Preparing for High School Varsity Cross Country

Rebuilding after an iliotibial band injury during his high school 2012 outdoor track season, my son was determined to qualify for the high school varsity cross country team as an incoming junior in the fall of 2012. We both agreed that it would be a tall challenge because his team is a perennial powerhouse in the state and last year placed 4th in the New England High School Championship. He was excited to embark on a summer of building his base mileage and preparing for team workouts in early fall. I challenged him to think about what it would require to run varsity, and we started a conversation about setting goals, making a plan, committing to follow (and, if necessary, modify) the plan, measuring progress and analyzing what works and what doesn’t.

To fast forward to the end of the summer, my son set new PRs at the 5K and 3200m distances in late August and early September, notwithstanding that the cross country season had not started and he was not ready to run his best times of the season. At a late August 5K road race, he ran 18:38 (6:00 mile pace) and lowered his 5K PR by 6 seconds from a 5K track race in early May. And in the first week of September, he lowered his 3200m PR (converted from 3000m) by 3 seconds to 11:14 (5:37 mile pace). Now you might ask, what’s the big deal? These are small improvements! Yes, but in years past, my son (and many high school runners) regressed over the summer and did not set PRs before the cross country season started. PRs are generally achieved in the second half of the season, when runners have a few meets under their belts and start to peak for county and state championships. Equally important is that my son had trained without injury, and was physically and mentally fresh (and not tired or burnt out after a summer of high mileage training).

Now you point out that PRs were not the goal, that qualifying for the varsity team was the overarching goal. You are correct. Well, how did my son do? His high school team organized a 5K time trial on their new home course, and my son ran in 6th position (top 7 qualified for varsity) until the last 800m, when he faded to unfortunate 8th place, and failed to make the varsity team outright. In retrospect, he applied too much pressure and probably tightened up towards the end of the time trial. His coach told him that final varsity team composition would be made in mid-September, when the team participates in varsity and junior varsity races in a cross country invitational. If my son runs a faster time than the 7th runner on the varsity team, he will move up. I told him that he is fit and put in the work to achieve his goal, and that he should relax and run his race and he should do well. Stay tuned.

So here’s how we approached his summer program when we talked in June.

We agreed to set goals, write them down, and visualize them:

  • Improve 5K PR from 18:44 to 17:03 (5:30 mile pace)
  • Run 5 minute track mile
  • Improve Vdot (Jack Daniel’s measure of fitness) from 56 to 60
  • Improve strength and flexibility
  • Run 700 miles without injury
  • Become mentally stronger

To achieve these goals, the program must be holistic and include:

  • Strides after medium and long runs to work on form and develop a finish kick
  • Hills as part of medium and long runs to work on form and strength
  • Strength and core exercises to improve form, strength and aid in injury prevention
  • Stretching to improve flexibility and aid in injury prevention
  • Focus on recovery (including sleep) to help the body and mind recover from hard workouts
  • Focus on nutrition and hydration to support workout program

We designed the program with a hard/easy approach both at the weekly as well as the summer program level (please see chart below). Each week included alternating 2 hard days, 3 medium days, and 3 easy days. And across the summer, weeks would alternate between relatively higher and lower mileage, starting at 45 miles per week and building to 60 miles per week at the end of the summer. Hard days comprised tempo runs, intervals or threshold workouts, medium days included either a continuous long run or double run at easy pace, and easy days was recovery runs. Every few weeks, we used a cross country or road race to check progress (substituted for hard workouts). These also helped experiment with mental preparation and race tactics when there was not much at stake. And my son attended the one-week Nike Green Mountain running camp in August.

In hindsight, while the overarching goal is appropriate, when we broke it down into actionable goals, we were probably a little too ambitious. However, without goals and a plan, the goal of qualifying for the varsity cross country team would not have been realizable.

Click on the chart for a larger PDF version.


One comment

  1. […] goals, designing a plan to achieve the goals, and monitoring progress and making adjustments (here, here, here, and here). Here are a few activities that we planned and executed to help achieve his […]

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