“SHOULD SPRINTERS RUN CROSS COUNTRY?”
The question is often asked, “Should sprinters run cross country?” You will hear some power/speed gurus quickly say unequivocally “NO!” because it will have a negative effect on an athletes speed qualities. I think the question requires some deeper investigation.
ANTI EARLY SPECIALIZATION
I am happy to see that the public awareness against early specialization is gaining momentum. I firmly believe in well-rounded athletic experiences for children and adolescents. I am opposed to the ten year old that is on two travel baseball teams and visits a private hitting instructor in the off season to the exclusion of all other sports and the fun of socialization and discovery that comes with participation in a variety of team and individual sports.
Children should learn hand-eye coordination. They should learn to throw things, and change speeds and directions. They should run short and run long, climb up and fall down. They should laugh and play. They should get tired. They should learn to work with teammates. They should taste victory and defeat. They should solve problems and disputes. They should do all of these things in a variety of formal and informal settings. All of these experiences will help in “building a better athlete” that will be beneficial to appropriate specialization beyond the high school years.
All of this is to say that a “sprint type” athlete participating in the sport of cross country will not be detrimental to their long term development if some simple modifications can be made.
WHAT ELSE WILL YOU DO IN THE FALL SEASON?
There may not be a need for a sprinter to “run cross country” if they are involved in other fall sports such as football, soccer or field hockey. These sports they will provide a combination of speed, coordination and endurance training that will serve as general preparation for the eventual indoor or outdoor track season. There may also not be a need to “run cross country” if the athlete is involved in a “track club” outside of school that has a fall training program that is more geared toward general preparation of “sprint type” athletes.
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If the athlete is not doing another sport, or training with an outside track club in the fall, then the last thing you want them doing is eating chips, drinking soda, playing video games and sitting on the couch. “Running cross country” is surely a better alternative than this.
DEFINE CROSS COUNTRY
You may have a hard time finding “sprint type” athletes to voluntarily partake in 10 mile long runs, or 5 mile daily runs, or mile repeats. That is training for the distance specialist. However, also included in good distance training programs are elements that are shared with good sprint programs such as general strength, coordination and speed. Good distance training programs involve circuit training for strength. Good distance training programs involve drills and short sprints for coordination and speed. Therefore, with some simple modifications of methods and volumes of the endurance component, “cross country training” can be appropriate for the “sprint type” athlete.
Remember that a cross country season is months removed from the indoor or outdoor track seasons, and therefore would fall in the general preparation phase for a “sprint type” athlete. Remember also, that “sprint type” athletes may not likely be contributing inside of a scoring “varsity 7” for a legitimate cross country team. All of this is to say, that the daily long continuous endurance runs that are necessary for the distance specialist are not necessary for the “sprint type” athlete during cross country practice.
Here are some sample modifications that would be beneficial for a “sprint type” athlete participating in the cross country season. This is a 4-day cycle that can be repeated with off days coming at any point.
Day 1: Begin with a well-designed specific warm up that includes all of the elements of mobility, coordination, endurance, strength and speed. Mark a course away from the track that is at least 200 meters in length but as long as is practical. This course could even include rolling hills if available. Make sure to mark every 200 meter segment so the athletes can eventually learn to time themselves during a session. The main session could be 200m repeats at theoretical 2-mile pace with 200m jog recovery. Start with 6 and build to 15 repeats. Another option would be 400m repeats at theoretical 5k pace with a 400m jog recovery. Start with as few as 3 and build up to 10 repeats. Notice that the repeat is followed by a jogging recovery, so the workout is continuous running. Recognize that the largest volumes of 15 times 200 with a 200 jog equals 3.75 miles of continuous running, and 10 times 400 with 400 jog equals 5 miles of continuous running. Also note that the paces of theoretical 2-mile and 5k are the equivalent of extensive tempo in the sprint literature.
Day 2: Specific Warm Up. Design Extensive Circuit training involving general strength, mobility, and coordination activities. There could be running included between exercises or sets. Use bodyweight, use med balls, use pull up bars or other apparatus. The possible variations are endless and limited only by your environment and creativity.
Day 3: Specific Warm Up. Use jump rope activities for coordination and elastic strength development. Use short sprints of 30-60m for speed technique and speed development. Use a variety of surfaces. Spikes are certainly not required until later in the progression. Use multiple throws with med balls of varying weights for coordination and power enhancement.
Day 4: 5k Cross Country run/race or Continuous Tempo Run. For the “sprint type” athlete, the race can also be the “long run.” Perhaps the “sprint type” athletes do not run in every single race on the schedule. Perhaps they run in Junior Varsity sections when available. If there are no races on the schedule in a particular cycle, then consider running at theoretical half-marathon pace or marathon pace by starting at 10-minutes of continuous, evenly-paced running. Then gradually and patiently extend out towards 30-minutes if aptitude allows.
Having your “sprint type” athletes in general endurance, general strength, and basic speed activities in the fall is completely appropriate for their development as sprinters. It is certainly more beneficial than not being involved in any organized athletic activities in that time period.
Young athletes may see themselves as, or been classified by other coaches as “sprint types.” Exposure to this kind of fall training may have them blossom into a higher caliber middle distance athlete. It would not be unreasonable to see a high school freshman develop over the years into a legitimate contributor in the cross country scoring “Varsity 7.” These athletic success stories may have been missed if not for being exposed to well-rounded athletic development.
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These modifications can also filter over to the distance specialist. Having members of the cross country team work some of these modifications into their daily endurance training can ensure they are not neglecting the required characteristics of athleticism that may be missed by only prescribing distance runs and strides.
If you have a mature, national caliber sprint athlete, then I would agree that a more specific fall program would be beneficial. These “freaks” are few and far between and they are often engaging in other sports or a track club in the fall. For the overwhelming majority of the population of “sprint type” athletes, cross country participation with modifications will have benefits that far out weighing any potential negative consequences.
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Ron Grigg is director of track and field at Jacksonville University in Jacksonville, FL.