Running is a perfectly natural act that most children engage in. Cross country is an extension of that but - and it's a critically important but - cross country training is not a natural activity. Keep that in mind as we take a look at your junior high school runner and a summer training program.
The first thing to note is that junior high school athletes are not adult athletes.
Their bodies are still growing and developing. As adults, we tend to think of the 13 year old runner as a small, lithe version of ourselves. They are not.
While in the middle of growth spurts where bone length increases, the joints temporarily weaken. The connective tissue and the muscle react to the change in bone length to adapt but they are behind the growth cycle. It's during this period that many young athletes suffer joint injuries.
It's not just the joints that are weak. The growth plates in young runners are very susceptible to stress fractures until they ossify, or harden. The repetitive nature of running, especially when extended far past normal activity levels, enhances the risk of injury.
A longitudinal study of high school runners - not even the less physically mature junior high runner - performed by Dr., Michael Rauh, demonstrated that girls suffered injuries at a rate of nearly 17 injuries per thousand athletic events (AE refers to practices and meets, so a typical 6-8 week season included 36-48 possible events) while boys suffered about eleven. A clear finding from Ruah's study is that girls are at a much higher risk of injury, in large part due to the physiological changes that take place at the hips, increasing the stress on the knees and ankles.
Kids run because it's fun . . .
Adults run for a variety of reasons - competition, weight-loss, relieve stress, pride, the runner's high - but kids run for a single reason. It's fun.
Kids don't train in the same manner that a professional marathoner does. Not only will the body not withstand the stresses for the majority of athletes, their ability to enjoy the activity will degrade.
The single most important goal of any training program must take the play aspect into account. Too often, a parent or coach, seeing an athlete with a high level of prowess, will ramp up the training regimen in an attempt to accelerate the development of the athlete and unintentionally turn running into work.
Kids run too hard, trying to be good too fast
As a parent or coach, we need to be aware that the kids are often the worst judges of their current ability. Many underestimate what they can accomplish and our goal should be to patiently help them test those boundaries.
Some young athletes will overestimate their ability or be too focused on the competition aspect of running. Runners in this camp will need to have someone there to dial them back without hurting the enthusiasm they have and, when they take on too much, show them what they did correctly.
The second part of that equation is getting them to understand that it takes 6-10 years to start reaching their potential. Going slower, building progressively, and understanding that they are a unique individual that will respond to training differently than their peers - high intensity may work better for some runners, high volume for others - will yield better, long-lasting competitive results.
For runners who don't want to compete forever, it will keep it fun and injury-free. That's a winning situation for everybody.
This post is already longer than I anticipated so I'm breaking it down into a couple parts. Friday, we'll move past the cautionary section and take a look at what we, as parents or coaches, can do.