The movie McFarland, USA, tells the story of a small group of underprivileged young men who gained confidence and developed life-long relationships as they became a winning cross country team. The film, starring Kevin Costner, also portrays what it takes to succeed in cross country running – hard work, conditioning and the will to win.

In a few weeks, you may see teams of high school students running on roadways, in fields, and through parks, as they get in shape. There’s a good reason why these students are not running on a conventional track.

During a cross country meet, students must navigate natural hazards like fallen trees, rocks, muddy areas, sharp turns and hills without losing their momentum or position in a five-kilometer race. Running on a variety of surfaces and terrains, helps student athletes negotiate obstacles quickly and safely as they develop strength, balance, endurance, and dexterity.

Cross country conditioning can help prevent common injuries.

Like other sports, proper training and well-fitting shoes can help students prevent common injuries. Adolescents who participate in cross country programs may be more susceptible to:

  • Achilles Tendonitis
  • IT Band Syndrome
  • Plantar Fasciitis
  • Runner’s Knee
  • Shin Splints
  • Stress Fractures

To stay injury free while enjoying the cross country season, many coaches develop training programs that meet WIAA season regulations while focusing on:

Strength Training. Strengthening the core muscles of the abdomen, back and legs will help cross country runners maintain their balance when running over uneven terrain.

Stretching. Taking time to stretch the hip flexors and other ligaments in their legs, ankles, and feet will help runners navigate quick stops, fast starts, and sharp turns.

Speed. Runners who practice speed drills on a variety of elevations and surfaces are often more successful than others who train on a straight asphalt track. Incorporating quick stops and sharp turns in a training program helps runners master those moves during the race.

Stamina. Stamina is necessary when training for cross country events. Students, who excel at cross country, make running a part of their lives year-round. Running up and down hills or running through soft surfaces like sandy, muddy or grassy areas helps build stamina and leg power. Runners learn to adjust their strides and gain skill needed to negotiate obstacles when they run on trails.

While speed ultimately wins cross country races, it’s often a byproduct of intense effort and coordination. The ability to maintain a steady pace while running on a challenging course can make the difference between finishing in the top five or somewhere near the end.

If your child has not participated in cross country before this season, he or she may experience some muscle soreness. This discomfort should decrease within two weeks. Talk to your child. Encourage him or her to tell the coach or athletic trainer about his or her aches and pains. Reputable coaches will use the information to help your child prevent injury.

Running and workouts are important, but they are only part of the equation. Nutrition and sleep are supporting factors for stellar cross country performances.

Adolescent runners need to nourish their muscles with lean protein, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. Avoiding fatty foods, fried foods and soda or other sugar-filled and acidic drinks, especially on race day, can help runners perform at their peak.

Rest and sleep are necessary for every body to function at its best. The WIAA season regulations state that after every six consecutive days of competition and practice, coaches must schedule a day of rest.

Sleep is also necessary for achievement. The American Association of Sleep Technologists suggests adolescents who sleep more than 8 hours each night perform up to 10 percent better than those who don’t get enough rest. Not only is performance enhanced, but injury rates are reduced. On the contrary, student athletes who don’t get enough sleep are at 1.7 times more likely to experience injury. Following a well-planned conditioning program can help young athletes stay injury-free as they participate in cross country events.