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  • Writer's pictureBlaine Hawkes, DPT

3 Training Principles for Youth Cross Country Runners

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

Cross Country is a wonderful fall sport that many of our kids enjoy. The lessons, friendships, and memories created on high school cross country teams can last a lifetime and empower students to continue a healthy and active lifestyle for decades to come.

Coaches and parents can optimize success and enjoyment of the sport by learning some training principles that will minimize risk of injury and increase athleticism. Many people don’t think of distance running as a high-risk sport, but the prevalence of running injuries among high school distance runners is surprisingly high; around 15% of boys and 20% of girls will miss a practice or competition because of a running injury each season. Common injuries in youth include joint pains in the hips, knees, ankles, shin splints, stress fractures, and back pain.

Adolescents can be more susceptible to these injuries for several reasons: Many are learning to run for the first time. They are likely going through growth spurts and are uncoordinated in their growing bodies. They may listen to peer pressure more than their bodily cues. Runners often begin the season deconditioned and feel pressure to quickly build performance when the fall season begins.

Fortunately, we have acquired a lot of information over the years that can provide cross country coaches with some training guidelines that will significantly decrease the chance of running injuries. Here are a 3 training principles that will help keep your runners healthy:

  1. Increase the difficulty of the workouts Gradually.

Most running injuries are caused by abrupt changes in a running routine. A sudden increase in mileage is the most common cause of injury, but it can also be an abrupt change in terrain - hills are notorious for injuring runners if the runner is only accustomed to flat runs. Abrupt changes in speed account for several running injuries. An abrupt change can also be new footwear the feet aren’t used to. A new pair of shoes requires some easier, shorter runs to break in.

An experienced cross country coach with an eye for injury-prevention will have the foresight to look through the entire season. They will avoid the temptation to push their runners up to speed by the first or second meet. The challenge of each practice will reflect this foresight. A wise coach will gradually increase the difficulty in all aspects of running; distance, speed, and terrain.

A cross country team will ideally have a summer program before the season begins. It doesn’t need to be intense or formal, and could even be a virtual program through fitness apps like Strava once or twice a week, and could include other forms of cross training like swimming or weight training. A simple summer program can make a smoother transition when the formal training season begins. Where summer training is not feasible, coaches should be aware of their athlete’s condition and be cautious not to push too hard too early in the season.

It’s okay for a coach to expect big improvements and hard work from the athletes, but having patience with athlete development is crucial for injury prevention. The human body is extremely adaptable and can be conditioned to do amazing things, but it must be conditioned and stressed at an appropriate progression or injuries will likely occur.

2. Allow adequate Rest and Recovery between runs.

Sufficient recovery time after a challenging practice or meet is one of the best ways to avoid injuries. Cross country practice is generally every weekday, but that doesn’t mean every practice should be intense. A good rule of thumb is to alternate between hard days and easier days, and to plan for an easy day the day before a meet. Repeated high-intensity practices without recovery workouts in between are a recipe for overuse injuries.

A cross country coach should be aware of any athletes simultaneously enrolled in a PE class. The coach and PE teacher should coordinate to make sure runners aren’t getting double-whammied with high-intensity workouts and inadequate recovery.

It is also important to understand that a good recovery isn’t only adequate time, but also adequate sleep and nutrition. Coaches should teach their athletes that a good night’s sleep is crucial for proper recovery and performance. There is growing evidence that correlates lack of sleep with increased rate of sports injuries and poor athletic performance.

3. Integrate Cross-Training into practice routines.

Cross training is a great way to make cross country practice more fun, improve athletic performance, develop well-rounded athletes, and may even help to prevent injuries. Cross training should include alternating forms of exercise to improve strength, flexibility, and coordination. Weight training, pilates, swimming, yoga, or playing ultimate frisbee are just a few ideas. Cross training workouts dovetail nicely between intense running days.

Sometimes cross country coaches simply have their athletes run a race-day distance everyday for practice. While this seems sensible, it increases risk of overuse injuries, and can lead to underdevelopment of other muscle groups and skills. It can also be a bit boring - sometimes teenagers need a mental break from just running.

Communities generally have fitness instructors, athletic trainers, and physical therapists (including us!) who would be delighted to volunteer at a cross country practice for a day or two. Volunteers can offer cross training instruction and give the runners and coaches some ideas to cross train and mix things up a bit.

The important thing to remember is that young cross country runners are developing skills, habits, and fun memories that will serve them for the rest of their life. A great cross country coach can add to the experience and prevent discouraging and painful running injuries by developing the athletes at an appropriate pace with adequate recovery and cross training.

If you do have runners struggling with these injuries, Recover Physical Therapy is best equipped to guide them through a complete recovery. We have all the training tools you would expect in a professional or college training room, including an Alter-G Anti-Gravity Treadmill that allows runners to train at just a portion of their normal body weight, like running on the moon! We also have an aquatic treadmill where you can practice running in the water. Our "Neubie" (Neurological bioelectric stimulation) machine can target and strengthen muscles and improve motor control. These tools not only promote faster healing but actually allow athletes to safely continue training while they are injured, rather than waiting on the sidelines getting weaker. Our therapists have extensive experience working with sports injuries and have personal backgrounds with sports and running.

Best of luck in coaching your upcoming season!

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