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Conditioning for Cross Country

Training for Cross Country
NSCA Volume 23, Number 5, Pages 47-50
 
 
 Strength training has been recommended for the development of cross-country runners.  Only a limited number of sources recommend plyometric or maximum power training for endurance sports such as cross country running. 
Plyometrics have been recommended for cross country skiing and single and double leg hops and bounding have been recommended for runners.  The purpose of this article is to provide a rationale for and recommend the use of, maximum power training and plyometrics as conditioning strategies for cross country runners.
Fox et. al. indicated that track evens of 3-6 miles rely in part (5-10%) on anaerobic energy sources.  Because cross country running occurs on uneven terrain, it is likely that the anaerobic component is even greater as athletes may use these energy sources to over come the terrain. 
Strength development may be particularly important because Vo2 max typically does not change after 12-18 months of training.  One way to improve performance is through improved running economy through improved strength and muscular power and core stability.
Johnston et. al. conducted research on the effect of strength training on running economy. Results revealed no significant differences in body mass, body fat, body circumferences, Vo2 max, or blood lactate accumulation.  However, upper body and lower body strength improved by 24% 34% respectively, and improved running economy as evidenced by 4% decrease in steady state oxygen consumption.  Increased running economy means that runners should be able to run faster over the same distance.  This evidence suggests that strength training is important for the development of cross-country runners.
The principle of specificity suggests that training is most effective when the training activity is similar to the target activity.  One possible solution is to perform strength-training exercises at the highest possible speed of movement. 
The Olympic style lifts have a more optimal velocity profile compared to some strength exercises such as the squat, making them an effective training strategy for sports requiring explosive power.  In addition to traditional strength-training exercises and Olympic-style lifts, a mixed methods training strategy incorporating maximum power training and plyometrics is necessary to optimally develop cross-country runners.
Thirty percent of maximum voluntary contraction is considered optimal for increasing mechanical power and has been referred to as maximum power training. 
Maximum power training and plyometrics offer a high-velocity training stimulus without the undesirable deceleration phase potentially associated with many strength-training exercises, as the resistance is project into free space such as when the athlete jumps.
Compared to strength training or Olympic-style weightlifting, maximum power training and plyometrics train different aspects of the force/velocity curve.
The optimal resistance for training explosive power requires the integration of training strategies to develop both the force and velocity components of power.
The optimal ratio of force or velocity depends on the demands of the sport.  The best combination of force and velocity training strategies depends on the mass of the object to be moved in a sport.
Conversely, cross-country running only requires that the athlete overcome his or her own body mass.  Furthermore, successful performance in the sport of cross-country requires relatively high movement velocity because success in the sport is largely dependent on speed of movement.  The principle of sport specificity dictates that training loads and velocity should attempt to replicate the requirements of the sport.  The movement and biomechanics of many plyometrics more closely approximate running compared to strength training exercises, plyometrics are intended to increase the force that can be exerted at a high velocity of movement.  Wathen recommends that a portion of training time is spent performing movements mechanically similar to those movements encountered in the sport for which the athlete is training.  For example, the back squat occurs primarily in the vertical plane of motion.  In contrast, multiple single leg hops are more mechanically similar to running since they have a greater horizontal component.
Furthermore, the hypothesis that impulsive loading is detrimental is not consistent with evidence that suggests that biomaterials such as muscle connective tissue and bone adapt to reasonable training stimulus.
Potential benefits of impulsive loading include the development of eccentric strength, connective tissue strength and bone remodeling.  Witzke and Snow report that plyometric jump training of sufficient duration may serve as an effective training stimulus to increase bone mass. 
Single leg plyometric exercises such as the single leg hop, single leg hop, single leg box jump, single leg push-off and alternating leg push-off should be included because running foot strike is a unilateral event.  However, these exercises should be gradually implemented because only 1 foot/leg must accommodate the body’s entire mass potentially resulting in greater impact forces.
Velocity and biomechanics specificity suggest maximum power training and plyometrics are an essential component of a conditioning program for cross-country running.

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