OFF-SEASON TRAINING--Is there such a thing?
by Cathie Twomey Bellamy
It is hard to believe that there is actually more time between the cross country season and the start of the track & field season than there is between track and the start of cross country. We think of summer as the lazy time when school is over and sleeping in takes its place.
Well, off-season really does not mean summertime because the summer months are normally spent getting ready for the upcoming cross country season. What can be counted as the off-season are those dreary winter months when cross country training and racing halts for an appropriate length of time and then shifts to base work for track & field.
What to do during this period is the subject of much debate and some controversy. Some states have their high school federation guidelines to follow which curtail organized, formal practices and leave the athletes to fend for themselves while others can work with a very small number of athletes at one time. What is considered conditioning vs. training is a very vague area and one that many coaches do not want to deal with.
Some athletes choose to do a winter sport such as basketball, wrestling or swimming while others look to bridge cross country and track with off-season type training.
November through February is a great time to address foundation work. This block of time can be used to work on mileage and strength running as well as a return to weight training. Runs done over hilly terrain as well as hill repeats are a great way to work on the anaerobic end of the continuum without doing track intervals, something that can hammer the musculo-skeletal system and, oddly enough, get the young athlete in too good of shape too soon.
Winter is also a good time to build in the anaerobic threshold work--aka, tempo work--something that is difficult to do while in the middle of a competitive season. Tempo work can be done as simply as setting out on a run and inserting 20:00 at an elevated pace within that run; or, it can be done over hilly terrain where the effort is sustained over rolling hills for the designated 20:00. Either way, one should be aware of keeping the heart rate in the 85% range and not ever feel the run to be as stressful as racing.
Plyometric work and agility drills can also be done at this time, within a fun, progressive workout that addresses muscles not ordinarily used in distance training, thus awakening the neurological pathways and getting them to fire rapidly.
The basic idea for the off-season is to work on building strength and covering all bases by addressing weaknesses in a relaxed block of time when competition is not looming.
At Marist High School, I recommend all athletes take a complete break from training for at least 2-3 weeks at the end of the cross country season.
After that break, they will meet to run regularly, slowly building mileage over the winter. Some runs will be done over hilly terrain while others are done on a flat, bark chipped, trail. Added dimensions, such as circuit drills, plyometrics and stadium stairs are incorporated one or two times weekly to help keep the training spiced. Timed intervals are not done during this phase of training.
Most high school athletes are not experienced enough to be able to handle the mental tenacity of a full year's worth of intense training. Thus, the winter months are used for more of a relaxed, strength building phase.
Weight training, which had been shut down for the two weeks prior to our district meet, is also resumed at this time.
Abdominal strengthening is a major part of this training since core strength is vital to strong, proper biomechanical running. We do a variety of group abdominal exercises as well as leg-strengthening exercises for the abductors and adductors. Many times these areas are overlooked thus creating weaker finishes with lackluster accelerations. Shifting to multiple gears requires great strength. These exercises address this need.
Bottom line: November through February is a time for both the coach and the athletes to relax and have fun with less intense training. Shifting the focus of training helps to keep attitudes and body fresh.
[About the author: During her competitive career, Cathie Twomey Bellamy was one of the best and most versatile runners in the United States. A veteran of three U.S. Olympic Trials finals, in events from the 1500 to 10,000, Twomey Bellamy also ran the marathon in the '87 World Championships and was a member of the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the '84 World Cross Country Championships.
She is now the co-head track coach and head cross country coach at Marist High School in Eugene, Oregon. Over the past 7 years, her athletes have won dozens of league championships and 3A state titles from 400 to 3000 meters on the track, and her cross country teams are perennially among the best in Oregon.]