Cross-training?

Although it is true that, in order to run faster, a track athlete needs to get out on the track and run, and that a hurdler, in particular, needs to clear a lot of hurdles in order to improve his or her hurdling technique, the question as to whether or not a hurdler can benefit from cross-training is a valid one. This essay will discuss the positives and negatives of incorporating cross-training into a hurdler’s training program. Without a doubt, this issue applies primarily to youth athletes, high school athletes, and the collegiate athletes in the lower divisions, as there is too much at stake for a Division I collegiate athlete (scholarship money) and a professional athlete (livelihood) to risk injury by cross-training, unless, of course, the purpose is to rehab an injury that has already occurred.

To me, the main purpose that cross-training can serve is to give athletes a break from the grind of running straight ahead every day, from the demands they continually put on themselves to run faster, and from the pressures that come with facing a high level of competition of every week. Cross-training gives athletes a chance to play again, to be kids again, and thus recharge, refresh, and return to the track the next day with renewed energy. As coaches, we often underestimate how much mental fatigue plays a part in the deterioration of athletes’ performance levels. We’re often so used to having the other problem – of kids being unmotivated, or just not having disciplined work habits, that we sometimes don’t even think to be on the look-out for burn-out. But if kids are constantly saying, “I feel tired,” “my legs are sore,” or “can’t we do something different today?” they may not just be trying to weasel their way out of a daunting practice session; they may just be tired of the monotony that can always set in through the course of a long season. While it is always wise to vary practice routines to prevent this type of mental rut from settling in, sometimes even doing that isn’t enough.

When participating in a sport begins to feel too much like work, when you start to dread coming to practice instead of looking forward to coming to practice, that’s when it’s time to do something to remind yourself that running and hurdling are supposed to be fun. Sometimes, for instance, when you’ve been constantly working on one aspect of technique, but you’re not seeing the type of improvement you were expecting, the best thing to do is to get away from the hurdles for a day or two. Cross training by doing team sports activities can be just the thing to rejuvenate a mentally fatigued athlete. From the coach’s perspective, the danger, of course, is that the kids will always want to play. Several years ago I had a small group of kids training with me over the winter, and I decided that on Fridays, after a hard week of running and hurdling, I’d let them play pick-up soccer, and I’d play with them. It was fun. I looked forward to it myself. But then, after a while, it would be a Monday, or a Tuesday, or a Wednesday, and they’d be asking me, “Can we play soccer today?” That’s when you know you’re in trouble, so it’s important to gauge the maturity level of your athletes. If they understand that they do have goals they are trying to achieve, that there is not a way around the hard work and frustration that is an inherent aspect of this often unforgiving sport, then a stress-breaker once a week or once every two weeks can only enhance their overall performance in the long run. But if the athletes really don’t get what this sport is all about, and are always looking for a way out of a tough workout, then I’d say forget the playful cross-training activities, and keep them fools on the track.

Another point that coaches should be aware of is that success does not guarantee that mental exhaustion will not set in. On the contrary, success can often create mental fatigue. The athlete starts to feel that the more he or she does, the more he or she has to do. A season that would have been over in May is extended all the way to July because of success, because of races being won, because of times dropping, because of new personal bests being set. An athlete who is used to being done with track by the third weekend in May could quite possibly start thinking, once the post-season meets start piling up, When is the season gonna be over? Not everybody can handle the pressures and demands that come with success, and even those who can handle it will still need a break every now and then. Sometimes, complete idleness can be too much of a break, as an inactive body often makes for an inactive mind. That’s when a friendly, light-hearted cross-training activity can prove useful. As a coach, you always have to be in the process of gauging the mental focus of your athletes. Sometimes letting the kids have a little bit of fun may end up sabotaging everything you’ve been building up to that point, whereas in other cases it could be the perfect means by which to reverse a downward spiral of apathy and lethargy.

The other useful reason for cross training, besides relieving mental fatigue and creating closer team unity, is for the purpose of rehabilitating an injury. This is where activities such as swimming, cycling, or other non-impact, aerobic activities can prove to be not only beneficial, but invaluable. I once had a kid who sprained an ankle because he stepped on a big old rock while we were running on the soccer field. How annoying and aggravating do you think that was? We were training on the grass in order to prevent injury, choosing the softer surface instead of pounding it out on the track, and there’s a big old rock hidden in the grass that some kid probably threw down there just goofing around. Another kid I coached that same year had chronically bad knees, so he couldn’t do the heavy interval training or the heavy hurdle reps on back-to-back days. With both of these kids, swimming saved their seasons, as it enabled them to maintain their cardiovascular conditioning and upper body strength, and they were both smart enough and mature enough to make the most of the time they did spend sprinting and hurdling on the track.

The danger of some cross-training activities, obviously, is the increased chance of injury. Most track injuries are caused by stress to the muscles (tears, strains, pulls), joints (tendonitis), or bones (stress fractures), whereas the sports that require lateral movement bring with them a whole laundry list of potential injuries that generally don’t occur to track athletes. One of the best hurdlers I ever coached suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament in the fall of her junior year while playing flag football with friends. Kids who play football or soccer in the fall always come to me in the spring with knee and ankle problems of various sorts that they still haven’t fully recovered from. So, I’ll be honest – if you’re one of those coaches who says that any kind of cross-training, unless it is does for rehabilitation purposes, is not worth the risk – I can’t say I blame you. The reason I allow it and try to make use of it is because of the simple notion that you’ve gotta let a kid be a kid.

I’ll close this article with a little anecdote: At the end of my sophomore year of college, at a Division III school, I remember coming back from our conference championship meet feeling like I had officially lost all hope of any of my track dreams ever coming true. I remember not caring that I didn’t perform up to the standards I had set for myself all year long. I remember thinking, Who cares? and, Why did I care so much to begin with? The next day I went to the gym and played pick-up basketball from about noon until about 9:00 at night. Game after game after game. It was my way of reminding myself that a track athlete was not the entirety of who I was. My attitude was, Let me play a sport; I’m tired of a sport being my job, being the center of my universe. And I remember running up and down that court enjoying running. My failure at the conference meet didn’t matter. I was just having fun again, like I used to do when I was a kid playing basketball in the backyard with my two brothers.

Simply put, everybody needs a break from the everyday. Even the elite athletes need it; hey, maybe they’re the ones who need it the most. Whether or not they can afford to take it is another question that I’m not qualified to answer. But let me just throw this out there: Michael Jordan, commonly regarded as the greatest basketball player who ever lived, didn’t learn to love basketball until he left basketball. By turning to baseball – a sport he felt free to play – he regained the capacity to play basketball. Check out Bob Greene’s Rebound, in which Jordan’s odyssey into baseball and back to basketball in the mid-nineties is chronicled in detail. Good book.

© 2005 Steve McGill

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