Cross Country for Hurdlers?

Now that the off-season is here and the fall is upon us, it’s time to start thinking about what a hurdler should be doing at this time of year. Is this a time of year to focus on weight training, to play a fall sport such as soccer or football, or should a hurdler be building up his or her cardiovascular conditioning by running cross country? Or maybe the fall is a time to relax and forget about track for a while? No, definitely not that one.

Personally, I’m really big on building up the cardiovascular conditioning, but not necessarily in the form of running cross country, because of the competitive aspect of it. I don’t think a hurdler needs to run distance races to get in shape for track season, and I’ve found that the idea of “just doing your best” doesn’t really work when the real distance runners are running circles around you at meets and in practice every day. I ran cross country one year in college when our track coach had all the hurdlers and sprinters who weren’t playing football go out for cross country. I can clearly remember one race that started in an open field, continued into the woods for about two miles, and then returned to the open field for the last two miles or so. I’ll never forget how, even though I was running very good mile splits for me – 5:55 or so – I was just heading into the woods when I saw the leaders of the race heading out of the woods. I was like, My goodness, what am I doing out here on the same course as these guys? Such experiences ended up damaging my motivation and confidence instead of heightening it. I didn’t enjoy running cross country due to the simple fact that I wasn’t a cross country runner, and, when going up against those athletes who were real cross country runners, I felt very much out of place, and very slow.

Meanwhile, during an earlier year in college, I ran distance on my own during the fall. I would usually run around campus by myself, or sometimes with a friend, and I would usually go in the range of three to four miles, maybe five if I was really feeling it. I even ran a couple of 5K’s just to keep myself motivated, and those were fun, as people of all ages and ability levels run in those, so I didn’t feel like a slow Joe putt-putting over the countryside.

So whether you’re a sprint hurdler or a long hurdler, it’s importance to build a cardiovascular foundation by doing some distance running in the fall of at least three miles. When first starting these runs, I would limit them to four or five times a week, untimed, but at a challenging pace. After a week or two of leaving your watch at home, start timing the runs and keep a training log to mark your progress. This may not be the most fun type of running for a hurdler to do, but it is necessary work so that you can do all the hurdling reps and speed-endurance work that you’re going to have to do when the winter rolls around.

For athletes who do participate in fall sports, all your energy should be put into excelling at that sport until the season is over. Assumedly, that sport – whether it’s football, soccer, or whatever – should involve enough running and other forms of conditioning work that you won’t get out of shape for track. I don’t believe in trying to stay active in two sports at the same time. It leaves you unable to make a genuine commitment to either one, and it increases the chances of injury, as each sport has its own set of physical demands. So, during football season, focus on football.

I was never an enthusiastic weight lifter, so it would be a bit hypocritical of me to fervently advocate weight-lifting on this website when I myself didn’t start lifting until it became obvious to me that I was putting myself at a disadvantage by not doing so. The benefits of weight-lifting are obvious in regards to injury prevention, overall strength, explosive strength, and even muscle endurance if you keep the reps high and the weights low. But if you don’t start on a specific weight-lifting program in the fall, guided by a strength coach who knows how to tailor a weight program to your event-specific needs, then I say leave the weights alone. You have the potential to do more damage than good if you just “lift on your own,” as you will probably lift too much too soon, or focus on muscle groups that aren’t the ones that will make you faster, or make some type of similar mistake that results from inexperience mingled with zeal. The key with weight-lifting is to figure out a way to work it into your regular training program, not just to do it on rainy days or when someone challenges you to see who can bench-press the most.

As a high school coach, I have to agree with Jean Poquette – high school coach of Renaldo Nehemiah – in his belief that there’s really not enough time to work in a regular weight-training program without compromising essential time on the track, as you only have the kids for a two-hour period each day, at the most. The only other option is to cut into homework time to fit in some regular lifting, and no, you can’t do that. A lot of kids these days think that pumping iron can cure all ills, can turn all your slow-twitch fibers into fast-twitch fibers, but I’m old-school when it comes to all that. Just do your push-ups and your sit-ups and quit trying to be a muscle-head. Unless you have a clear plan in place and a knowledgeable coach to guide you, don’t throw up a whole lot of weights trying to look good for the ladies. Do your grunt work on the track; focus on perfecting your hurdling technique and building up the endurance needed to maintain your speed in the latter stages of a race. But if you do have a knowledgeable coach, then you still have to start lifting in the fall, because if you wait until the spring or even the late winter, the outdoor season will be over by the time your body is ready to derive any benefit from the work you did.

From the mental side of things, the fall is also a time of transition – a time to reflect on the past season, and to look forward to the upcoming one. It is a time to look back and identify what was successful about last season’s training program, what aspects of that regimen you need to carry over into the next one, what aspects of it you need to alter or drop, which major meets you will want to enter that lie outside of the regular school schedule, and it is also a time to write down goals – both long-term and short-term. It is important to know what you’re trying accomplish this year, but it’s also important to know what you’re seeking to accomplish this week. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, as a wise man once said. So, if you plan on competing for the state championship in your event in May, then the journey begins in September.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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