Flexibility as a Primary Physical Component in Cross Country

Posted by Scott Christensen

There are five primary physical components that are targeted for improvement during physical training.  The degree of emphasis placed on each of the five components of strength, speed, flexibility, coordination, and endurance is sport specific.  All must be addressed for any athlete to improve performance capacity.  In cross country running, the component of endurance is by far the most targeted area of training with the other four to a lesser degree.  Flexibility improvement is sought by many cross country runners as a means for performance enhancement.  Current research has indicated that some areas of flexibility training are better than others in training endurance runners.  What are the modalities of flexibility training that cross country runners should be concerned with?

The conventional definition of flexibility is the range of motion that is available at a particular joint while the body is at rest.  For cross country runners as well as most athletes this definition is irrelevant.  During an athletic activity, the athlete’s body is not at rest, and this can change a joint’s range of motion. 

Flexibility during movement must be viewed as a dynamic controlling quality: it allows the joint to go through a wide range of motion as can be controlled.  The controlling nature of flexibility governs two areas: the range of motion used in running performance and the length of the movement available for force production and reduction.



Perhaps the reason flexibility is mostly thought of as a static quality is that it is often measured statically by factors such as the bend-and-reach test.  However, research has shown repeatedly that there is no relationship between static flexibility and dynamic performance.  It has been shown that the dynamic range of movement expressed in maximal and near-maximal running is significantly greater than can be expressed statically.  This is due to the elasticity of the involved tissue and reciprocal inhibition, which allows the opposing group to relax.  Such is why a runner can externally rotate at the hips while running near race pace beyond what they are capable of achieving statically. 

Related Article: A Proper Cross Country Warm Up

So what is the goal of flexibility training for a cross country runner?  Essentially, it is to functionally increase and strengthen range of motion while runningAlso, flexibility is an important factor in prevention of injuries.  Thus, to satisfy these two purposes, flexibility must be gained, but it must also be accompanied by ligamentous and muscular stability development surrounding an articulation.  Adequate strength in routine joint positions found in cross country runners also is necessary to prevent joint structure damage by the outside forces.

Flexibility is both an anatomical and physical quality.  The former is determined by the shape of the joints and the latter is the ability to perform movements through a large amplitude cycle. There are thought to be a handful of factors that determine flexibility in a person.  These include the elasticity and length of the involved muscles and tendons, the structure of the joints, the level of basic coordination (another of the primary physical components) allowing motor control of the involved joints, the overall fitness of the runner, and the psychological/emotional state of the athlete.  Many of the structural factors are determined genetically but can be altered through a well designed flexibility and strength program.  The psychological/emotional factors refer to the thinking of the athlete during the activity.  The runner who is uptight or tense by nature tends to be less flexible.

Must Read: Training Plan Components 

Out of tradition and habit many cross country runners perform static stretching during their warm-up.  But two problems arise from this scenario.  First, static stretching decreases coordination and second, static stretches before warm-up or competition can actually cause muscle fatigue manifesting itself in a temporary decrease in force production.  While doing workouts such as a long run or a recovery run this is inconsequential, but when doing special endurance 1 or 2 workouts or racing, this condition is not to the athlete’s advantage.  Therefore, it is not logical to use static stretches to warm up for dynamic action.  The optimum time to develop flexibility is post-workout.  Muscles are already warmed up; consequently the greatest gains can be made at this time.  Post-workout training also has a regenerative effect, calming the athlete, restoring muscles to their resting length, stimulating blood flow, and reducing tetanic spasm.   

Here are some flexibility component principles to follow when implementing into a cross country runners program:

  • Use moderation and common sense in developing static and dynamic stretches.
  • Do not force a stretch.  If it hurts, stop!
  • Flexibility and body weight strength program should be combined.
  • Be joint-specific in development.
  • Emphasize dynamic routines.
  • Do not use bouncing ballistic stretches.
  • Orient the body in the most functional position relative to the joint or muscle to be stretched and relative to running position.
  • Use gravity, body weight, and ground-reaction forces, as well as changes in planes to enhance flexibility.
  • Develop a flexibility routine specific to the demands of the cross country’s runner body position and stride cycle.

Coaching Resource: Training Model for High School Cross Country

Flexibility is a primary physical component that improves daily and the athlete can noticeably see the difference in a very short time.  Once range of motion is increased and developed (relative to chronological and training age of the runner) to the desired level it is easy to maintain.  Less work is needed to maintain flexibility than is needed to develop flexibility.  It just takes commitment.



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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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