As a youth running coach, one of the questions I get the most from my athletes and parents is “What can I be doing outside of practice?” Coaches can run the gamut of completely accepting of miles and workouts outside of practice to prohibiting any unsupervised stretching.
Every coach and every athlete wants to make it to the state meet with a full team of happy, healthy, uninjured athletes. The number one thing you want to focus on is preserving yourself for performance when it matters most. You don’t want to do anything that will compromise races or key workouts, or push you over the edge to injury or burnout.
With that in mind, there are still numerous ways to improve your season outside of working harder in practice. They all have one thing in common—long-term scope, making you a more robust athlete for late-season payoffs.
1) Be Consistent with Your Long Run
Working with youth cross country runners, the biggest area athletes see improvement in their fitness is not in adding a second or third workout in their week. It’s adding a regular, slower long run.
While long runs are a cornerstone of off-season foundational training, this staple of your week shouldn’t be thrown out in season. The long run helps maintain your base and ultimately keeps your fitness intact for longer. Throwing in workout after workout and your peak will be too early in the season. Adding in a 60-minute long run on Sunday will allow you to perform your best at the state meet.
Those lucky athletes looking to run beyond High School often seek out post season races like Nike Cross and Foot Locker Regionals to get in one more race or set a late-season PR. Maintaining long runs will allow you to take a short break and extend your fitness into the post-season.
If your program isn’t currently doing a regular long run, add a low intensity—easy, aerobic, and conversational—run to your weekend. Talk to your coach about it and assure him that it will be easy miles and you’ll be ready to hit it hard come Monday. Start by just adding an additional easy day of running, and build up by 5-8 minutes (or about a mile) per week until you’re running 15–20% of your weekly mileage during that run. If you’re running 35–40 miles per week with your program your long run could be as long as 7–8 miles.
If your meets are on Friday or Saturday, adding this run in the day after a race will require motivation, and proper recovery is important. Make sure you keep this run easy and aerobic in nature—speed is not important, in fact, it will defeat the purpose here, as recovery and aerobic running go hand in hand.
2) Recover As Aggressively as You Run
While it is possible to recover from your most recent race with a few low-intensity running days and your normal routine, it’s important to recover from your hardest days as aggressively as you ran. Simply stated, if you can’t recover from the work you put in, you can’t expect to see results from the work.
Recovery starts with the cool down. As a coach, I get the biggest grumbles from athletes about cooling down and running more after they are done with a race or workout. I try to help athletes understand that flushing your legs will actually relieve soreness in the days following the race or workout and set yourself up to run better the next time you lace up. We know how tired you are but your body will thank you two days down the road.
Second, make sure that you’re putting in quality calories after a hard effort or race—this should not be gas-station quality food. Chocolate milk is great for quick recovery directly following an effort, but do your best to get a full, well-balanced meal in within 90 minutes.
Lastly, don’t ignore sleep. It’s always the first thing people push out of their schedule when they get tight on time, yet it is the most important part of your training. Sleep is when your body builds the strength your workouts told it you needed. Elite runners often report getting up to 14 hours of sleep a day.
Homework, friends, social activities can all push your bed time deeper and deeper into the wee hours of the night. Compound hard workouts, too little sleep, and a stressful school load and you have the perfect recipe for burnout and injury. Protect your sleep time and prioritize your schedule—this habit will serve you as a student athletes as you venture forward to college and beyond.
3) Build Supportive Strength + Mobility
If there was one room in the entire high school that runners fear more than the principals office it’s the weight room. Not because they’re weak—it’s because it’s foreign. Progressive running programs across the US are finding that the hours spent in a weight room lead to minutes off their athletes PR’s. They are also finding that also are less injured and have better body awareness.
If your program doesn’t include weight work, talk to your coach about your wish to add some and what you’ll be doing. Have you coach help you schedule the sessions so they don’t leave you sore and tired on days you want to be going fast. Many programs do strength work after hard days, to fully preserve easy days for recovery.
Dr. Jesse Riley of Total Health Solutions in Golden, CO says that most athletes struggle with hip and lower leg injuries. He recommends athletes focus their time and energy on these 5 movements:
- Jump Rope: Work up to 3–4 continuous minutes—great for loading the lower leg with a gentle plyometric-type hop movement.
- Hip Thruster on Bench: 3 sets of 8 with a moderate weight is appropriate for mid-season—builds glute strength and hip mobility.
- Single Leg Box Drop: 3 sets of 8 each side—improves landing stability and reduces ground contact time
- Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat: 3 sets of 8 each side with light weight—works the entire chain of running muscles.
- Trap Bar Deadlift: 3 sets of 8 with a moderate weight will provide resistance without too much fatigue—builds overall strength, core stability and balance.
Another great set of exercises that works key running stability muscles in the hips are these “Super Six” that require only a platform to step up onto.
Integrating these movements 2–3x week as a part of your routine is a great way to stay in touch with your body as well as increase your durability for the duration of the season. Stick with a few basic exercises and do them regularly.
Besides strength, adding in basic stretches is a great way to avoid feeling stiff and achy for days after a workout or race, and ensure that you can use the full range of your stride. Many top-level coaches recommend doing a set of AI stretches, popularized by Jim and Phil Wharton, in which you hold the stretch for less than 2 seconds and do in sets, improving mobility without weakening the muscle.
If you only make time for a few stretches, focus on your hips. Given all the sitting we all do in a day, runners need to pay particular attention to the flexibility of their hip flexors, which sitting makes short and tight. Here are three stretches you can do daily that will improve your stride length (ability to reach out behind you farther) and power (engage your big glute muscles).
Wharton AI Quad/Hip Flexor Stretch
Lie on your side with your knees curled up against your chest (in a fetal position). Slide your bottom arm under the thigh of your bottom leg and place your hand around the outside of your foot. If you can’t reach the whole way, you can grasp your knee, or use a looped rope or strap.
Reach down with your upper hand and grasp the shin or ankle of your upper leg. Contract your hamstring and glute max to move the upper leg back as far as you can, using your hand to give a gentle assist at the end of the stretch. Make sure your hips stay stacked on top of each other and don’t “fall open” with your knee creeping up into the air so you are stretching the inside of the groin rather than the front of the hip. Think about pushing the top hip forward while you keep your upper leg low and behind you as you draw it back.
Pulling the back foot closer to the butt will increase the stretch on the quadricep. Relaxing the bend of the knee and pulling the upper leg and knee farther back will focus the stretch on the hip flexor. Work both as you repeat the stretch 10–15 times.
Chair, Couch or Wall Hip Flexor Stretch
Get into the stretch by first, on hands and knees, backing up to the chair, couch or wall untilyou’re your back lower leg (pointing upward) is touching the support and knee is on the ground. Bring the other leg forward so that the knee is over the foot and you are in a kneeling lunge pose.
Contracting the glute on the leg propped behind you, drive the front of the hip forward and downward. Hold for 60 seconds or more. Enhance the stretch by lifting your torso while keeping your glute engaged and the line from knee to shoulder straight and tall.
This stretch works lower and upper body at the same time, opening the whole front-of-body chain from hips to shoulders.
Start lying comfortably on your right side with your hips and shoulders stacked on top of each other. Bend your left leg and bring it toward your chest a little past 90 degrees and firmly grip it with your right hand.
Drive your right (bottom) knee down and back, then reach down with your left hand and grab that ankle. If it’s too difficult to grab the ankle, use a towel or strap to hold and pull the leg backwards.
Relax and inhale then, while exhaling slowly, rotate your top shoulder back and down toward the ground. Repeat for five to 10 breaths, rotating lower each time until your top shoulder reaches the ground (or as far as your range of motion allows).
Back off your shoulder rotation slightly and try kicking your bottom leg away from your handhold, moving your knee backwards and increasing the stretch. Relax your shoulder back down with two to three more breaths, then hold in that position for one to three minutes.
Release your hands, roll to the left side and repeat the full sequence.
An Educated, Motivated Team
At the end of the day, your coach wants to see you succeed and should encourage you to do work outside of practice that will help move you in that direction. Your coach will not have the answer to every question—the best athlete is one who is educated and motivated to improve. The worst is a stubborn or lazy know-it-all who is unwilling to put in the extra effort to see their success. If you’re invested in season-long success, find time to talk with your coach and see what more you can be doing to improve.