Earlier this week I received the following question:
I am a high school coach for the girls’ cross country team in Vermont. I have a handful of girls who run XC, indoor, and now outdoor. I do not coach indoor or outdoor but try to get to some of their meets. They are looking tired. I am working on their summer plans and was hoping you could add some insight on how much ‘time off’ I should give them. Complete rest/no running vs. easy running.
A couple days later the father of a young man who has run 4:28 as a sophomore asked essentially the same question when he inquired, “How much time should a HS runner take off after spring track before starting base mileage buildup for fall cross country?”
So what should athletes do between the end of their track season and the beginning of their summer training for cross country? My simple answer is: a) they need to get enough mental rest to be able to train well through the END of their cross country season and b) they need to get enough physical recovery to feel fresh when they resume training. But as with many things in running, getting to this simple two-part outcome will be different for each athlete based on their temperament, the amount of fatigue they had at the end the season, and if they’re ending the season with an injury that needs time to heal.
Let’s start with injuries. Many athletes are ending their high school outdoor campaign with a “little niggle” here or there; some athletes finish the state meet with an injury that is more severe, though they were able to compete. It should be obvious that now is the time to rest completely — no running and no cross training — for a couple of weeks. Young bodies heal quickly if you give them the time and the space. Obviously a medical professional should be consulted regarding the specifics of the recovery process, but the point I’m trying to make is that this is the best time of year to have an injury because the athlete was going to take some amount of time off anyway. Every state has many months between their outdoor track championship and their cross country championship, so there is no need to rush the recovery process if an athlete is injured.
Assuming the athlete is 100% healthy, the issues are their psychological recovery and physiological need for a break. I believe that the athlete’s unique psychology should be paid attention to here — you want the athletes to have a long enough break from running to get bored without it. I’ll repeat: you want them to get bored. You want the first day (first week, first month) of summer training to be an experience where they show up fired up, ready to train and ready to learn. Remember, high school athletes are tired at the end of the year, from running, obviously, but also from social events like prom and/or academic obligations like AP exams. Let ‘em rest. Let ‘em get bored. We’re not talking about a lazy cohort here, but rather motivated, bright young people who have just finished an academic year and need a respite before they go back to training seriously.
One potential problem is that high school runners are most likely physiologically ready before they’re psychologically ready. Many programs have great success in the summer in terms of the number of days the team meets and the number of miles run, yet the athletes don’t run to their potential at the end of the cross country season. I think coaches often have a good feel for when the kids are physiologically ready to train, but aren’t in touch with how many weeks the kids have in them psychologically. Of course, the program that trains six days a week in the summer with two workouts and a long run is usually pushing much harder than the program that meets five days a week and slowly builds to a workout or two a week by the end of the summer. Assuming a serious program isn’t pushing too hard in the summer, the issue still remains: will the athletes have enough mental energy to train seriously throughout the fall, when they’ll have the pressures of academics, and still run their best at the end of the cross country season? This is more art than science and to me the best coaches in the country have figured out how to get the most out of the summer training WITHOUT asking too much of the athletes. These programs gain fitness in the summer, but they still have fitness to gain come fall. More importantly, they’re hungry to race when it comes time to take off the summer training t-shirts and put on the race singlet.
Although every coach would like to be able to take into consideration every athlete’s personal differences, everyone still has to start training their team again. My suggestion would be to shoot for the 80/20 ratio; choose a date where 80% of the athletes will be psychologically ready to train, while the other 20% could probably use a few more days off. It’s not going to kill the 20% to start a couple days before they’re “perfectly ready,” and the fact that they get to be around their friends in the context of practice should make the transition back to training easier. Plus, that 80% is going to be psyched to be at practice and that energy and enthusiasm will rub off on the 20%. Bottom line: The coach has to make a choice when to start practice. The coach needs to wait long enough so that the majority of kids are mentally ready to resume, while keeping in mind that some kids made the state meet and some were done two or three weeks earlier. Perhaps staggering the start of training would work well. I don’t have the ‘final’ answer and I look forward to some comments from high school coaches on this matter.
I think you deserve at least some guidelines, though. I’m going to do these as bullet points:
– Active rest is what my college track coach would assign, and this simply meant doing something active, but not running. Tennis, hiking, biking, swimming, etc. Any physical activity. Cross training isn’t what you’re looking for. You have all summer to build the aerobic engine. Remember, you want them to get bored and you change that paradigm of boredom when they’re on the elliptical or in the pool swimming laps.
– For a young athlete, I generally recommend a week of nothing, followed by two weeks of active rest. They don’t have to do anything in that first week, then they take a playful attitude with their recovery in the active rest weeks. Have fun and simply do something physical each day.
– For an older athlete, say a junior who has aspirations of running in college and who just PR’ed at the state track meet, the guidelines are a bit different. I’d have them jog easy for three to four days after the state meet, and then I’d have them take three to seven days off completely. The jogging is to make sure that the excitement of the meet didn’t mask any injury; you want to know if they’re healthy or injured, as this will affect their time off. 90% of athletes will be fine; this is just me being cautious with injuries, but I don’t like the idea that the last step you run is your cool down after the state meet. Go run easy a couple of days after the state meet. Then the active recovery is time is still the same — two weeks. Again, they should have fun and they should not have the mentality that they’re cross training. I don’t think they should start General Strength and Mobility (GSM) now either, though they should do that when they resume training.
In the June issue of Running Times, I had the honor of writing an article called The Jump which details how HS athletes can make a jump in their fitness over the summer months. I’ll share the link to the full article once it become available online. One of the four elements I discuss in that article is General Strength and Mobility (GSM), and it’s something that both athletes and coaches need to be ready to do on day one when the summer training resumes. If you’re looking for a progression of exercises, all you have to do is follow this progression that I wrote for Running Times. The routines are simple, though they are not easy…just as running is simple, but not easy (“Simple ain’t Easy” — Thelonious Monk).
Okay, that’s it for now. As always I look forward to the comments of the readership. I’m not a high school coach and I’m curious to learn how HS coaches deal with the conundrum of training hard in the summer while “leaving enough in the tank” for the important cross country races at the end of the year.