Assessing the Athletic Lifestyle of the Cross Country Athlete

Posted by Scott Christensen

More and more scientific studies on distance runners have shown that proper recovery facilitates faster physiological adaptation and enhances endurance-related performance. By ignoring recovery today, it all leads to tomorrow’s poor practice session and, eventually, poor recovery habits that are tough to break. It also reinforces attitudes that can lead to under-recovery injuries. However, by taking advantage of planned recovery and making it an integral part of a comprehensive training program, athletes can experience the gains that elude them when they work hard, but do not have the proper rest and recovery integrated into their plan.  With this in mind, today’s focus is the athletic lifestyle of the distance athlete.

A coach can only pester and prescribe so much when it comes to rest and recovery. Much of the recovery process takes place away from the coach’s eye.  Successful distance coaches have successful runners.  These types of cross country runners make rest and recovery important to them because their coach has educated them in its importance and has guided them into a lifestyle that makes great performances possible. 

This daily way of life is known as the athletic lifestyle and it is guided by the need for a distance runner to recover from workouts to be successful.  The athletic lifestyle involves many things such as sleep, nutrition, hydration, supplementation, rest and an ability and desire to say no at times when an opportunity comes up that disrupts this way of life.


* Coaching Resource: The Training Model for High School Cross Country


Cross country coaches need a starting point in establishing professional relationships with their runners.  They also need a means to check on them and asses their progress part way through the process.  Just talking back and forth can work, but that makes it hard to move on at times.

Self-assessment inventories, questionnaires, scales, and comparative ratings can be used to mine new information from runners if they promise to respond in a truthful manner.  Then, the coach can look over the results and be satisfied or figure new ways to solve problems.    

So much of rest and recovery in distance runners, and thus improvement, is based on runners’ willingness to commit to the athletic lifestyle.  What do the runners feel about this way of life?  Can they sacrifice for new rewards? Do they even understand what it all means? 

The Athletic Lifestyle Worksheet is a self-assessment tool that runners can take and the coach can then measure their responses and gain a final score. The responses measure a global thought process with each athlete as well as sub-categories that may need improvement.


Below is the Athletic Lifestyle Worksheet followed by an explanation of the responses that show the relation of the statement to rest and recovery issues.  Note: Links to download the Athletic Lifestyle Worksheet and Explanation of Responses are below.



                                                                 Name: __________________________________

Athletic Lifestyle Worksheet

Answer true (T) or false (F) as it pertains to you.  There are no right or wrong answers, just answer truthfully.  

_______ 1. I often skip breakfast.

_______ 2. I seldom think ahead to bring a sports drink or sports bar to practice that day.

_______ 3. I usually eat dinner (or breakfast) within 2 1/2 hours of the conclusion of practice.

_______ 4. I usually have my personal water bottle (full) with me at practice each day.

_______ 5. I usually eat red meat three to four times each week.

_______ 6. I believe the iron supplement in vitamin tablets, and that in red meat is the same.

_______ 7. I usually eat carbohydrates for breakfast & lunch, and protein for dinner.

_______ 8. I usually drink milk with dinner.

_______ 9. I usually go to bed at the same time each night (within 15 minutes).

_______ 10. I usually get up at the same time each morning (within 15 minutes).

_______ 11. I often take naps after 3 pm.

_______ 12. I often take naps that last > 90 minutes.

_______ 13. I usually take a 30mg zinc supplement each day during the season.

_______ 14. I usually take a 20mcg (800 IU) Vitamin D supplement each day during the season.

_______ 15. I usually sleep 8-9 hours each night during the season.

_______ 16. I often spend time before going to bed on my cell phone.

_______ 17. I usually use a foam roller as part of my after-practice routine.

_______ 18. I am short on time today.  Recovery and cool-down is what I would cut short.

_______ 19. I always carry, use and refill my water bottle throughout the school day.

_______ 20. I own a self-massage stick and use it frequently after practice and at home.

_______ 21. I am overly stressed today.  Running a workout may not be a good idea.

_______ 22. I am usually aware of my rest and recovery needs away from practice.

_______ 23. I usually believe “living in the moment” is important to me.

_______ 24. I usually adjust my lunch to the afternoon workout demand for that day.

_______ 25. I count on my family to prepare my dinner each evening.

_______ Total


Scoring:  True Responses: 3, 4, 5, 7, 9, 10, 13, 14, 15, 17, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24. Score 1 each.

              False Responses: 1, 2, 6, 8, 11, 12, 16, 18, 19, 25.  Score 1 each.


22-25 points: Exceptional Athletic Lifestyle

19-21 points: Very Good Athletic Lifestyle

16-18 points: Good Athletic Lifestyle.  Could use improvement

13-15 points: Average Athletic Lifestyle.  Needs improvement

10-12 points: Below Average Athletic Lifestyle.  Come on!

9 points and below: Does not really understand the Athletic Lifestyle



Explanation of the Athletic Lifestyle Worksheet responses:

  1. One has heard from day 1 that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It may or not be for the general public, but for distance runners it is crucial.  All night long during deep sleep most of the blood glucose was processing in the liver as stored glycogen.  We want to keep it there as fuel for the run later in the day.  It is important to ingest carbohydrate into the body in the morning so blood glucose quickly returns to normal.
  2. Following an endurance workout, it is important to ingest carbohydrate for the first 60 minutes to help progress recovery. Running is an appetite killer for many people but eating sports bars and drinking sports drinks is usually well received.  The recommended ingestion rate is about 1.0-1.5 grams of carbohydrate per kilogram of body weight over the first 60 minutes of recovery.  That is about 80 grams (average male body weight) or roughly 320 kilocalories.
  3. The body is in need of nutrient following an endurance workout. Carbohydrate and fat for energy, and protein for bone and muscle re-modeling and repair.  The time window for most effective recovery and absorption of nutrients is 2-4 hours following the workout.  The meal should be a mix of all three nutrients and should total 3-4 grams per kilogram of body weight.
  4. Hydration is a major factor in recovery following an endurance workout. External water sources are usually not easily found.  Sharing a water bottle also means sharing viruses.
  5. Simply put, the element iron is necessary for a hemoglobin molecule to hold oxygen to the red blood cell. While the average person only has about four grams of iron in their entire body it is essential to keep the level as high as possible.  Red meat is the best source of iron for the body.
  6. Iron found in red meat is called heme iron and since it has already been absorbed and processed by another animal it is most readily absorbed by humans as they eat the red meat of the animal containing the iron. Iron supplements found in vitamins, etc., is called earth iron and has not been processed by another animal and is not readily absorbed.  Humans absorb about 85% of heme iron and 18% of earth iron that they ingest. 
  7. Carbohydrates are energy particles and proteins are structure particles. A person needs energy for the day’s activities including running.  The body re-models, repairs, and grows tissue only in a deep sleep.  Dinner is closest to bedtime so protein is best eaten later in the day.
  8. Calcium and iron are two elements that are absorbed by the body in very similar ways. In the digestion process. The presence of both calcium and iron leads to competition between the two, and their total absorption both suffer.  It is better to drink milk with carbohydrates (breakfast and lunch) and orange juice, which contains Vitamin C and helps transport iron, in the evening with dinner.
  9. Humans, like all animals have deeply rooted body rhythms. There is no better example of this than sleep patterns.  Sleep is the very best recovery tool so getting into a sleep routine is crucial.
  10. Adjusting to about the same length of sleep every night is important to recovery for distance runners. Binge sleep is not an effective recovery tool.
  11. Taking naps in the late morning or early afternoon my aid in recovery for a distance runner. Taking a nap after 3 pm merely disrupts the night-time deep sleep rhythms.
  12. Naps are effective in recovery, but 90 minutes is much too long and is a sign of acute sleep deprivation.  Naps should be 45 minutes or less.
  13. Zinc has been shown to shorten the length of an upper respiratory tract infection (common cold) if taken on a regular basis. Roughly speaking, for most people, the symptoms of a cold are present for half the time if zinc is high in the immune system.  If one waits until the symptoms of a cold to actually appear, and then start zinc supplementation, the symptom time has not been shown to shorten.
  14. Stress fractures are a real concern for distance runners. Metatarsal fractures are the most common and tibia fractures are second.  The body must repair stressed bones every night during deep sleep and sometimes it cannot keep up.  The amount of calcium in the body is not usually the problem in not keeping up with re-modeling.  Vitamin D shortage is usually the issue.
  15. Not only are sleep rhythms important but total length of sleep is also important in recovery. Growth hormones are only released from the pituitary gland during deep sleep. These are the hormones that promote tissue repair, re-modeling and tissue growth. They need lots of time.
  16. Cell phones emit blue light that stimulates the central nervous system. Talk, and the thought behind it, both stimulate the frontal cortex of the brain. One should relax before going to sleep, not be stimulated.
  17. Foam rollers help muscles relax and blood to move back to the core. Both are involved in recovery following a distance run.
  18. Warm-up and cool-down are essential to what happens tomorrow and the next day. Cut the work short if time is an absolute issue, not the other essentials.
  19. Most distance runners are obsessed with water intake. There are certainly geographic areas where they should be. For others, it is estimated that about 20% of distance runners show up for practice each day in a hyponatremic condition. They have too much body water and their sweat is way too dilute.  Dilute sweat is ineffective in cooling the body.  
  20. Self-massage sticks are handy to have at practice and at home to use in pushing blood through muscles and pushing metabolites out after hard practices.
  21. There are days one should just not run a workout. A light jog maybe, but not a workout that adds more stress to the systems. Runners are encouraged to “listen to their body” and then do not follow through when it tells them something.
  22. Rest and recovery is a small part of practice. Most of this happens away from the team at home.  Recreation needs to be adjusted.  Being an athlete is not about what you have been given, but what you are willing to give up.
  23. There is nothing more in the moment that sports. The carryover of this thought process to other areas of life is important to becoming a successful athlete and person.
  24. Some people digest food more quickly than others. Carbohydrates are digested more readily than fats and proteins because they are water soluble.  The digestive system needs blood, the muscular system needs blood.  There will be conflict if they are operating simultaneously.
  25. It is nice to have food prepared for us but that is not always possible. There is a tight 2-4 hour window where food must be consumed for effective recovery. Learn how to cook a few simple dishes. It is fun!


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For your convenience, you can download in printable format the Athletic Lifestyle Worksheet and Explanation of Responses using the links below:

Click here to open (then save to your computer):  Athletic Lifestyle Worksheet

Click here to open (then save to your computer):  Explanation of the Athletic Lifestyle Worksheet responses

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* Additional Training Resource: Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners




Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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