From speaking to high school teams, directing camps, or coaching teams, I have often been asked to give advice to high school athletes on how they can optimize their athletic ability and have the time to do it. My most basic advice is to pick what you want to excel at and work hard at it. For some this is to be the best student he or she can be while also participating on a high school sports team for all three seasons, or it may be to be the top athlete in his or her sport -- whether at the team or the state level. To do this and not be overwhelmed with having too much on your plate, simply make sure not to have too much on your plate. Set a schedule that you think is a good one and stick to it. This may mean that you will not be able to participate in an extra club or after school activity, but having down time to relax is very important.
Here is some cross country specific advice (which you can apply to your own sport):
- Work hard. Whatever level you are at, the most fundamental way to improve is through hard work. When I first switched to running cross country my sophomore year of high school, I knew that to be the best I had to outwork my older and more experienced competition. Starting in the summer and through the end of the season I trained every day to be the best that I could be and I ended up winning the state title.
- Set goals, both big and small. Setting big goals that will take a long time and a lot of hard work to achieve are good because they give you something to always work toward and to always look forward to, but setting small more quickly achievable goals is very useful as well. Setting small goals, such as drinking another bottle of water each school day, remembering to eat a snack before practice, or moving up to the faster running group by the end of the season, are good ways to bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
- Unless your coach has specifically indicated Sunday as a day off, use Sundays as a long run day. A lot of runners take Sunday off since it is a non-practice day, so you can get an advantage by at least running a few miles on Sundays and ideally by running a long run.
- Properly fuel your body. Even if you are completing the best training in the world, if you do not properly fuel your body with both hydration and calories, you will not perform at your best. This is a day-to-day requirement and is especially important on school days where students often do not drink more than a few sips of water and eat lunch up to 4 or 5 hours before running. A few years ago I wrote a post on high school sports nutrition, which you can find by clicking here. If you are ever looking for actual sports nutrition advice, we are lucky to have one of the top sports nutritionists, Nancy Clark, working here in Newton.
- Listen to your body. Some days you may feel good and want to run faster on an easy run and some days you might want to take your easy run days extra easy, but either way it is important to listen to your body so as to both optimize your training and not train too hard.
- Consistency is key. No matter how you cut it, the cross country season is pretty long. During the season you will complete many workouts and race in many races. One thing to keep in mind is that the biggest races of the season are at the end and while doing well during the league meets is important and fun, taking recovery days as recovery days, taking the time to stretch, foam roll, and do strength work, are all important in the long run. Additionally, some days you'll be sick, others you'll be extremely tired, don't be afraid to sit out a workout, run day, or race if you know it's not the best thing for you to do that day. You know your own body and some days it will be beneficial to push yourself and get through the workout, but others it will not.
- Focus on the task at hand. You may have a big school project or something else on your mind, but do your best to focus on cross country while at practice and meets!
- Have fun and enjoy the process. Doing well at a certain race is fun and can add that extra motivation to push yourself day in and day out, but try too to enjoy the hard work that goes into doing well in cross country. If you're running a hard 5k it is going to hurt and if you're running a hard workout every rep might be grueling, but try to enjoy the process of the hard work. Going to practice with your team after school should be fun and whether you're running with a group or alone, both can be very enjoyable.
Feel free to add your thoughts and advice in the comments section!