding high school distance runners have a strong base? Perhaps not. We all like to think we know what a sufficient base is: a few months’ mileage from summer into fall, right? Ten to 12 weeks of build-up with a gradual menu of faster repeat and tempo work mixed in to sustain a cross-country season and beyond.

Ever see those celebrity chefs on TV drip their olive oil into a base of ingredients piled high in the Mixmaster? That’s how we tend to look at a base. The mileage is piled high, then levels off; we pour in the juice to finish it off. Whatever fits in the mixer is it. We’re done.

Nadel’s coach at North Shore, Neal Levy, has a different idea. “We haven’t done anything strenuous in practice,” Levy told me. “The whole season is a continuation of base building, for spring, next fall, and college. Not one interval yet.”

No Intervals for Indoor Track?

What? No intervals? No fast work for indoor track?

Levy repeated: “No formal interval training. No mile repeats. No tempo runs either.”

I was incredulous. “No lactate threshold? No 85 to 90 percent of max work? No hard/easy? Just easy/easy? So what do you do?”

Levy said, “Hills and strides, that’s all we do. It’s cross-country year-around. Training does not change from summer to fall to winter. The weather changes, that’s all.”

Levy, 38, is in his 16th year of coaching, the last 10 at North Shore. He has had a succession of prominent mentors. When he ran at Stony Brook University on Long Island, his coach was Steve Borbet, who would go on to long-term success on the high school level at Bay Shore. “Steve is the greatest motivator I have ever come across,” said Levy. When Borbet left Stony Brook, Levy transferred to the State University at Cortland, where Jack Daniels was coaching at the time. Yes, that Jack Daniels, the master coach and exercise physiologist whose training books have taken on biblical importance.

And to top it off, Levy, like others, has sought out Fayetteville’s Bill Aris for advice. “At Nike Cross Nationals,” said Levy, “I had a conversation with Bill about what they do over the winter time. I adapted his ideas and the kids really respond to it.” To emphasize his point, Levy noted, “At Yale, we had 12 girls break 11:30 in the 3,000. They all ran their best times. Four girls went 10:04 or better.”

Hills, Strides, Keeping It Simple

“Tell me again what you do,” I asked one more time.

“Hills for strength, strides for speed,” Levy said. “We keep it simple.”

The Fab Four at 10:04 or better for 3k last month were the victorious Nadel in a brilliant 9:31.65; the Vikings’ other senior star, Brianna Nerud (also in the Millrose mile), in 4th in 9:50:32; and juniors Elizabeth Caldwell and Jessica Donahue, 9th and 10th, respectively, in 10:04.43 and 10:04:73. It’s doubtful any school has ever had four girls run that fast in the same race. That quartet may rival anything that even Fayetteville could put together on the track. We’ll find out at nationals next month when North Shore aims for the national 4 x mile record (19:59.24), the team’s main goal for the season.

Nadel said the lack of structured speed work “confused” her at first. But she’s warmed to the entire approach, which can be viewed as a return to fundamentals. “I’m a big believer in strength. The more distance you do, the more your aerobic capacity will build up and you’ll get fitter.”

This is what the late Arthur Lydiard, everyone’s patron saint, learned when he started working with Olympic great Peter Snell and others more than a half-century ago in New Zealand. A recent Running Times article on Snell, an exercise physiologist living in Texas, and his formative Lydiard training emphasized the role of endurance, hills and cross-country. And remember that Snell started out as a half-miler, winning the first of his Olympic gold medals in the 1960 800 at Rome.

Base Building Takes Months, Even Years

At least some high school coaches are finding that an emphasis on long-term base-building, a la Lydiard (Aris likes to quote Percy Cerutty, Lydiard’s Australian “cousin”), yields the best results. It takes months, even years, to build a true base. We are sometimes distracted from that basic concept by the demands (and, at times, jeweled showcase) of the high school season.

Fast work implies: getting good now. Slower work implies: wait-and-see. But some, like Nadel, are finding that you may have to slow down in order to run faster.

Nadel, who will face an array of marquee opponents in Saturday’s loaded field, admits, “I thought that since we were not doing speed work, I wouldn’t have any speed in races.” She’s learned otherwise. “When you think about it, hills are really speed work in disguise. We do hills every other day, and on days when we don’t do hills we do strides. We are getting ‘speed,’ but in different form.”

The North Shore training mix is a peon to old-school thinking. It’s short on razzmatazz and long on development. It’s not the stuff of clinics, not if you’re looking for the new hot workout. The basics, through summer, fall, winter, etc., as Levy said, are: (1) Run 10 days straight, then take a day off; (2) run hills three times a week in a 65-minute road run in which you do 10 minutes on the flat, 45 minutes on a hilly route (pushing the up hills, easing off on the down hills), then finish with 10 minutes on the flats; (3) other days run 45 to 65 minutes on the flat followed by 8 x 30-second strides; (4) do one longer run of 90 minutes in the 10-day cycle.

“I really like what we do,” said Nadel. “I find it enjoyable, relaxing.”

Nadel--who prepped for Millrose with a 2:10.5 leg on North Shore’s victorious 9:04.99 4 x 800 at last weekend’s New Balance Collegiate meet at the Armory--has also challenged the rule book on a second front: racing frequency.

Another “Rules” Buster—Frequent Racing

Nadel, undefeated, has been competing non-stop since the end of cross-country--a busy, pressure-packed season unto itself. This winter Nadel has run at least a dozen major races, as many as Bernard Lagat contested all last year. She has run the 800, 1000, 1500, 1600, mile and 3000. She has run individual events and relays. Nadel has run at the Armory, Yale, the Garden…

She reports no injuries. She invites competition. “When you think about it,” she says, “racing is a big portion of our speed work.”

Some coaches like the idea of “racing into shape.” Some don’t. Nadel is not doing this. She’s already in shape from her tremendous base. Her racing fuels a competitive edge, and with her strength she’s kept herself in one piece.

Levy is not been inclined to hold Nadel back. “Being that she’s a senior, I wanted to give her the opportunity to experience high school life as an elite runner,” he said. “We had a conversation at the end of cross-country about reaching one’s potential. Last fall, I don’t think Samantha was really racing but pacing herself. She’s gotten back to her roots on the track.”

Those roots have blossomed as Nadel continues to embody a running essence linked to a glorious heritage. Every day is a day to run better. Just break a few rules and keep building your base.