Feeding the Cats: A Distance Coach’s Perspective.

ADerks Illinois HS Cross Country 6 Comments

About 7.5 years ago, I had the incredible fortune of being connected with Coach Tony Holler.  I was a recently-riffed South Chicago charter school Fitness teacher looking to get back into high school coaching. Coach Holler was in need of a distance coach. All I knew about him was what I found on the internet. As a former Class A runner, I quickly made the connection, “Oh, he’s THAT coach from Harrisburg”, who I quickly associated with the dominating teams when I was in high school in the late 90’s. I also discovered that he had a pretty cool website…and a penchant for breakfast meetings.

While Coach Holler may have been “Feeding the Cats” back in 2011, it was not the national phenomenon that it has now become 8 years later.  I like to kid Holler that he had amazingly successful teams at Harrisburg before his “conversion” to minimalist speed-based training. In my opinion, he was feeding the cats long before “Feed the Cats”.  He just did it with a different type of training.

Feeding the Cats is only partially about the training.  As I have learned in our journey together for the last 7+ years, the Feed the Cats philosophy can be boiled down to 3 words  Passion. Enthusiasm. Intensity.

Being the former basketball coach that he is, I have heard Coach Holler say that he coaches track like a basketball coach.  This is an amazingly simple, yet deep observation. I remember my basketball coaches growing up as ferociously competitive men, always demanding, borderline hot-heads most of the time.  They were intense to say the least. The basketball coaches I knew weren’t the cerebral types like Steve Kerr or Brad Stevens. Coaches like Bob Knight were the caricature of basketball coaches everywhere. Track coaches, typically, are clipboard carriers, good with checklists, organization, inventory, and had no problem with their sport being used simply as “training for other sports”.  Obviously this was not every coach, but the intensity that Holler brought to those Harrisburg programs no doubt set them apart.


Coach Holler with 2004 Class A 4x400m Champs: Nathan Murphy, Nathan Sumner, Aaron Denoon, Cole Perkins, Brett Brachear.


What was it that separated Holler and Harrisburg from the other Class A schools and coaches in the 90’s? He tapped into something that most other schools- especially small schools- weren’t doing: unapologetically make kids feel like track is the greatest sport on earth.  Treat them like VIP’s. Get them lathered up before competitions like a basketball or football coach would. Share their results with anyone and everyone you can. Create a culture of excitement around the sport. None of this has to do with training. It’s approaching track in a way that shows young athletes that this sport is important and meaningful.

In the fall of 2011 I started my journey as a coaching colleague of Holler’s. I have had a front row seat to the evolution of Feed the Cats going from a powerpoint title to a movement. I remember my first winter at Plainfield North attending one of Coach Holler’s speed training sessions.  I saw a lot of guys standing around, playing grab-ass, sprinting fast one at a time while Holler sat in a folding chair at the other end of the track with a stopwatch. I also saw Summit timing gates set up with about a thousand feet of cable running along the wall.

Why weren’t there “stations” set up so that the guys waiting had something to do?  Where was the structure? Why wasn’t there more “stuff” after they were done sprinting?  These were all observations made by a distance coach witnessing a Feed the Cats practice for the first time.

Over the years, I have had countless talks with Coach Holler.  I acted as his road-crew that first winter back in 2012 as we made the rounds to various clinics. That winter Holler spoke at the ITCCCA South Clinic in Decatur, then a few weeks later going to the Wisconsin Track Coaches Clinic. My room at PNHS became our daily meeting place, as we got to talk bounce ideas off of each other.

It has been fun to be along for the ride over the past 7 years as I have witnessed Coach Holler revolutionize how track coach’s coach.  His ideas, and perhaps more importantly, his way of communicating his ideas, has changed Illinois track coaching. The rise of Twitter and blogs in our society have gone hand-in-hand with the rise of Feed the Cats.  They have given Holler the platform to do what he loves to do: share his ideas about how to train sprinters and lead a track program.

One of the moments where I distinctly remember it “clicking” with me that Holler was onto something was during an informal speed session where he was positioned in his usual spot, clipboard and stopwatch in hand, timing gates up, as members of “group 2” were finishing up their rounds of 40’s for the day (note: group 2 is typically the slower/ less-athletic group during speed sessions). A marginal football lineman, who’s name escapes me at the moment, finished up a 40 yd dash. The time unspectacular. However, as Holler called out the 40 time and the 10-yd fly time, the young man became elated. Lifetime best!  PR! This is a guy who would never run a track race for Holler, never make mention in one of his blogs, and never make an all-time list. But, that kid had the satisfaction of running faster than he ever had before, and he had proof.

Many of our talks throughout the years have revolved around why the Feed the Cats staple of “Record-Rank-Publish” is so vital.  There is tangible evidence of growth. In most sports, it can be hard to gauge improvement. You might be not make the playing field, and if you aren’t in the games, and nothing is being measured in practice, where is the evidence that you are improving?  What is the motivation to keep pushing and working hard when it may or may not be showing?

While many of the aspects of Feed the Cats have been around forever and are done by many coaches in many sports, few have packaged it in the same way Holler has. He’s proven the science.  He’s got the evidence of improvement from timing 10,000+ 40’s and Fly 10’s throughout the years. He’s got the results on the track. Perhaps one of the more overlooked factors is Coach Holler, who has been coaching for 38 years and will be retiring from teaching this year, still has an absolute fire for coaching track teams.  His Feed the Cats style has allowed him to stay fresh, rested, motivated, and not get bogged-down with trying to be everything to everyone. It has allowed him to cut out anything that isn’t essential. It has allowed him to be free of the need to fill time with extra “stuff”.

So, as the distance coach at Plainfield North, I am the de facto recipient of emails forwarded from Holler that he gets from coaches (sometimes from several states away) inquiring on how we “Feed the Cats” with distance runners. What does it look like in our distance program? A recent email that was forwarded on to me stated “I have seen Tony talk 4 times in person about “feed the cats”.  I have installed it wholeheartedly! LOVE IT! I’m looking for some direction with my distance program.”  

First off, Feed the Cats was created under the basic premise that sprinters are cats… meaning distance runners are dogs.  Cats are free spirits, hard to control, sleep all day, pretty much do what they want when they want. Dogs, however, are fiercely loyal and love to obey.  Dogs like to work. Neither one is better than the other. Some people are cat people. Some are dog people. Track teams need both. So, right off the bat the philosophy of Feed the Cats was not necessarily created to appease the stereotypically overachieving pure distance runner who keeps a training log, tracks mileage, loves two-hour practices, and thrives on long, hard workouts.

But, as I mentioned previously, Feed the Cats is way more than just a training philosophy. Those Patton Seagraves-led Harrisburg teams who were doing high-volume, boot camp style practices were thriving. (Side note- I have absolutely no doubt that if Holler would have chosen to coach cross country long ago, he would have been a state championship level coach in that sport as well- it’s not about the workouts…)

The rest of this article will be my attempt to share how distance coaches can “Feed the Cats”.  While I think that we do a lot right at PNHS, I am very far from having it all figured out and rely heavily on other distance coaches who have had much more success and consistency.  Parts of what I will share are things I see other great distance programs doing, in addition to my attempts to blend our distance program into the greater philosophy of “Feed the Cats” at PNHS.

Record-Rank-Publish

While it seems like such an obvious one now, I was embarrassingly bad at recording data back in my early coaching days at St. Joseph-Ogden High School back in 2004-06.  I don’t have any archives of times or workouts. One of the first aspects of Holler’s program that I picked up on early was how everything was recorded and published. His website had detailed write ups for every meet.  He has not only the all-time bests for Plainfield North, but also has a separate section for “Holler’s Hall of Fame”, the list of the best athletes in each event in all the schools he has coached at. Freshman All-Time lists, Freshman-Sophomore All-Time Lists, Indoor, Outdoor, Summer Speed Training, etc.  One of the first things I worked on in my first year at PN was compiling an all-time list. Thankfully, we were a relatively new school and I only had to go back about 6 years. With the help of a couple great managers, I’ve been able to keep pretty solid data over the past 7 years of all our distance stats.  We have All-Time lists for Freshmen, FS, and Varsity. We have All-Time lists for our own measure of speed, “Flying 40’s” (PN Distance Crew All-Time Fly 40 data).  On our distance website, guys can click on all-time career mileage leaders on our team training log.  One aspect where the “Record-Rank-Publish” thing can be tricky with distance guys is that with distance training, it’s not wise (in my opinion) to have every workout recorded and ranked, compared against previous years, etc.  As mentioned, distance guys are “dogs”, often over-achievers. Distance training is not always perfectly linear. Conditions play a large role in how workouts go. Some workouts (MOST workouts) are not designed to be an all-out effort, a test of manhood, or a referendum on fitness.  Distance runners need to buy into the process. The mantra of “consistent-moderation” is not always a catchy concept. When our guys did a workout in the fall consisting of 16×400, their immediate desire was to progress to 24×400’s. Why? Dogs. They want more.

So, Record-Rank-Publish is a great thing for both sprinters and distance guys.  It is important to publicize improvements, know what runners before you have done, and have goals for “making the list”.  With distance dogs, however, proceed with caution and realize that not everything needs to be recorded and ranked. This might lead to over-reaching in workouts, or unrealistic expectations for every workout to either be faster or farther.  

I see lots of examples from other distance coaches on how they do a version of Record-Rank-Publish.  This All-Time Detweiller sign at Sandburg High School is great (see background). How can those guys not be motivated by the greatness of runners who came before them!?  

Another great example of Record-Rank-Publish came from coaching friend Troy Walker at Shepard High School.  We met during my first year at PNHS, and he gave me one of his team packets that he gives out at the end of the season.  It had every workout they had done throughout the year with times, splits, pictures, motivational quotes, etc. Fairly simple, but a great example of great record-keeping and giving the team something they can be proud of and motivated by.

Keep ‘em Happy and Healthy

If you’ve been following Coach Holler for any length of time, you will quickly find that Feed the Cats is not about glorifying toughness, the grind, or any of old-school “turning boys into men” type training.  At it’s core, Feed the Cats is about sprinters being happy, and staying healthy. I think most distance coaches would agree that these are goals of most teams. We may not always say we are happy on the 4th 1000 meter repeat or on the 8th hill repeat, but in general we want to create a culture where our team members are happy.  For me, this concept has manifested itself in trying to always keep things on the horizon to look forward to. As adults, we all like- we all need- things to look forward to. It can be as simple as a good meal, watching a good movie with family, or a good cup of coffee. For athletes, I try to always make sure there are things to look forward to.  Establishing traditions that give us things to look forward to both in the micro and the macro. A practice at a new location, going to a good meet, a scavenger hunt, a team trip, a pasta party, a word of praise, a challenging workout, a good practice culture, etc. It’s not about constant gimmicks. It is about creating and atmosphere and a culture where guys look forward to going to practices/meets, where they look forward to being with teammates, and where they see that what they are a part of is meaningful. Many great coaches and programs likely do this all the time without thinking about it, but when I think about a team being happy and healthy, I think a big part of that is putting myself in their shoes and considering “what are we looking forward to”, as well as “If I was on our team, would I look forward to being a part of the daily culture?”  Sure, we absolutely want to enjoy the process, and many days it does feel like a grind. But, we are all human, and humans thrive when we have things to look forward to.

As far as the healthy part of the equation, a tenet of Feed the Cats is to not let today’s workout ruin tomorrow’s workout.  Less is more. Minimum effective dose. Does this apply in the world of distance running? Well, having listened to 100+ coaching podcasts, attended clinics and talked ot coaches, I’d say that with few exceptions the most important aspect of improving and being great as a distance runner is “consistency”.  And you can’t be consistent if you’re hurt. As Dr. Jeff Messer, a successful high school coach in Arizona (who will also be presenting at ITCCCA in January) put it, he wants his team to hit lots of “singles and doubles” in workouts, not go for the home runs. Finish feeling like you could do one more rep, or could have gone a little faster. Different philosophies and practices exist for helping keep runners healthy.  Some general conclusions:

  • Do more than just run (to what degree and what extent is largely dependent on a number of variables: time, access to equipment, group size, coach’s philosophy, etc)
  • Static stretching is not a warm up or a cool down. It may not hurt a distance runner, but it’s probably not a tool for injury prevention
  • Keep a variety of paces in your training throughout most of the year. Avoid throwing too many new stimuli at your runners at once (increasing volume while also adding new types of workouts, races, etc)
  • Sleep and nutrition emphasis are absolutely essential
  • Keep a flexible plan and be willing to adapt, both within a season, a week, or within a practice session. When in doubt, one or two less reps is usually better than one or two more
  • When runners are very consistent with their training, they can afford occasional days off or cross-training days without missing a beat. No single workout is more important than the body of work. But, a timely day or two off when red flags pop up can help, as coach Tom Schwartz, aka “Tinman”, would say, “keep the ball rolling” with training.

Short Practices/ Days off

One of Coach Holler’s staple comments at our brief team meetings at the end of track meets goes something like this:  “Sprinters, tomorrow is a sprint holiday like usual. Distance… see Coach Derks”. People have asked me over the years if our practices are short like the sprinters.  I usually comment that we are almost done with our warm up when the sprinters are heading home for the day. From what I have gathered in my time talking with successful coaches and observing what goes on at most distance practices of great teams- you’ve got to put in the time.  There are simply so many aspects to attend to, that it is not possible to consistently have 45-minute practices. You could, but too many things would get left out. On the flipside, most distance coaches trying to get an edge are always looking to “add” things. A new hip mobility routine, yoga, meditation, diaphragm breathing, core, circuits, HIITs, plyos, rope stretching, weight room, hurdle drills, wickets, balance work, med balls, meetings to talk about race plans, meetings to talk about team culture stuff, team-building games, dynamic warm ups, dynamic cooldowns, the list goes on and on for the extra “stuff” you can add to practices.  And with twitter, it’s impossible to avoid seeing what other teams/coaches are doing and wondering “would that fit” with our team.

So, where is the balance? Feed the Cats, focus on just the essential, get them in and get them out. Or, be the distance team that “outworks” everyone.  I heard a successful coach state in a recent podcast interview that if he has 2-hours to work with his team, he’s going to take every second of that 2-hours.  While our practices generally hit close to that 2-hour mark (and never more), I think this is an area of Feed the Cats that can influence the way distance coaches approach practice time- but not completely change it.  For one, it forces me (and all distance coaches I believe) to focus on what they value and what is truly important for each day. What facilities do we have? What do we want to accomplish? What time of the season is it?  What is their academic load like? Are they able to get adequate sleep? Is this something that we need to all be together for, or can it be done on their own? These are just a few of the questions I ask myself when planning practices.  Sometimes guys need a short practice. They’ve got college essays, homework, endless tests, families they may occasionally want to be with, etc. If I can carve out an extra 30 minutes for them on a Tuesday or Wednesday, sometimes that is enough to make them feel like they’ve been given an extra day that week.  At PNHS, our school day starts mercilessly early at 7:05am. Should we be practicing 2-3 mornings per week? Is it reasonable to expect them to be here at 5:15/5:30 and still get 9 hours of sleep? Is that reasonable to expect of myself with a 30-minute commute and two young kids at home? Maybe, maybe not. I know some schools start early and do morning runs. Two-and-a-half hour practices.  For us, most mornings it is enough to simply get to school without robbing Peter to pay Paul and sacrifice sleep to get a few extra miles. Some days we will assign “on your own” morning runs with the caveat that you have to get at least 8-hours of sleep, or you can’t do one. With afternoon practices, we have to be extremely efficient with our time. It’s a constant back-and-forth between wanting practices to have aspects of fun/ time for socializing and being a goof, with the importance of also bringing focus, being efficient and business-like.  I’ve learned that an occasional “on your own” afternoon can be great for a distance crew. If you’ve got a good culture and good leaders, the practice won’t miss a beat. If a guy has a load of homework to do, it could make his week to be able to take care of his workout quickly, and be able to get home early. It’s a balance, and I think the point is to be mindful as distance coaches that for our kids sanity (and often for ours), less can be more with regards to time. We can’t do it all. Some great ideas will inevitably face the chopping block. If we’ve got 2-hours, what is going to be the best use of that time?

Great schedule/ Great uniforms

This is one aspect of Feed the Cats that we’ve adopted, or at least tried to.  If you look good, you feel good. If you go to good meets with good atmosphere, it’s more fun and you run faster. Many teams have adopted “Championship uniforms”, which is cool to see. Plainfield South has their championship stripes.  Downers Grove North threw everyone off at the 2017 State XC Meet with their mysterious spider web black singlets. For us, we’ve taken a page out of my EIU days and donned white shorts during the championship season. While every team has a different situation and access to purchase uniforms and travel to meets, there are always ways to get creative. Our parents have even gotten involved, as they have sported championship season bandanas since 2015.

2015 PNXC dads in their Championship season bandannas

Treat underclassmen like VIP’s

Of all of Holler’s “Feed the Cats” bullet points, this is one that I feel most strongly about. I am inspired when I hear or read stories about what other programs do to encourage seniors or “captains” to serve the underclassmen.  Servant Leadership is contrary to what most teenagers live out. It is counter cultural for them to seek out helping others and make sure other people are being taken care of before ourselves- especially at the high school level where it often feels like survival of the fittest.  At the end of the cross country season, I give out lengthy “End of Season Questionnaires”, a slightly different version for each grade level. I also set up one-on-one meetings with each guy. One of the big things I want to know from our Freshmen and Sophomores is how well they feel accepted and included in the team. It’s also fun to hear guys tell stories about how it was their first seasons, their nerves. Then, they go into how a team event, or an action by an upperclassman helped them to feel accepted and more a part of the team, and the rest is history.

Also, borrowed from Holler, we give out post-season awards to all levels, keep season and all-time lists for various levels, and try to make sure our young guys are recognized. We also go to meets exclusively for the FS level guys, and get equally excited for results of FS level races as we do for varsity.

The bottom line, we call ourselves a Family at PNXC for a reason. We try to take care of each other, support each other, challenge each other, be patient with each other. Yes, we still fail at times.  We get too cliquey at times. However, the overwhelming message I get from guys is that what they love about the team is how all grade levels can mix and everyone supports each other. In Daniel Pink’s book “Drive”, which investigates the truth behind what motivates people, a major conclusion is that carrots and sticks are not what drives continuous intrinsic motivation. What is considered a crucial part of helping to instill intrinsic motivation, lasting motivation, is a sense of purpose- being a part of something bigger than yourself.  This seems to be true of many great distance programs. If you go to York High School and put on the green jersey, you are a part of the “long green line”. You are running for something greater than yourself. I think an important part of “hooking” young runners to make the commitment is helping them truly feel a part of something bigger when they are freshmen/ newcomers. Despite the attempts to make it fun and meaningful, the hard work and commitment involved can be daunting. However, if you know that what you are a part of is bigger than yourself, and you see your role as important to the overall team, I think it’s easier to stay motivated to press on.  

Always develop speed

Feed the Cats is unapologetic about it’s primary training purpose:  improve max speed. Run as fast as you can, as often as you can, while staying as fresh as you can. With distance runners, max speed training can be a neglected piece of training. I do think that throughout the last 10 years or so, distance coaches have come around to the importance of developing alactic speed, through the use of max sprinting 30-60 meters, or hill sprints of 10-12 seconds.  One factor that makes this slightly more complicated for distance coaches compared to the typical “Feed the Cats” sprint coach is that we have to address many other aspects of training to run fast from 800m through 3-miles. Aerobic development is crucial. Aerobic threshold, VO2 Max, Anaerobic threshold, Critical Velocity, Lactate Threshold, Long runs, Medium Long runs, Special Endurance. Should we train speed when fresh  When fatigued? Both? Are post-run “strides” enough? Once again, I think there are several ways to meet the same end. Good coaches and good programs have found ways to develop multiple systems without developing one at the expense of the other. It does take creativity and flexibility. As Steve Magness has stated, (and I’m paraphrasing), don’t let trying to be perfect get in the way of “good enough”. Article: “A Case For Being Good Enough”.   So, while we can probably debate the minutia involved in developing speed for distance runners, here is what works for us: We time Flying 40’s. Our heaviest time for doing this is January/February, the first 6-8 weeks of track.  We also do some of this in the summer during pre-season cross country, though not quite as regularly. We do hill sprints, usually after a moderate distance run. We walk down backwards after each hill sprint. While I’m not sure of the physical benefits of this, I stole the walk down backwards idea from my EIU teammate/friend Jeff Jonaitis (also Asst XC Coach at Sandburg).  He has qualified for two USA Olympic Trials in the marathon. We do mini-hurdles 2-3x/week throughout much of the year, though in the past this has mostly been during track season. We’ve done it as part of the warm up and we’ve done them after easy runs. I don’t quite have the eye of Chris Korfist, but you can tell when a guy looks good going through the hurdles. I show them video of what they look like.  I have our better guys demonstrate. Keep the cues simple- “Stay tall”. “Good rhythm”! Bottom line is, as Coach John O’Malley at Sandburg states in his training principles, “move your feet fast everyday”. Or, at least most days. Find ways to prioritize speed development. Distance runners are athletes, not plow horses. Championship races are won with incredibly fast last laps, yet you still have to be aerobically strong enough to stay in the race. Efficiency, speed reserve, these are also benefits of regular pure speed training.  This is an area I am always trying to better understand and “fit” into the plan, but I think it’s importance cannot be argued.

So distance coaches-  Keep “Feeding the dogs” as you best see fit.  In a thriving distance crew culture, you’ve likely got a few cats mixed in with your dogs.  Don’t be afraid to learn from sprint coaches. It has been a blessing to work with and learn from Coach Holler and his “Feed the Cats” system for the last 7 years.  We don’t always agree. But, we always have great conversations about how to best create a strong culture and how to foster enthusiasm for track/xc in our school. We try to create a program that we would want our own kids to be a part of. Track and Cross Country are proud sports. At it’s core, Feeding the Cats is about creating a positive, enthusiastic, and intense culture that student-athletes want to be a part of.

Comments 6

  1. Great article. I’m a strength and basketball and really love true perspectives I get from the different coaches on this website. Thanks

  2. I really enjoyed this article. It provided me with a vast amount of information. I am even more excited about attending the Jan clinic.

  3. Enjoy the reading! Coach you are really doing an amazing job by focusing on the goal of Feed the Cat. In other words, when you focus on the goal your footing is sure.

  4. Great application to training the Active Ager …. So many parallels! make the workout the ‘Best’ part of their day; make them part of something bigger than themselves [how we thrive in all aspects of life]; adapt to change; nutrition, rest and recovery; work at a variety of paces; move feet fast at least once a day; no ONE workout at expense of tomorrow’s golf game;

    Feed the cats! Feed the dogs. Feed them differently because they are different.

    Love it!

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