For success as a high school runner, the key is consistency over time. Continue to show up and you will see massive improvements. One of the biggest keys to consistency is staying healthy. Avoiding prolonged injuries is vital to maintaining our ability to train. High school runners is the population I’ve worked with the most in my career. I’ve made many mistakes in working with them and have learned a lot! I wanted to dive into five key things we can do to keep our high school runners happy and healthy.
Basic Nutrition Knowledge
I can’t overstate how important nutrition is to runners. I would take an excellent approach to nutrition and an average training plan every day of the week. In a sport with a high risk of eating disorders and underfueling we need a rock solid approach to food. Start with basics of how much runners need to be eating (more than you think) and how to plan fueling for the week. Food is our NUMBER ONE recovery modality.
Optimal Training Plan + Poor Nutrition = Injuries and Poor Performances.
Our approach to nutrition should not be static, but instead evolving. As we run more and train harder, our nutrition plan needs to adjust. Our plan towards nutrition needs to change as the seasons change too. Your summer and fall nutrition should be different. Managing school, training, and racing is very different than loose summer running.
If you are a coach, parent, or athlete I’d recommend grabbing both Marni Sumbal’s and Rebecca McConville’s books. They are both great resources and you can find them at the links below.
Finding Your Sweet Spot
Essential Sports Nutrition
Running is great for kids. It helps develop a strong cardiovascular system. It teaches them how to work through discomfort. It gets them connected with a tight-knit community. It allows them to expend energy so they are less work for their parents.
These are all good things.
Running gives you a lot, but there are many things it doesn’t give you. One of those is a strong skeleton. That’s an important thing for reducing our risk of injury and for long-term health. Young runners tend to not develop as strong of bones as kids in other sports. A solid strength program can help bridge that gap. Getting a young runner squatting and deadlifting lays a great foundation for life. Build up a big base of lifting in the offseason and maintain that strength during the fall and spring. Strong bones leads to happy runners.
Running has a very specific set of performance demands. It’s a series of single leg bounds from one leg to the other while you get tired. We would classify running as “predictable”. That’s very different from a sport like soccer were you are sprinting, cutting and jumping. Those different movement patterns impact our body differently than distance running. That’s part of the reason athletes may develop stronger skeletons in other sports.
It would be fantastic if cross country runners played another sport in the winter. Swimming doesn’t count :).
Anything with impact.
The challenge for kids now is sports have become incredibly specialized. It can be challenging to stay in other sports throughout high school while still running. If it’s not realistic to keep kids in these sports there are ways around this. If you are a coach, spend one practice playing tag, capture the flag, or kickball. When your kids are between seasons, get them in a rec sand volleyball league. Have them take up rock climbing. Take classes at a Ninja Warrior Gym. Make this extra activity PART of the training plan. That variability allows forces are developing athletes to adapt to different demands. It sets them up for long term health and success.
Our body is a complicated system. It’s really good at keeping us alive. We have built in systems that help keep us in an optimal place. One of the systems that help keep this equilibrium is the neuroendocrine system. This center regulates things like eating, energy usage, blood pressure, and other stuff. If we are overtraining and not fueling enough it can throw this system and the rest of our body out of whack.
In female runners, we see changes in menstrual function. In males, we see hypogonadotropic hypogonadism. Both of these are signs that things aren’t right. We need to do a better job of recognizing when runners are overreaching. Simply asking runners, “How are you doing today?” and being open to an honest answer is a great start.
There’s lots to unpack with this specific subject and certainly more info than we can get to in this blog. I recommend reading up on a few key papers I’ve listed below. If I coached a team, I would take all my runners through the screening in the second link.
2014 Female Athlete Triad Consensus Statement
Bone Stress Injuries in Male Distance Runners
The Role of Energy Availability in Reproductive Health
Runners are driven people. They generally succeed at most things in life whether it’s racing, school, work, or chess club. Very rarely do I meet with a runner who needs to “try harder”. There are many times when a runner is TOO invested in running. They care TOO much. Their social circle becomes only runners. They read only running related things. They put a HUGE emphasis on their performance in races. Their identity becomes linked with running.
Over-investment can be a problem if we get an injury or aren’t seeing the improvements we expect. If you run for long enough you are going to get an injury. It happens. While there is a lot we can do to decrease the risk of a running injury, it’s going to bite everyone at least once. There are also times when you will care LESS about running. Training isn’t as fulfilling. You lose interest in racing. Your level of motivation changes.
That’s ok and normal.
These two situations highlight times when your relationship with running changes. You aren’t training or racing by choice (motivation) or through outside circumstances (injury).
It is important to have SOMETHING outside of training and racing. That can be reading fiction, playing an instrument, birdwatching, or playing video games. We need something outside of the sport to keep a semblance of balance. We should be fostering those other interests at a young age.
Thanks for taking the time to read! If you found this helpful I think you’d love my booke “Navigating High School Running: A Guidebook for Parents, Coaches, and Clinicians”. You can pick up a copy HERE!
Nathan Carlson PT, USATF