COACHING TO MAXIMIZE INDIVIDUAL GAINS.
As a former cross country runner, now a coach, I believe in the statement, “Cross country champions are made in the summer.” But what exactly does that mean? Is summer preparation just about the 500-, 750- or 1,000-mile club? I think not.
In working with high school runners, I need to assess several factors that will inform the type of summer preparation that is ideal for each specific runner.
The high injury rate in running is especially frustrating at the high school level, where many get their start in the sport. Given this, my first priority is to identify the durability of the athlete. If she’s a returning runner, I find out if she gets hurt often and if so, where? There aren’t that many different running injuries, and we now know the root cause for most.
For oft-injured runners, I suggest their summer be more about prehab than about running. It’s not uncommon for me to prescribe more days of therapy (drills, exercises, mobility, flexibility, etc.) than running. If I can make a runner more durable during the summer, she won’t get hurt in the fall, and if she doesn’t get hurt, she’ll run better than if we tried to run more in the summer and risked injury. All runners should have a prehab routine, but for runners with durability issues, it takes on a higher level of importance, especially in the summer.
2. BASIC RUNNING FITNESS LEVEL
If the runner is durable, then I evaluate his basic running fitness. Assuming he ran track or has a naturally high running fitness level, then I build a traditional program that gradually yet progressively builds his running fitness over the summer. This can be a 500-, 750- or 1,000-mile club or can be about building the total time running across the summer months. The idea is simply that the runner gets out the door frequently. I sprinkle in some fun workouts just to add variety, usually in the form of hill repeats, fartlek runs, fast-finish runs or fun team-building workouts.
When a runner starts out with a low fitness level, the same ideas apply, except that the progression is much slower. It’s decidely better to have a young runner undertrained but healthy than to push the training and risk injury.
3. RUNNER TYPE: SPEEDSTER OR ENDURANCE MONSTER
If the runner is in his third or fourth year of cross country, the summer can include more specialized training: aerobic threshold runs and leg-speed workouts.
Aerobic threshold — sometimes called steady state runs, rhythm runs or maximum-aerobic runs (Arthur Lydiard’s term) — last 15–60 minutes at a pace that is somewhere between an easy run and a tempo run. Note how this is different than the anaerobic threshold or lactate threshold. It’s often described as “easy medium,” where the athlete doesn’t get out of breath but is running slightly faster than easy run pace. One caution: High school runners usually turn these into tempo runs, so the coach must control these workouts at first until the athletes learn steady state pace.
The runner-type assessment determines how this run is performed: If the runner is more of a speedster, then the weekly aerobic threshold run is usually broken into intervals, such as 5 × 4 minutes with a 1-minute jog in between. If he’s more of an endurance monster, then the aerobic threshold runs are continuous. Both types of runners should do a weekly leg-speed session, along with drills and prehab exercises.
4. RUNNING AGE
Regardless of chronological age, newbies need to be treated differently. New cross country runners usually fall into two categories:
- Never participated in sports and/or lack natural athletic talent
- Participated in other sports and/or have natural athletic talent
The coach can usually pick the first type out quickly by watching beginners run a few times, and they should be trained like low-durability athletes. It is important to spend a lot of time building them into athletes first, so they can then become runners. For those who have some sports background or show natural athletic talent, they can fall in with group No. 2 and simply put in the miles over the summer, along with some fun workouts. Take special care of new runners so they don’t fall into the usual trap of finding their passion with the sport and the team, then getting stuck on the sidelines with an injury.
Be aware that working with a properly prepared cross country runner requires more care than overseeing someone who joins the team at the start of the school year. For the latter, the typical cross country season of “racing into shape” will probably be OK. But an athlete who has done things correctly in the summer will peak quickly after you begin race-specific training. Avoid race-specific training until four to six weeks before your championship race. Spend your early season building more strength with hill repeats, lactate threshold workouts and leg-speed workouts. These runners will be able to race well in the early season just off the summer training, so don’t feel rushed, even if they are. Bide your time and save the best for last — the championship season.