Dear Coach Jay
I'm a senior in high school and in my second year of cross country. I’m in charge of the off season practices for the varsity team. I'm wondering what are some good ideas to do for practices so that we get in shape before each season starts, but won’t make all the kids not want to do this ever again?
Thanks for the question Tim - it's a good one.
The first thing you need to be honest about is the tension between the fact that to become better at running humans need to run, yet the newbies will only be able to handle a certain volume of running before they get hurt. As you eluded to in your question, many people that come out for cross-country don't love running…but hopefully they will learn to love running if the environment is positive and fun.
Before we go into the details let me make one thing clear. In 99% of the successful programs in the country, running is fun and there is a joyful, positive team culture. Our sport is so difficult that if the coaches and captions can't create a culture that's fun, then the program won't achieve what it's capable of. That doesn't mean the program can't be serious and have serious training expectations at the same time. But it does mean that there is room for laughter and room for light heartedness during practice.
In terms of specifics, you need to make sure that everyone is doing some General Strength and Mobility (GSM) before and after each practice session. This will ensure that the newbies stay healthy while helping the veterans sustain the volume and intensity of their training. And the cool thing about this type of work is that you can make it hard for everyone, yet you can do it in a circle and get a team sport feel - everyone a bit uncomfortable, but everyone uncomfortable together. That's part of the recipe for teams coming together and GSM is a great way to do that.
My second suggestion is to do some runs in a park where there is a loop measured out in the grass and where the faster athletes are running the same loop as the younger athletes. For instance, you could roll out an 800m loop and the veterans could do a fartlek of 400m on, 400m off while the newbies do just 200m on, 600m off. The reason I like this is again, everyone is working together and for the younger athletes it's cool to see the older athletes flying by, even if it's a little disconcerting at first. When the workout finishes the older athletes need to make sure they chat with the younger athletes and explain that if they're patient and show up every day to practice that eventually they'll be running quality workouts as well.
Finally - and this sounds simple - popsicles or watermelon or a sports drink for everyone after practice is a great way to end things. Everyone who worked hard deserves one and it gives everyone, from the goofy freshman to the cool senior, a chance to mill around and chat. And that's one of the beautiful things about our sport - upperclassman in cross-country are usually more than willing to talk to the underclassman because running is such an humbling endeavor that their egos aren't big. I see it every year at my high school camp and I see it in all the good high school programs.
Best of luck to you and your teammates Tim and thanks for the question.
*Coach Jay's advice is provided as general training information. Use at your own risk. Always consult with your own heath care provider for questions relating to your specific training and nutrition.