Summer Training for Junior High Cross Country Runners, Part II

Play it forward

Kids are naturals for trails and the variation is good for growing bodies. Since younger athletes are focused on the fun aspects of running – kinetic movement that feels good, group play, and exploration of both the world around them and themselves.

I emphasized the feel good above for a reason. I came across an interesting study from the Loyola University Medical Center. The study demonstrated that youth athletes from high income families were 68 percent more likely to develop an overuse injury. The two biggest differentiation points? Focusing on a single athletic activity and less free play.

People do more of what makes them happy when given a chance. If we want the kids to keep running, we need to find ways to make it pleasurable. Summer running at the junior high level should not be about training for the next season. Every run should finish with the same result – a child that wants to go out and do it again.

Stack enough of these repeated play efforts together and you have a young person who, while enjoying the activity, is much fitter than when the summer started, cheerfully so. That’s also a runner that will probably show up in the fall, ready to go.

Will they be faster? It depends – did they grow longer and taller, or put on weight from natural growth, or perhaps even detrain a bit from a previous season?

In the long run, it doesn’t matter. I don’t care how brilliant the kid is as a runner, he or she isn’t going to get a scholarship in running, not at 13. And if their sole purpose is to win every race, they are (almost certainly) going to be disappointed. With a single exception, there is always somebody faster. And that one exception comes with an expiration date. Ask any of the former world record holders. . .

Which leads to the next point . . .  

Ditch the watch

It’s summer. Adults may need to function on tight time schedules. It keeps the boss happy and food on the table. Kids don’t have bosses. They have friends, coaches, parents. None of those are bosses.

Telling a young runner that “it’s 7 a.m.  – time to get up and run 6 miles at tempo pace and no slacking” is a great way to make a young runner think “Yeah? Make me!” You might get results for a while but eventually they’ll decide they just don’t wanna – and just how are you going to make them?

Instead, have them jump in with a group of other kids – mix in some of the coaches and any other parents that would like to go for a morning meander. Some of the kids will rip off into the distance. That’s okay, as long as it’s their choice. Others will literally meander. They’ll stop, start, sniff a few roses. That’s okay, too.

I used to run with one of my daughters on the trails in and around San Diego. One of our favorite trails was the Rose Creek trail. It was relatively flat and not too long but there were a dozen little side trails. She’d be running next to me, all 4’8” of her, and she’d look over and see an unfamiliar path.

“What’s this way?” she’d asked and bolt off. At one point or another, we hit every one of those side trails. And had a blast doing it.

Speaking of which . . .

Encourage the kids to get out on trails, gravel roads, grass, anything but pavement.

Pavement is boring, boring, boring. Worse, it’s hard on the developing joints. American athletes spend entirely too much time on pavement.

Trails encourage you to run differently, using different little stabilizer muscles for the varied terrain. It also forces you to move forward toward your toes and to flex a bit more in the knees. And since the footing is a lot more uneven, balance improves as the neuromuscular system learns how to manage the trail. All that balance requires a strong core – which, unsurprisingly, builds in response to the new stresses. Running Times has a great article on all the good things that happen to bodies on trails.

For me, the biggest advantage of trails is playing, bombing down a really runnable hill or testing myself powering up a short, sharp incline. I’ve been known to get distracted by elk, moose, deer, bears, or just a pretty bunch of flowers.

We’re natural animals and getting back into that environment does good things for the inside of our heads. Deena Kastor had a good point about that a couple of months ago that I talked about in a blog post.

Finally, what if they don’t want to run?

You just might have to accept it. Acknowledge it and try to find out why. Maybe they’re going to try out a different sport like football for the boys or volleyball for the girls. Take a deep breath and encourage them to stay active. Yes, they may be wonderfully talented runners but this is a time for exploration, not just of the world on trails or how their bodies react to the sport of running. Give them the freedom to explore other interests.

There’s a good chance they’ll be back but you can’t force them. What you can do is offer an environment that welcomes them into a larger community, one that understands that the journey – the adventure, for this age group – is far more important than the destination.