[Nick Voth is currently finishing his degree in Exercise Science from Bowling Green State University, where he competes on the Cross Country team. He is an Applied Sports Science Intern at Athletic Lab.]
I have always been troubled by the idea of not using the track during cross country season. Cross country is a sport that prides itself on the brutality of competition, whether that be from unpredictable weather, uneven terrain, or hills. Therefore, there seems to be some stigma associated with using the track during cross country season. I often hear that it will be of no benefit to a runner because he or she will never race on a completely flat surface or that it will decrease the specificity of training. By no means am I saying that the majority of an athlete’s workouts should be on a track. In fact, I still believe most hard running should be done on terrain that mimics the competition surface, however, I also believe there are benefits of using the track in cross country season. The following is a list of reasons why I think it could be beneficial.Motor Skill Acquisition
Motor Skill Acquisition
One may argue that running is not a skill, but an examination of the fundamental definition of a skill reveals that this is not true. A skill is any action or task that has a specific goal and is an indicator of performance (Magill, 2004). Further, a motor skill is any action that requires voluntary limb movement to achieve its goal (Magill, 2004). There are stride length, frequencies, and mechanics that must be learned to be an efficient runner. Motor skill acquisition is typically discussed in training for sports in which interaction with an external object is involved (i.e. throwing, catching, passing, or shooting a ball). The concept of motor skill acquisition does, however, have implications for distance running and one way to increase it is through increasing variability in training. Because running is a cyclic, closed skilled pattern of movement, one of the easiest ways to increase variability in practice is to manipulate running surface. Early studies conducted by Shea & Kohl (1990) demonstrated that increasing variability in practice led to greater retention of skill. Runners rely heavily on inherent feedback received from the stimulus of running on different terrain. Therefore, putting runners on the track adds another degree of variability in training. This could possibly lead to enhancement of motor skills associated with transfer and learning to efficiently traverse unpredictable cross country courses.Preserve Stiffness
At highly competitive levels of cross country running (collegiate and professional) differences in VO2max among athletes are often trivial. Running economy, which refers to relative oxygen utilization at a given velocity, displays more variance and is a better predictor of running performance (Moore, 2016). A multitude of factors affect running economy, two of which are limb stiffness and surface compliance. Zampara et al. (1992) demonstrated that the relative energy cost of running over sand increased by 15%-40% compared to running over more stiffer surfaces. Obviously, the difference in compliance between sand and what Zampara et al. (1992) considered “firm ground” is greater than the difference between a track and grass or dirt, but the implications can still be applied. It seems that running over more compliant surfaces may be detrimental to running economy.
Running over less compliant surfaces may be beneficial to running economy due to its relationship with the ability of muscles and tendons to store and reuse energy (i.e. stiffness). Increasing lower-extremity muscle and tendon stiffness has been shown to increase running economy (Dalleau et al., 1998). Therefore, incorporating strategies to increase limb stiffness may be advantageous for performance (Barnes et al., 2014). Increasing limb stiffness is of benefit to the runner because they will learn to produce force quicker, resulting in less time spent on the ground. Because the amount of time spent on grass or dirt is usually very high, getting on the track every once in awhile is not a bad idea. I like using the track because it could prevent runners from becoming too elastic.Allows Athletes to Run Faster
Allows Athletes to Run Faster
There are inherent qualities of grass, dirt, or tails (i.e. uneven footing, a greater possibility of slipping or falling) that may slow runners down. The flat, standardized distance of a track allows for the potential to run faster at the same level of perceived exertion. To be fast, you must run fast and getting on the track will enhance that process. McMahon and Cheng (1990) found that vertical and leg stiffness increases with velocity. This further contributes to the argument of using the track to improve running economy. Therefore, if running fast improves running economy, using the track as a surface to facilitate speed could provide great benefits.
There are also potential benefits associated with runners feeling fast. Completing a workout on the track at the same perceived exertion as grass, but faster, can be a psychological boost. This could leave runners feeling fit and excited for the next opportunity to employ fitness in training or a race.Maximal Velocity Development
Maximal Velocity Development
Bouncing off the idea that it allows athletes to run faster, the track is a great surface to use for max velocity development. Despite the aerobic nature of cross country running, I believe there are still some advantages of sprinting. Even though a runner may never approach max velocity in competition, it does not mean that max velocity work should be neglected. Sprinting may improve mechanics, strength, and speed reserve.Sprinting can easily be incorporated into a training plan, especially if the team or athlete lifts in a session independent from the daily run. Speed work can be done just prior to a strength session. Discussing the programming and implementation for max velocity development is beyond the scope of this blog, however, coaches and athletes do not need to worry about adding additional mileage because
Sprinting can easily be incorporated into a training plan, especially if the team or athlete lifts in a session independent from the daily run. Speed work can be done just prior to a strength session. Discussing the programming and implementation for max velocity development is beyond the scope of this blog, however, coaches and athletes do not need to worry about adding additional mileage because high volume is not necessary to develop max speed.Control Efforts
In addition to running fast, there are also instances in training in which coaches want to control efforts and keep athletes from running too hard. The standardized distances and flat surface of the track allow for closer monitoring of training effort and intensity. If a coach believes an athlete has already reached a high enough training stimulus for the day, they now have the opportunity to end the workout early before the athlete pushes too hard. This may not be possible on big grass or dirt loops because coaches cannot always see athletes when they are running.
Increasing environment variability can also be a benefit of using the track during cross country season. There is a possibility of psychological burnout that could occur from working out on the same grass or dirt loops/trails. For a sport in which runners spend so much time training on roads, dirt, or grass, athletes may enjoy the opportunity to get on the track to mix things up a little. I’m not saying that long tempos or other similar workouts should be done on the track. That would be quite boring and psychologically draining due to the number of laps that could be involved with workouts of that nature. I am, however, saying that doing relatively shorter intervals on the track should be considered as an option. Or, if logistically possible, begin the workout on grass or dirt and finish with a couple repetitions on the track.
I challenge cross country coaches to incorporate the track during cross country season. It’s time we stop making a strict distinction between these two racing seasons and start adding the track as another tool in the coaching toolbox. Don’t think of the track as a surface in which runners will never race on. Instead, think of it as another variable that can be used to enhance performance on the cross country course.
Barnes, K.R., Mcguigan, M.R., & Kilding, A.E. (2014). Lower-body determinants of running economy in male and female distance runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 28(5), 1289-1297. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000267
Dalleau, G., Belli, A., Bourdin, M., & Lacour, J. (1998). The spring-mass model and the energy cost of treadmill running. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology, 77(3), 257-263. doi: 10.1007/s004210050330
Magill, R.A. (2004). Motor learning and control: Concepts and applications. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.
McMahon, T.A. & Cheng, G.C. (1990). The mechanics of running: How does stiffness couple with speed? Journal of Biomechanics, 23, 65-78. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/
Moore, I.S. (2016). Is there an economical running technique? A review of modifiable biomechanical factors affecting running. Sports Medicine, 46(6), 793-807. doi: 10.1007/s40279-016-0474-4
Shea, C.H. & Kohl, R.M (1990). Specificity and variability of practice. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 61(2), 169-177. doi: 10.1080/02701367.1990.10608671
Zamparo, P., Perini, R., Orizio, C., Sacher, M., & Ferretti, G. (1992). The energy cost of walking or running on sand. Eurpoean Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupation Physiology, 65(2), 183-187. doi: 10.1007/BF00705078