Normally, when a coach tells one of his players to play a different sport in the off-season, we are wholly in approval and more than a bit pleasantly surprised. Early- and over-specialization in youth sports is one of the most debilitating aspects of the American youth sport system, one that affects American sports at all ages and levels (particularly in track & field and distance running).
Now we certainly understand the cross-country runners from the fall showing up as distance runners in the spring, although we wish they would do a contrasting sport during the winter or summer (in addition to taking a proper break).
But we think it would be great to see more crossover between the cross country runners and the field sport athletes.
Why? Precisely because they are so different.
An athlete who is very good at one is unlikely to be much more than decent at the other, but playing contrasting sports builds more resilient and more athletic athletes. We’d prefer XC/TF athletes take up a stick-and-ball (or puck or racquet) sport for the wide variety of movements and coordination, but we’ll settle for trading one repetitive movement for another in order to tap the different energy systems and train different repetitive movements.
On the surface, then, if the track & field coach tells the sprinters to hop in with the cross country team, sure. Not the ideal suggestion, but definitely not the worst thing we’ll heard this month.
Unless! Unless! the coach is not making the recommendation based on contrast, but on some perceived similarity.
Can distance running and sprinting help each other out?
All runners should know how to sprint and practice it regularly. Sprinting captures the fundamental movements, coordination and biomechanics of running. If you can sprint, you can run. In fact, you can run well (no guarantees as to endurance).
Even runners training for marathons should incorporate some sprint, or at least some sprint-like (sprint-lite?) sessions into their training, even in the final stages. As you get down in distance and into the middle distances, sprinting should start in the first week of preseason and be right there alongside tempos, long runs and intervals through the final stage of peaking.
But does it go the other way? Can distance running help with sprinting?
Not as much. The energy systems involved in distance running are completely separate from those in sprinting, and the movements of distance running are - to oversimplify - lighter versions of sprinting. On the other hand, the variety of surfaces, terrain and elevation that distance runners encounter would add to the young sprinter’s repertoire and resilience.
The biggest risk is not from just incorporating distance running into a sprinter’s annual cycle, but the training loads. Distance running will have some benefits on a sprinter, and may reveal that the athlete is better suited for distance running than sprinting (one major reason athletes should not specialize in high school - it’s too early to know conclusively what they are or will be best at). But training with the cross-country team could be a disaster. We’ve worked with middle distance athletes who have lost a season or more of track because they fell in with a cross country program that didn’t understand that mid-distance runners are a distinct “position” within the XC/TF team.
Sprinters are accustomed to high intensity, very low volume training loads. Their monthly volume may be less than one day of a cross country runner’s volume. Sprinters need to approach distance running as an absolute beginner. They cannot just “hop in” a workout, let alone join up with the cross-country team for a few days or weeks.
Ultimately, cross-country and sprinting are different enough to have some benefits as contrast sports, but are too close together to really be a complementary match. And, the benefits are disproportionately one way.
Schools, multisport clubs and true athletic performance coaches have more than enough variety that distance runners and sprinters can both find a truly contrasting sport for their off-seasons. Sprinters have many better options than spending time with the cross-country team, but if that’s what they choose to do, as long as they do it smartly, they will still be better athletes for it.
Photo credit: Montgomery County Planning Commission via Flickr, under CC BY-SA 2.0.