The first step in designing training programs for cross country runners is visualizing a clear understanding of the physical components needed for success. Designing distance training schemes without a clear purpose in mind is an inefficient process at best, and at worst is a hodge-podge of this and that from impractical weight room exercises to countless miles of non-purposeful running.
The primary physical components that make up athletic activities of any sort include: speed, endurance, strength, flexibility, and coordination. All of these components can be improved with well designed athletic training programs using a planned balance which places emphasis on more dramatic development of the most crucial component that characterizes each particular sport. In cross country training, one of the most over-looked components is coordination. This important component is part of every stride cycle of running, as it involves foot impact, ground time, and toe-off. The better the athlete’s coordination and balance in mastering the rate of this three-part transition is vital to distance running success.
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Coordination related activities in sport include agility, mobility, and balance. Of the three, balance is most crucial in a forward, sub-maximal speed stride cycle like cross country running. Balance is the ability to maintain stability. Balance is a necessary component of coordination and all athletic tasks. Balance is trainable, but is often neglected by the cross country coach, since balance issues in the stride cycle are not readily visible by the untrained eye. Balance training activities normally require mastering slow movements or stationary positions that create opportunity for instability.Balance does not work in isolation and it should not be thought of that way.
Most people tend to think of balance as static, as in a person standing straight for a period of time supporting a heavy torso and cantaloupe-size head on thin legs and small feet for support. However, in function, balance is dynamic. Because a distance runner is constantly moving, balance entails the body repeatedly losing and regaining control of its center of gravity in an attempt to perform economical movement. Additionally, there is a continual reaction to other external forces found on the cross country course like the surface, turns, uphill and downhill running, and maneuvering around opponents.
Balance also has an integral relation with the universal laws of motion. These laws explain why it is impossible to appropriately reduce and subsequently produce force without balance. Practically, the ability to reduce force at the proper time, at the proper joint, in the proper plane, in the proper direction, during the stride cycle is highly balance dependent. The inability to coordinate all of these “proper” things will result in movement that is awkward and out of direction. In other words, it is highly uneconomical from an oxygen and energy consumption point of view, and thus a serious cross country performance limiter.
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It may be helpful to think of stride cycle balance from a two zone point of view. The inner zone consists of the moment in time that body weight and the center of gravity of the runner are directly over the ground reaction forces. Efficiency at this point is related to the strength, stability and balance of the landing platform, and how long it takes to achieve it. The outer zone consists of the distance outside of the inner zone that the cross country runner can reach and still retain control of the body in respect to balance and directional force. The point at which the runner loses control is called the Balance Threshold. At any point past this threshold, balance is lost, which leads to loss of running economy. Energy and oxygen are used to try to regain balance, and this is a poor use of resources.
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A cross country runner trains to seek a functional balance threshold, a point at which velocity is most economical. This threshold must be constantly stressed with functional movement patterns to improve balance.
The functional balance threshold must be developed in a progressive manner with the novice and emerging cross country runner. With the experienced runner it must be stimulated on a regular basis. The goal for both is to increase and emphasize the awareness of the balance threshold by creating various degrees of instability. Below is a sample training progression:
- Achieve a bilateral stance with both legs equally weighted.
- Progress to a unilateral, one leg, stance, first using the arms as a counterbalance, then without using arms (craning).
- Attempt closed-eyes exercises in a unilateral position (knee bends).
- Try varied surfaces that make unilateral balance challenging.
- Incorporate different apparatus (broomstick overhead).
- Progress to dynamic activities (shifting from one leg to another, or one legged hops).
- Increase the range of motion.
- Increase the transitional speed from one unilateral position to another (faster one-legged hops).
- Try activities that require reaction (one legged hops while a coach claps).
- Increase the external kinesthetic stimulus.
The volume of work emphasizing balance should be low. However, it should be incorporated into the cross country workout routine on an almost daily basis. For balance work to be most effective it demands the highest degree of intensity and concentration. Thus, it is most importantly done in the first unit of the daily session.
Periodically it is necessary to effectively test balance in order to progressively train balance in cross country runners. Testing is best accomplished using functional movements that provide feedback that the body can interpret and use, and that the coach can see. Adding coordination activities like balance routines will lessen the ground contact time of a cross country runner and make them more economical in the process.
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