I’m excited to see this series grow this fall as my assumption is that it will be quite cross country specific. Please feel free to email me question at firstname.lastname@example.org
This is a long question with three parts so I’m going to respond to each part individually.
Going back a few months to when you were posting on Sara Vaughn’s training, I was wondering how specific her weight training was to her as an athlete. The school I coach at has a great weight room, and a math teacher who is basically a strength training/athletic development guru, and weight training has been an area of emphasis over the three (this will be my fourth) season that I’ve been involved with the team. Despite the wealth of resources, I’d say we only have about 10-20 girls who really buy into the program. Now, I realize in some programs that would be near 100% involvement; we are lucky enough, however, that 20 girls is only about 25% turnout. Even discounting the girls that are only out for XC for the social/fitness aspects, its still a less than sterling participation. Several factors, of course, are at play: there’s a percentage that retain the knee-jerk, lifting-is-for-football-players reaction. There’s also some girls, freshmen/late-bloomers, whom sending into the weight room is probably just setting up for failure. Obviously, general strength work, is part of the solution. We’ve always done core work, but in a somewhat random manner (8-10 minutes of 30 sec exercises lead by captains). Starting with track season, we started refining the focus of our core/GS work with “new core” which is heavily indebted to you and Mike Smith and have continued our refinement over the summer. So, I guess what this whole paragraph boils down to is, Sara’s lifting, is one example of a one lift day/lots of GS work program. How applicable is her routine to the general population (This is also a question for our ST/AD guru)? I suppose the balance between the two aspects (lifting/GS) will be something I will continued to tinker with as long as I coach, but just wondering what your two cents were.
I think the weight room has a place in HS girls distance running… but I say that partly because the weight room is the room in the school that has “stuff” that will help girls. There is a primary research study (maybe Alan has it) that shows that simple weight baring exercises like a squat dramatically decrease the incident of stress fractures in girls. Is that a reason to have the whole team squat? No. But a progression of body weight work that leads to some squats in the weight room over a 3-4 year HS career is not only realistic but one could argues is the ethical thing to do for these girls. I can’t tell you how many girls I see at camp each summer who are badly in need of this type of progression. These are good HS runners and while they have done a nice job developing their aerobic metabolism, most will fail to run well in college because of injuries that will come as an extension of being bad athletes. Or, as my buddy Mike Smith likes to say, these kids are “lungs with legs” rather than athletes who run well.
Now, the cool thing about your question is that you know the problem and the problem is some combo of the strength coaching being good (intimidating? if he’s good then he likely intimidates skinny HS XC girls) and the fact that the room is intense. Socially the room doesn’t make sense and that makes a hard sell (i.e. non-running work for runners) an even harder sell.
I think you need to write a plan for the “ideal HS career” for a girl in your program. Not a girl who will win state, but a girl who would have a blast over 3-4 years and who would continue to run faster each year. The progression starts with body weight GS work, then moves to work on the track with med balls or shots and the ends in the weight room. If you think of those as three distinct phases then the chance that they’ll be bought in by the third part is pretty high.
That said, if I was was you I’d challenge myself to get out of the room the entire academic year and just do GS work that does not involve the room and work towards 100% buy in. Vern Gambetta is always talking about the “weight room without walls” and while it’s obviously easier for him to get the stimulus he wants outside of the room, the level of athlete you working with will make this less challenging than if you had U. Bolt on an track in Jamaica.
So, you see why I might have felt a little long-winded for the comments section. In fact, as I wrote the above, another question/comment has percolated to the top of my head: I’ve enjoyed your various GS progression and experimented with my own but with official practice starting we will soon have another 40-50 girls who didn’t do the “progression” over the summer. Having 80 kids on the team leads to a wide ability range (sub-15 to almost 25+ for a 4k) and core/GS is one of the things everybody can do together. There’s always a disparity in abilities every year, but this year I think it might be more pronounced thanks to the more challenging routines we have been doing (some kids have been using the LM, LL as a warmup for 6 weeks now, some girls will have never done it). So do we sacrifice team unity with two progressions or do we have everybody start back at square one (which in the end might not be the worst idea in the world since the start of the school year will be an added stressor for everyone).
Wow, if you have waded through all of that thanks! My final question will be brief (at least I’ll try to keep it that way). I was browsing through Vern Gambetta’s blog and came across the following statement:
Various permutations of from running including high knee skips, high knee running and pawing are predicated on having time in the air to recover the leg through in the step cycle … If you are using these types of drills for anyone besides a sprinter, jumper or hurdler in track and field you are probably wasting your time.
I know you few such drills as perhaps not so much benefiting form necessarily, but as specific strength–and range of motion?–exercises. Do you also incorporate any speed ladders etc in your athletes training? Of course, this leads to the conundrum of getting kids to believe they efficacy (the drills, not the kids) for athletes besides football players.
Anyway, thanks again if you read all of that (along with all the great work you do on the blog). The act of just writing that helped to focus me a bit, so at the very least, thanks for galvanizing me to if not action at least thought.
In regards to separating the team, I think you can simply switch the order of things that I recommend. You could have everyone show up to practice and go right into the skipping exercises, then have everyone start the LM and LL, knowing that the girls who’ve done it this summer will fly through it. Going through the LM twice is a realistic amount of work for your best girls and the LM, then LL then back for a set of the LM makes a lot of sense.
In regards to sprint drills, I believe in doing some, but mostly because it is a way to improve strength in a sport specific manner and it’s a way to incorporate some general athleticism into practice, reminding the distance runner’s body that it should also coordinated and athletic. That said, you only have so many minutes for practice and if you need to cut something out then drills may need to go since you’re keeping the LM/LL, the metabolic training (i.e. the running workout) and the post workout GS. However, if you have 90 minutes each day you can get a lot done; if you have 90 minutes each day and then 105 minutes twice a week you can do just about anything. Final thought on this point, the Aerobic Work Warm-Up is obviously less intense than the the sprint drills in Sara’s competition warm-up yet for most cross country workouts the Aerobic Work WU is a great way to sneak in some extra work, yet it something a lot of kids can do at once. If you have a big field that will fit 80 kids, then great. If you just have a track then you could put two groups on each straight away and probably fit a group on each curve, accommodating 80 kids.
I’m sure the readership will have some thoughts on this, so let me close by saying thanks Thos for your thoughtful and detailed question.