One of the biggest challenges a cross country / track coach faces is keeping their athletes motivated in the periods of lull, in between seasons of competition. Obviously, summer poses the longest period in which your athletes are expected to train independently.
But the times between seasons during the school year, also offer an important opportunity for a runner to come into the next season with the correct mindset and level of fitness.
Two Biggest Mistakes Cross Country and Track Coaches make between seasons
The two biggest mistakes coaches make in between cross country and indoor track, or indoor track and outdoor track are (a) to insist that their runners continue training straight through without rest, or (b) let their runners do as they please and lose contact during this time.
I advocate for a fair balance between maintaining some semblance of routine, yet also loosening the slack so that athletes can decompress after a challenging training/racing schedule. A period of complete rest is imperative, both for physical recovery but (more importantly) mental recovery as well. It is a rare individual who can stick to a strict routine for extended periods of time, especially at the high school age, where kids need to have freedom to explore outside interests.
How long to take off between seasons?
With this being said, I recommend no more than a week off in between seasons during the school year, and no more than 2-3 weeks off leading into summer base training. This single week in between cross country and indoor track, or indoor and outdoor track is the perfect time to let athletes do whatever they please.
Depending on the way your school regulates athletics, you may be required to still hold practice, even during these periods of rest. If that’s the case you can suggest a couple days of fun, low impact activities such as ultimate frisbee, or soccer.
Another activity you could do to fill time after school is to have your runners clear the home cross country course (if you have one). If you are still left with afternoons to fill, it can’t hurt to have them lightly jog each day and then do some strides and stretching. However, I do urge you to try and figure out a way to give your athletes a mental break from the rigors of training, and from the in season routine. You may need to get creative.
This period in between seasons is also the perfect time to introduce something new to the training routine. I would suggest scheduling an afternoon in the school’s weight room to have a walk through and an informational session on how to enhance your distance running training with strength training. I don’t necessarily advocate that every member of the distance program get started with a weight lifting program, this could be especially harmful to under developed individuals.
However, I think incorporating this type of training a couple times a week is a good way to get athletes prepared for college training where this type of exercise is routine.
Getting back into the routine
The timespan between seasons usually spans several weeks or even a month, so how do you ease athletes back into training after a period of time off? I recommend a period of easy base training leading in to every season. Work in a 2-3 weeks of easy distance runs and some strides to get athletes back into the routine and rigors of daily runs.
This period is also an ideal time to incorporate any new strength training routine, before they start the heavier training load of in season. Get them in the habit of spending 15-20 minutes additional a day on core and strength routines, as well as stretching.
Runners need a break
The benefit of giving your athletes a complete rest period means they should come back with renewed energy and enthusiasm, ready to take on the new season. Any prolonged period of inactivity will reinforce bad habits, and any prolonged period of base work may take it’s toll on runners as well, since many athletes feed off competition for motivation.
So it’s a bit of a balancing act, one that depends on your state/regional competition schedule, your school districts after school regulations, and your individual athletes disposition and ability.