Middle School Training for Cross Country Runners

Posted by Scott Christensen

Middle school training for cross country runners are not just miniature versions of high school runners.  Yet, many middle school coaches talk to high school coaches when setting up a training plan and just “scale down” the high school daily sessions for their plan.  That works to a point with some types of work, but in other areas it is not the way to go.

Largely, because of their lack of growth and development, and inexperience in handling training loads, middle school runners need to be trained in a more macro-based training program than their older brothers and sisters are.  Besides, middle school cross country races are less than half the distance of high school races, so event specificity in training is a major factor as well.

Several physiologically-based growth and development principles come to mind when setting up a middle school (MS) training program.  These would include:

  • MS children can operate at a very high heart rate because they have less venous resistance at that age.
  • MS children have small hearts and small blood volume for their body size which limits VO2 max. This limits aerobic capacity and aerobic power.
  • MS children have an incomplete mTOR gene to muscle cell pathway which limits protein-based changes that occur with training such as building additional cell membrane pores for draining lactate and H+
  • MS children cannot translate anaerobic work to greater H+ ion buffering because of an inability to store sodium bicarbonate as an adaptation.
  • MS children have thinner, less fatigue resistant, myosin muscle filaments.
  • MS children use much of their energy intake each day for growth.
  • MS children have less coordination in their running stride because of incomplete nerve myelination.
  • MS children secrete far less testosterone than older people.
  • MS children lack running economy, mainly because joints and muscles are not yet stiff enough.


When all of these principles are added together, one can see that there are limits to what a middle school runner can do both aerobically and anaerobically in training.  On the other hand, children this age are eager to please, and see distance running as a great new adventure, so they lack (or ignore) the ability to self-regulate what they are capable of handling.  Fortunately, the races are short enough so that a reasonable amount of aerobic training can be prescribed, and there can be some “experimentation” with anaerobic work.

One important factor to keep in mind is that middle school girls mature up to two years earlier than boys do.  There are definitely some outlier young girls that can physically handle a high school training load.  As long as the young lady can emotionally and socially handle stepping up the work, and perhaps even joining the high school team, then that may be favorable to her long-term development.  However, keep in mind these types of girls are far and few.


* Training Resource: Successful Coaching Strategies: 3200m


It is important that a middle school coach add joy to their runner’s day.  The stirrings of competitiveness can certainly begin at this age, but the process is far more emphasized over the end result.  Running-type games, fun days, and gimmicks can play a bigger part in middle school training than to high school plans, but they should not be overdone.

Three running games/gimmicks that are fun to do are:

  • Pringles potato chip run. Before going out for a distance run place a whole Pringle in each of the kid’s hands (palm them).  The goal is to come back with unbroken chips.  This teaches relaxation of the upper body and hands and concentration.
  • Card run. Before going out for a distance run give each runner two cards, one for the palm of each hand.  They all run to a coach at the two mile mark who gives them another card, then they run another mile to a coach who gives them the fourth card, and then run the last mile in.  Total up the “scores” of the cards in each person’s hand to determine the winners (face cards are 10, aces 11).
  • Candy run. Out and back five mile run.  Runners run out to the “can of candy” at the 2½ mile mark and grab a sucker from the can and carry it on the run back.  Then sit around and eat the suckers back at school.


There is more to middle school cross country practice than the main endurance unit each day.  There are other important skills to be learned that transcend running and apply to all of athletics.

The appropriate skills that are important for a middle school runner to learn include the following:

  • A dynamic, static stretch free, warmup each day that is progressive in design.
  • A relaxed cooldown period where the team can bond together.
  • Emphasis on recovery intervals during the high-stress workouts.
  • Drills that are simple & few, appropriate, and done properly (mini-hurdle hops, big-hurdle stepovers, lunges, bodyweight squats, etc.)


A sample training plan follows in Table 1.

There are many different workouts that adhere to the growth and development principles of middle school-age children.  These are just examples.


* Coaching Resource: Complete Cross Country Training


Be flexible as the coach.  Teach the difference between soreness and injury.  Make it fun to be on the cross country team.



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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