Here’s a question I’ve come across a few times in different ways.

How many of you make your team run? I have mine run 1 mile before practice begins. They hate it but I believe in it. It builds endurance. When another team gasses out, we will be able to fight.

I can remember the days when running like this – before or after practice – was quite common. Fortunately, it’s not anymore. Nowadays coaches more often use it as a fitness test. Both are seriously flawed, however. (Note: 1 mile = 1.6 km)

Running for conditioning

The coach quoted above makes the mistake of assuming “endurance” is a general thing. They fail to realize that the kind of endurance developed while running is entirely different from what’s used in volleyball.

Want proof? Try putting a marathon runner in a high intensity volleyball drill and see how long they last. They’ve got amazing endurance after all, right? I guarantee they’ll be gassed MUCH sooner than even only moderately well-conditioned volleyball players.

Running is a steady state activity with no rest intervals. Volleyball is a short duration explosive activity with frequent rest intervals. Running is about sustained low-intensity effort. Volleyball is about being able to repeat high-intensity activity over and over again (recover). Very different systems!

If you make your players run before practice you’re doing two things. First, you’re burning up some of their energy, giving them less to use in practice to do volleyball stuff. It’s like intentionally running your battery down before you start using your electronic device. Second, you’re training their body in the wrong kind of energy system. Both are counterproductive.

And that goes for running after practice too. There are much better ways to condition your athletes.

Running as a fitness test

As I said above, I more often hear about volleyball coaches using a mile run as part of their fitness testing. I once worked for a head coach who did this. I argued against it, but as an assistant you have to know which battles you can win and which you can’t.

This subject comes up in my review of Fake Fundamentals, but let me expand upon that here. There are two major issues.

If players prepare for the mile run it means they aren’t properly training to play volleyball. As I noted above, running uses a different energy system than volleyball. That’s why you don’t see those kinds of runs in off-season training programs handed out by strength coaches, who understand these things quite well. They work against what you want.

If players don’t prepare for the mile run, one can ask the question, “Then what’s the point?” Isn’t the idea that it’s supposed to indicate some fitness capacity? Further, players who haven’t trained to run are at increased risk of injury.

But I do it for mental toughness

The most frequent retort I hear when there’s push-back against a coach who does the mile run – either as conditioning or testing – is that what they’re really after is mental toughness. I have a two-fold reaction to this.

First, let’s look at things in terms of using physical activity to make athletes more mentally tough. As a starting point, we should all understand the link between fatigue and mental toughness. Second, why can’t we do it while training the athletes in a way that is more appropriate to their sport? For example, doing a series of short sprints is a better option for volleyball players than running a mile.

Second, what kind of mental toughness are you really after? Mental strength is contextual. The kind that might be developed by the physical stuff relates to physical activity, but is that really what you need? I’d argue we as coaches should be more interested in the kind of mental toughness that relates to performing under pressure. For example, when you know the next serve is coming to you, or you need to get the kill at match point against you, or the team is struggling and everyone is frustrated.

There are things you can do to work on that kind of mental toughness.

Other reasons

Here are some additional defenses people offer up for the use of the mile run (timed or otherwise):

  • See who complains [Why shouldn’t they complain about something so pointless?]
  • See which kids go to the front of the line vs. hold back [Probably just an indication of who feels like they’ll do well.]
  • It shouldn’t be much of a challenge for an athlete to complete… especially if they are in shape. [Just because they should be able to do it doesn’t mean it makes sense to make them.]
  • The mile helps create teamwork (cheering others on) [Lots of other ways to do this.]
Bottom line

It’s really quite simple. Running a mile – whether it’s for conditioning, fitness testing, or mental toughness – is a waste of time. At best you can find better ways to accomplish what you want. At worst you’re working against the athletes. It’s something that needs to go the way of jog-and-stretch being thought of as a useful warm-up.

Here’s more on the topic of preseason fitness testing.

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John Forman
John Forman

John is currently the Talent Strategy Manager (oversees the national teams) and Indoor Performance Director for Volleyball England, as well as Global Director for Volleyball for Nation Academy. His volleyball coaching experience includes all three NCAA divisions, plus Junior College, in the US; university and club teams in the UK; professional coaching in Sweden; and both coaching and club management at the Juniors level. He's also been a visiting coach at national team, professional club, and juniors programs in several countries. Learn more on his bio page.

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