A simple, two-week plan for recovery after cross country
The first 4-6 weeks of training following the cross country season should be one the most serious for high school runners. The reason is two-fold.
First, athletes need to fully recover from a long race season. Obviously, they need time off if they had a minor injury or a “niggle.” More often, athletes simply need to give their bodies time to recover and regenerate. Coaches have always (rightly) insisted on some amount of time off after the season for the simple reason that it sets up athletes for higher levels of subsequent training.
What's often less appreciated by athletes, coaches, and parents is the need for a mental break from running. The cross country season builds and builds, with meets gaining importance as the season goes on. When the season is over, athletes need a pause from the mental demands of both training and racing.
Simply put, athletes shouldn’t start winter training until they’re a bit bored. Said another way, they need to be “chomping at the bit” to train before they begin again.
Here are my suggestions for how much time off kids should take after cross country before they resume training.
To be clear: if your child has an excellent coach, they simply need to follow their plan.
But so many kids have coaches who are just as fatigued as their runners at the end of the season and can’t provide a convincing rationale for time off. In that case, or in the case of a runner with no instruction, the following will be helpful.
How much time should kids take off?
One school of thought is just 2-3 days, since the chance for injury goes up (slightly) the longer you take off. Another view holds that kids need two full weeks off. Typically, this is a week of no running and then a week of active rest where they play ball sports, ride bikes, hike, etc. But no running.
What follows is a plan between those two extremes. Before I share it, I ask you to acknowledge two things.
First, the period November 1 to May 15 in any given year is longer than the time they had from June 1 to their state cross country meet. From the end of cross country to the end of track is roughly 190 days, compared to only 150-some days from the end of track to the end of cross country. They have a lot more time to get ready to run fast in track compared to cross country, though we often assume the opposite is true.
Second, if a high school athlete trains with intent and is consistent 48 weeks a year, they’ll race fast and run PRs.
With that in mind, here’s a schedule to consider for your child, assuming a last meet on Saturday.
- Saturday – Race.
- Sunday – Easy 20-minute run then 10-15 minutes of mobility work and soft tissue work (self-massage). They should identify any “niggles” and make a note of what those are. If there is pain and not soreness, this is the time to see a physical therapist, chiropractor, or, if possible, a massage therapist that works with runners.
- Monday – No running but 10-15 minutes of mobility and soft tissue work. Again, they should report back to you or their coach if they have any niggles.
- Tuesday through Friday – Four days of nothing. No running and no other activity.
- Saturday – Bike ride, brisk walk or hike. Get outside. These can be longer – a 90 to 120-minute hike is fine.
- Sunday – Off is best, but they can do the same thing they did Saturday, too.
They need to get bored this week. They’ll have 180+ days of training and racing when they resume.
I fully understand, and have carefully considered, the argument that complete days of rest slightly increase the chance of injury when athletes resume training. I think this minor risk is greatly outweighed by the benefit of a mental and physical break.
So often athletes are fired up to train after cross country yet find themselves mentally tired in early February. We want to avoid this.
If they aren’t bored and fired up at this point, repeat the previous week. But they will likely be chomping at the bit to train, so now they get to run...
For this second week consider assigning three runs where they do the following:
- Leg Swings and part 1 of Jeff Boelé's warm-up
- An easy 20-30 minutes of running with 3-5 x 15-second strides at 5k pace as part of the run.
- Then, 10-15 minutes of the level of the Strength and Mobility (SAM) they started with last summer (or their strength and mobility work their coach assigned in the summer)
All told, this is under an hour of work.
They could do this simple workout Monday/Wednesday/Friday or Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday. Sunday is completely off in both scenarios. On the other days they can swim for 20-30 minutes, play some ball sports, or take the day completely off.
Resume training on Monday.
The Mistake Motivated Athletes Often Make
They don’t take enough time off before resuming training. December and January are hard months to train. Athletes need to get to February as fired up about training as they are when they resume in November or December.
Now the fun begins again! Serious high school athletes love the challenge of putting in the work in the winter months to set themselves up to PR in the track season. Ideally, they have a coach who writes a daily training plan that includes pre- and post-run work so they can stay injury-free. While it’s not necessary to meet six days a week in the winter, high school athletes thrive on training with their teammates several times a week.
Sound like your runner could use some help? I work with high school athletes who are lacking either a comprehensive training plan or are training alone for months at a time.
Learn more about my coaching at CoachJayJohnson.com/coaching.