Chapter 1: Running
Necessarily, the first chapter in a treatise about cross country is about running. That’s what we are here for. Now, running is a vague and basic term and, oftentimes, when we talk about running, we will talk about it in more specific terms based on pacing, energy system usage, purpose, etc.
The first thing to consider about high school cross country running is that, in Colorado, we race a 5K, or 3.1 miles. Our training needs to be aimed at competing for a 5k. Not much that we do needs to greatly exceed that distance. A 9-mile run is the longest I believe it necessary to run in order to be successful at a 5K. Keeping in mind that most high schoolers, especially freshmen and sophomores, are still growing, too much mileage can put an unnecessary strain on the body, particularly the soft tissues and the still-growing bones. While there are some athletes whose bodies can handle the burden of 10-mile runs or 60+ mile weeks, the smartest and safest thing a teenager can do is to limit their mileage output.
To that end, runners should be putting in a reasonable number of miles for their fitness level. Beginning runners (or beginning again) should not aim for a number of miles, but rather a steadily increasing time spent running. Depending on where you are, maybe you start with a solid 20-minute effort before giving into the temptation to walk. A week—five or six days—of 20-minute runs will benefit the beginner immensely. Then, try to bump up to 25-minutes the next week, with maybe a 30-minute effort on one of the days. It is important to not ramp up running volume too quickly; the body will revolt--shin splints and muscle strains or pulls—and the mind will revolt—frustration, disappointment, quitting? Try not to increase your time by more than 5-10% from week to week; rather try to increase the quality of your run within the time constraints.
Experienced runners with a consistent streak of running will be able to handle more, but this is not a climb without a ceiling: there are limits to what a body can and should do. What a body can do is not always what a body should do.
High school aged runners should very rarely exceed 50 miles in a week. During the hardest part of the cross-country season, we will likely have two or three weeks where we push the varsity runners into the 50-mile range, and that includes short recovery runs in the mornings. There are many programs where the athletes will routinely run more than 50 miles, some even breaking into the 70-mile range in a single week; this approach may see short-term results, but ultimately is short-sighted and will often lead to injuries, health issues, injuries, emotional strain, injuries, burnout, and injuries (duplicate).
There are different types of runs. Just as there are different types of weightlifting or swimming. Some running workouts are designed to help your body become more efficient at producing ATP (the main energy currency of the body’s cells which gets used when muscles contract), some at burning ATP, some at understanding your pace and rhythm, some at flushing lactic acid, some at maximizing the flow of oxygen to your muscles, and myriad other goals.
Off-season is a time to focus primarily on the oxygen consumption process in your running. The oxygen consumption process allows your body to more efficiently recover from in-season workouts. Running is a sport where we need to break down the body in order to build it up; off-season running is designed to give your body a better system for the rebuilding process. If your body can recover more quickly and more thoroughly, you can get back to hard workouts more quickly and productively. Doing too many workouts in the off-season that focus on building speed will reduce the effectiveness of the in-season workouts; this can lead to peaking too early and a complete breakdown of the normal cycle of training.
Long Slow Distance (LSD): these are the bread-and-butter of the off-season. Not only are they nice because you get to chat with your running buddies, you can enjoy the scenery, sort out some thoughts in your head, wave to passers-by, and concentrate on your breathing. Generally speaking, if you are running at a nice, easy pace, you can probably breath on a four-step/four-step pattern. Think of your steps as breathing pacers: In, In, In, In, Out, Out, Out, Out. If you get going too fast, you won’t be able to hold that pattern. (Beginners will probably need to work with a three-step/three-step pattern as they get going).
Tempo Runs: known as “comfortably hard,” tempo runs are for picking up the pace, but not like interval training. These workouts help you dip into different energy systems than LSDs, which is good; it helps keep your body guessing which stimulates growth and improvement. Tempo runs aren’t for as long as LSDs, but they are faster: think ½ the time, but on a three-step/three-step pattern (In, In, In, Out, Out, Out) because your body needs oxygen more quickly. Doing a tempo run two times a week in the off-season is good for you because it still helps you build your oxidative base, but also adds some ‘fun’ into your training.
Fartleks: yeah, yeah. Laugh it up. This Swedish term means “speed play” or something like that and these workouts are a good middle ground between LSD and Tempo Runs. Basically, you go on a long run, but have bursts where you pick up the pace. This can be on a set schedule, minute fast then minute easy; a random schedule, bursts when you hit a nice flat straightaway or something; or anything else. I like to go light pole to light pole. Ladder fartleks are fun, too: one minute fast, recover for one minute, two minute fast (though not as fast as the one minute), two minute recover, etc.
Interval Workouts: Usually done on the track or on a loop of a set distance, intervals are repeats of a set length at a prescribed pace. Generally speaking, I don’t prefer these during the off-season with the exception of two or three times a month. These are useful for helping your body to become familiar with a pace and rhythm. If you run a 400 at a 78-second pace, you are moving at about a 16:00 5K pace. If your goal is to run a 16:00, it would be very helpful to your body if you knew exactly what that speed felt like. For the off-season, I don’t recommend intervals longer than 800 meters; that is in-season type work.
Hills!: It’s not like we can really avoid hills here, but that’s a good thing. Running uphill promotes strength, knee-drive, posture, arm-swing, proper foot-strike patterns, and that feeling like you conquered Mt. Everest. Don’t focus on hill repeats during the off-season, but certainly don’t avoid hilly runs. Running downhill presents its own benefits, but also can be perilous. You get to extend your stride, liven up your turnover, and let gravity finally be helpful; however, you need to beware of knee-strain and falling over.
Strides: these are something that you can probably do at the end of every run, especially LSDs. Strides are basically short sprints around 50-100 meters where you build up speed gradually and then decrease speed gradually. A good six strides at the end of a run helps stretch out the hips and the hamstrings, flush out some lactic acid, reinforce fast running patterns, and they are fun. Side benefit: they can also help round out your mileage if you hit like a 6.85-mile run. Doesn’t 7-mile run just sound better?
WHEN TO RUN
There are an endless amount of factors to consider when establishing the time of day that you run; however, the most important thing is that you run. Looking at the forecast to run before the weather gets extreme is pretty important, but work schedules, family commitments, puppies, safety, and a million other considerations can affect your decision. I recommend arranging a time with some friends (accountability is an important aspect of teamwork) and sticking to it.
WHERE TO RUN
Colorado Springs is a beautiful place for runners. There are trails, hills, flats, parks, mountains, whatever. Find somewhere based on the type of run you are going to do or just step out of your front door. Some great spots we run during the season are Bear Creek Park, Section 16, Monument Valley Park, Sondermann Park, Garden of the Gods, the Santa Fe Trail, and there are many more. We are pretty lucky to be able to train where we do!
WHAT TO RUN
For the off-season, the most important type of run you can do is the LSD, but variety is the spice of life. In a six-day running week, aim for four or five LSD runs, maybe a fartlek or tempo, and try to get at least two hilly days in there. One day should be your loooong run.
Time spent running is going to depend on your individual path and where you currently sit along it. Once you have built your body up to 30+ minute runs, then open it up. Try a few 45-55 minute runs, one run per week of 60-70 minutes but take it easy (beware heat, bring water), a good mix of flat and rolling trails. Mix it up.
Call up your friends. Running is free. Friendship is free. Training buddies make for racing buddies and a much stronger team.
Chapter 2: Strength
While we aren’t aiming for bulk, being strong is essential to maximize your running potential. In decades past, top-notch runners were skinny. This led to a global misconception that skinny=fast. As training, science, and the sport progress, we see that true top-notch runners are not skinny, they are strong. While it is true that runners don’t want to be too heavy, they need to find a balance point where they can perform at optimal speed by having enough muscle without too much mass.
As high-schoolers, hyper-focusing on the weight number would be a drastic and very unhealthy approach to life. Ours is a sport plagued by eating disorders, primarily due to unscientific misconceptions.
For strength training, high-school runners will see vast benefits to speed, injury-prevention, and running form. By choosing the right exercises and the right lifting regimen, teen runners can work towards long-term health while improving running output.
This chapter will focus on three types of strength conditioning: active-where you are lifting weights, passive-where you will work on holding a position, and core-where you work on bodily strength around your middle.
Not much in terms of weight, but not too much in terms of repetitions. During the season, we will put together a plan where the first third of the season will be about building strength through the movements, the second third will be about increasing weight as the movement patterns are correct and comfortable, and the final third will be about tapering the muscles for freshness and speed in the championship season.
For the off-season, we don’t need to be as specific because we are essentially in one phase for the whole summer. We will work in sets of two lifts of complementary muscle groups, then move on to another set of muscle groups. For example, the quadriceps and the hamstrings are opposites so working them together helps create balance. Athletes in other sports who are aiming at different goals through weight-lifting will often allow a muscle group to rest while its opposite works; so quad day would be a different day than hamstring day (though most people do all their leg stuff in one day or skip it entirely).
For our active strength off-season purposes, we will work four pairs of movements, two-three sets of each movement, eight-twelve movements in each set. For our passive strength emphasis, there are things you can do daily that only take a few minutes of time. For our core strength, there are things you should do daily.
Chest and Back. There are dozens of different lifts you can do for each of these muscle groups, some targeting the group as a whole, others targeting specific muscles within the group. For our purposes, we will do the alternating dumbbell press and the bent-over row.
Alternating Dumbbell Press: Feet flat on the floor, core held tight, with elbows wide, lower one arm at a time, then press it back up. Arms should be straight up, not angled over your face!
Bent-Over Row: One knee on the bench, back is flat, shoulders are pulled back, dangle weight straight down, then pull the elbow up alongside the ribs. Think of this as an elbow lift, not a weight lift.
Shoulders. With a joint as versatile as the shoulder joint, there are a lot of moves we can do, but we are going to focus on upright rows and lateral extensions.
Upright Rows: Again, this is a lift where it helps to think of lifting your elbows rather than the weight. With feet flat on the ground, tall posture with shoulders back, you will lift your elbows up to your ears. The elbows need to stay wide. You can use a bar or dumbbells for this movement.
Lateral Extensions: Hold a pair of dumbbells at your side and slowly raise them to should height, then slowly lower them back down. Be very aware of your posture during this motion. If you have too much weight, you will likely be arching your back and risking injury.
Split Squats: With one foot flat on the floor and the top of the other foot flat on a bench or box, chest up, shoulders tall and aligned over the hips, lower down with all of the work being done by the front leg. The back leg is for balance. There are multiple things to be aware of with the movement: you should not be in a far stance but rather have your front foot quite close to the bench; make sure your feet and knees are always pointed forward and not angling out to the side on the way down; don’t lean forward. There are several fun youtube videos that will show you what not to do.
Try this move without weight first.
Lunges: Holding a Swiss ball or a ten-pound weight over your head is a good posture-corrector. Lunges need to be in a straight line, keeping the toes and knees pointed forward at all times. Try to stay off of your heels on the front foot.
Hips. The core is the center of all movement and the hips are what drive the legs; they need to be strong and in connection with the rest of the body in order to function properly.
Hip Raises: With your feet flat on the floor about a foot away from your buns, elevate the hips as high as you can. Hold it for a count of two, then lower back down. You can do these with or without weight.
Donkey Kicks: If you have a resistance band, that works best, but even just going through the motions is very helpful. I once heard a guy speak who said that one of the biggest problems with running form is that parents encourage their children to walk too early, thus eliminating the benefits of crawling in training muscle movement patterns and reinforcing bad habits and posture. At any rate, while kneeling on all fours, extend one leg out straight behind you, then slowly bring it back.
WHEN TO LIFT
Ideally, you would go through the four pairs of lifts three days a week. Some people prefer lifting before they run, some after. Some prefer to do it at a different time of day; if you run in the morning, maybe you lift at night. When we are in-season, we will lift before we run because that is when we can get in the weight room
WHERE TO LIFT
If you have weights at home, you can lift there. If you are a member at VASA or another gym, lift there. If neither of these apply to you, you might have to be creative; we aren’t lifting heavy weights, so try to find something to substitute for the actual weights.
WHAT TO LIFT
Like I said, work the lifts in pairs, then move on to the next pair.
When you are first getting started, use light weights. You should start to struggle a little on the 10th or 11th repetition. Do twelve of each movement. Week-by-week, you will begin to add a little more weight. During the season, we will cater the amount we lift to serve the training cycles. For the off-season, just do twelve repetitions. If you are comfortable, you can add in a third set of each lift.
Pair 1 Pair 2 Pair 3 Pair 4
Dumbbell Press Upright Rows Split Squats Hip Raises
Bent-Over Row Lateral Extensions Lunges Donkey Kicks
Dumbbell Press Upright Rows Split Squats Hip Raises
Bent-Over Row Lateral Extensions Lunges Donkey Kicks
These exercises are meant to put a constant strain on your muscles and teach them to function at fatigue. There will be shaking, there will be sweating, but there will be progress! The important thing to keep in mind is to start with reasonable times and build your way up.
Lunges: Take a deep lunge stance, making sure that knees and toes are all pointing forward, the back ankle should not turn out, but remain in line. Shoulders stay above hips. Get in the deep lunge and hold…switch legs.
Wall Sits: With your ankles, knees, and hip joints all at 90 degrees and your back flat against the wall, hold…
Planks: On your forearms and toes, with your body a straight line from head to shoulders to hips to ankles, hold…
Push Ups: In a halfway down push up position, with your elbows out wide, hold…
Hanging Out: Grab onto a pull up bar, dangle like a slab of meat, and hold…
Half-Way Hang: Go halfway up in a pull up and hold…
Start with one minute of hold with a 30 second rest. Try to do each exercise three times and then move on to the next. Build up your time as you get stronger.
You know the drills. There are thousands of ways to strengthen your abs, hips, obliques, lower back, etc. Having a strong core means you will not lose as much energy in your movements, your breathing will be more efficient, you can connect your upper body strength to your lower body strength, your posture and running form will improve, and you will have a better threshold for endurance pain.
I like the Circle of Life. Basically, you and everyone you are with gets into a circle and takes turns choosing what core work you will do next. For ten minutes, you will start with 30 seconds work, 30 seconds rest. As you gain strength, bump it up five seconds every couple of weeks: 35 seconds work, 25 seconds rest. This will always take just ten minutes and by the end of the pre-season, you could be going 55 seconds work and 5 seconds rest! How ripped will your abs be?!?!?
Chapter 3: Food and Nutrition
I’m not going to harp on this subject. Primarily I will say this: replace what your body burned and what it NEEDS, not what your taste buds want.
Sugar is bad in excess.
Caffeine is bad in excess.
All things are bad in excess.
Chapter 4: Recovery
There are too many Under Armor, Nike, and Gatorade commercials telling us that if we want to be good, we will never stop. This is a lie.
Rest is just as important to your body as work. Some runs are designed to be restful. Some days, you absolutely should not run.
Sleep is important. Get your eight hours. Try to keep to some sort of schedule that gets you out of bed before the sun sets and back in bed before it rises. The first few weeks of the season will be harder for you if you don’t have a reasonable schedule.
Stretch! Too many times when you are done with a run, you are just done. Taking the time to stretch after a run helps your muscles flush any toxins that you produced, helps heal muscle strains, and generally allows you time to sit and chill while still ‘working out’ with your friends. Stretching time was always a fun part of practice for me because that is when we just got to hang out.
Ice your muscles if something is sore.
Foam rollers are the best/worst things around. They will help you work out knots and feel much better—after they make you hurt!
Chapter 5: Friends
Running is a lifelong activity. Running is a social event. Sure, running in high-school is aimed at competition, but the friends you make while running can last a lifetime. I’ve been in two of my teammates’ weddings.
When you and someone struggle together and support each other, when you run together so much you know their stride, when you try to outkick each other at the end of a workout, you are building bonds. You know you can trust someone to get through the finish line when you have seen them fight through a hard interval workout on a 95-degree day.
The off-season is a time to build those relationships with the other kids on your team. Knowing that you can rely on someone and they can rely on you is something that is built in the off-season. Accountability, trust, and respect.
Use this time to build up the team so we can all grow together.
In the off-season especially, you do not need to run with people better than you or equal to you or slower than you; you just need to run, and, whoever you run with, you will get better and so will they.