Copy of blog post 4

The Gift of Parker Valby

Of the 254 athletes who competed in the 2023 NCAA Division I Women’s Cross Country Championship, the one who did the least running in preparation for the event (averaging just three runs per week for a total of about 30 miles) was University of Florida Junior Parker Valby. But the best runner of the bunch, who cruised to a 10-second victory over the grassy 6-kilometer course in Charlottesville, Virginia, was . . . also Parker Valby. That’s right: The best female college runner in America runs just three times per week on average.

This doesn’t mean Valby only exercises three times per week. In addition to her running, the Tampa native does a lot of cross-training—six to eight sessions per week on the arc trainer and in the pool. And what her training regimen may lack in overall quantity it makes up for in quality. “It’s not like I’m jogging on those days [that I’m running] or that I’m cross training easily,” she said in an interview for Citius. “I think people underestimate what I’m doing. When I cross-train, there are puddles of sweat on the floor . . . Workout days are quality miles. That’s where all the miles come in–workout days.”

If some running fans were shocked by revelations of how little running Valby does, I was not. I’ve been preaching the value of cross-training to runners since 2004, when I released my second book, Runner’s World Guide to Cross-Training, which was inspired by my own encounters with cross-training. Decades before a spate of injuries forced Parker Valby to adopt a multimodal approach to training for running events, a spate of injuries (complemented by an interest in triathlon) caused me to do the same. My hope in embracing this approach was that the combination a manageable amount of running and a whole lot of vigorous swimming, cycling and elliptical training would enable me to perform at the same level as a competitive runner as I would have done had my body permitted me to do as much running as I wanted to do. But a hope is not a belief, and I didn’t become a true believer in cross-training until  had experiential proof that it worked.

The first such experience that comes to mind is also the last—Ironman Santa Rosa in 2019. Given the nature of this event, I would have cross-trained for it regardless of my injury status, but it so happened that a pesky groin injury severely limited my run training. With less than 12 weeks remaining before race day, I was doing all of my running on a treadmill, with the belt set at a steep incline and at a very slow speed, taking just enough stress off the affected tendon to keep it from going sproing. Not until five weeks until race day was I able to transition to doing running outside covering a total of 25 miles in a span of seven days, or one mile less than the distance of the run portion of the triathlon I was preparing for. And just eighteen days before the event, I was finally healthy enough to attempt my first speed workout—one of only three I managed to squeeze in. Despite these restrictions, I split 3:17:38 for the marathon portion of Ironman Santa Rosa, matching the goal I’d set when I signed up for the race eleven months earlier, having no idea how little running I’d be able to do.

Now, I will be the first to admit that winning the NCAA Cross Country Championship is a far more impressive achievement than running a 3:17 marathon in an Ironman. That’s why I consider Parker Valby a gift. For more than 20 years I’ve been using myself as an example when delivering pep talks to injured or injury-prone runners I coach. Understanding their skepticism concerning the effectiveness of cross-training, I tell them my Ironman Santa Rosa story, or one of many other stories I have about things I was able to achieve as a runner thanks to cross-training. But now I can retire these personal anecdotes and point to Park Valby instead. She proved the possibility of something that was not known to be possible before. Sure, there’s some science showing that cross-training  benefits runners, but a case study like Valby’s is far more effective in getting runners to believe that cross-training is worth their while.

Perhaps I’ll get a chance to do a second edition of Runner’s World Guide to Cross-Training (which flopped, by the way). The original contained what I called a “Cross-Training Hall of Fame”—vignettes of notable runners who relied on cross-training to achieve great things. There were some good ones in there (Alan Webb, Joan Benoit Samuelson), but Parker Valby tops them all. No runner of the modern are has achieved more with less actual running, and as a coach I intend to get a lot of mileage out of it, so to speak.

***

Speaking of books and injuries, check out my latest book, coauthored with Ryan Whited: Pain & Performance: The Revolutionary New Way to Use Training As Treatment for Pain and Injury.

9 Comments

  1. Doug Clark on January 6, 2024 at 9:52 pm

    The picture u used is of the 2022 NCAA where she placed 2nd

    • Dusty on January 8, 2024 at 10:46 am

      The author’s argument, as I understand it, is that injury-prone runners can attain success in running events by systematically and consistently utilizing cross-training to replace training time that they would otherwise spend running. The author does not advise healthy and durable runners to replace run workouts with cross-training and eschew specificity. On the contrary, the author’s personal example and the others he cites underscore the critical need for run workouts to compete at a high-level in running events. Lastly, the author didn’t misrepresent this information as a study, though I’m sure there are plenty of studies that support this approach for injury-prone runners. The author used the word “experiment” not in the formal scientific sense but to convey their desire for experiential learning by applying the method in their training when the need arose – a nagging injury.

      I hope this helps you to understand and benefit from this valuable post.

  2. Roy Benson on January 8, 2024 at 8:02 am

    Your experiment with one subject proves nothing. And you can not draw any conclusions by comparing yourself to Valby.

    You can create a theory, but a study with large enough number of subjects would have so many uncontrollable variables it would extremely difficult to draw any valid conclusions.

    Specificity is the general principle that creates the best results. Ask Yo Yo Ma how many hours of
    piano training he includes in his cellist workouts.

    • Dusty on January 8, 2024 at 10:47 am

      The author’s argument, as I understand it, is that injury-prone runners can attain success in running events by systematically and consistently utilizing cross-training to replace training time that they would otherwise spend running. The author does not advise healthy and durable runners to replace run workouts with cross-training and eschew specificity. On the contrary, the author’s personal example and the others he cites underscore the critical need for run workouts to compete at a high-level in running events. Lastly, the author didn’t misrepresent this information as a study, though I’m sure there are plenty of studies that support this approach for injury-prone runners. The author used the word “experiment” not in the formal scientific sense but to convey their desire for experiential learning by applying the method in their training when the need arose – a nagging injury.

  3. GW Wilson on January 8, 2024 at 11:57 am

    Piecing together the comments:

    Specificity = Quality Matters, even translatable through intense, systemic cross-training.

    Cross-Training = Avoidance of High Quantity, Low Quality workouts that may lead to overuse / injuries.

  4. BobbyKMo on January 9, 2024 at 6:18 am

    I recognize that some of the above comments are attempting to apply academic rigor to this consideration of cross-training, and that is important. However, the example we have in Parker Valby is impossible to dismiss as a single subject study that has no wider application. The fact that she has achieved such astonishing heights as a distance runner in an incomparable field of competitors calls all of us who coach or compete at elite levels to consider the benefits of cross-training both to treat AND avoid injury. Starting in high school, but becoming critical in college, coaches of elite athletes have to decide how much to risk to achieve what MIGHT be possible. Coaches want to win—often need to win in—and therein is the dilemma: elite runners, the ones who make coaches WIN, are generally pushed almost 12 months a year and compete cross, indoor, and outdoor for several years together. We all know that this is one of the reasons that elite runners often cut their college careers short and turn pro; the trick for coaches is to push them hard and keep them on the team, while hoping and praying they don’t get injured. Katelyn Tuohy, who in fact was (reportedly) injured recently and therefore incapable of defending her title, has turned pro. Will she now get enough rest from training and racing to keep injuries at bay? Is cross-training now a part of her full time regimen? Will Parker Valby continue to train this way once she is a pro? Maybe. But we should all pay attention because, while these are not controlled, peer-reviewed studies, they may represent the future for those willing to experiment. Because let’s face it – anything we try with each individual athlete – and hopefully we are paying attention to the individual – is experimental. Every body is different and needs fine tuning. The issue is what coaches and athletes are willing to risk, for both the long-term and short-term. And I believe it’s time to consider Parker Valby’s training as a place to start…

    • Tj on January 11, 2024 at 5:42 pm

      High miles is for morons.

  5. Michael Layman on January 10, 2024 at 9:10 pm

    So this is only partially about cross training. It is entirely possible to be very fit on 3 high intensity running workouts a week and be competitive at 6K. The rest of the week are recovery workouts anyway. Parker’s success has little to do with her cross training and more to do with avoiding injuries. The intensity of her workouts far exceeds the author’s training for a triathlon.
    40 years ago I placed 7th in the men’s nationals 10k with the same principle running less than 40 miles per week.

  6. College XC & track runner dad on January 13, 2024 at 10:08 pm

    High mileage is the mantra of coaches who just won’t let go of the wisdom they gleaned in the 1970’s from Jack Daniels, Hal Higdon, etc. Sorry, time to meet the needs of the individual machine, not the outdated methods of the previous century. The high mileage advocates will die on this hill. Whatever. The sport has gotten more explosive at the 5K – 10K level, more women and girls are posting amazing times, and state title are being won all over by low mileage runners. Ever heard of Natalie Cook? Acting like Parker Valby is some unicorn or isolated case is just continuing to be hard-headed. If you collected the mileage logs of the top 3 girls’ programs in Texas, Southlake Carroll, Lucas Lovejoy, and Flower Mound, you would see numerous runners under 25 miles/week. Not all of them, but remember, I’m talking about the needs of the individual machine. Some athletes stay healthy with 50 easier miles and can’t handle all the speed work. Some have more fast twitch, and can go beast mode on mile repeats.

Leave a Comment