XC is a tough season — here’s how to find success

Cross country can be an exciting time for young athletes — but the season carries high risk of injury as many youngsters dive into training and racing after weeks without consistent physical activity.

Saskatoon physiotherapist Kim Fraser has spent a lot of her career working with runners, including young runners, and this week speaks with the Brainsport Times about what makes cross country so challenging and how coaches and athletes can set teams up for success.

Why injury risk is so high

The cross country season typically starts the first few weeks of school and lasts only a few months.

“We have to progress these athletes quite quickly to get them racing. It is very common for these kids to get injured as there is minimal time for tissue loading. It generally takes around eight weeks for their tissues to adapt to the stresses of running, so if the students have not been in consistent regular sports during their summer holidays, and are starting from scratch then racing hard, they can get injured,” Fraser explains.

Runners who struggle with aches and pains are often reluctant to take time off to recover because of how short the season is, which can exacerbate problems.

What injuries are most prevalent

The most common injuries Fraser sees during cross country season are bilateral knee pain and shin splints, which can occur when runners try to keep up with teammates and overreach with their stride. Working on a faster cadence can help prevent excessive strain on the shins and knees, Fraser says.

How coaches and athletes can set teams up for success

The best way to ensure a healthy cross country season is for athletes to start getting ready in August by doing short runs and regular strength and mobility exercises such as single-leg deadlifts, single-leg calf raises and single-leg glute bridges. Students who enroll in sports programs over the latter half of the summer are often well positioned to hit the ground running when cross country starts.

Fraser encourages coaches to talk to their cross country teams at the end of the school year to remind them about the benefit of preparing early for next season. This can involve giving athletes flexible training plans for August so they have something to reference.

“It is expected for students to be enjoying the summer months, but if they are interested and motivated to follow a program, this will help them prevent injury and find success in their upcoming cross country season,” Fraser says.

Fraser suggests that, in general, runners should get comfortable doing shorter intervals before progressing to longer runs. Coaches should also help athletes work on pace management to help prevent some of the overstride injuries Fraser sees in her clinic.

Athletes running in spikes should use them gradually in practice to understand how they feel and grip before using them for a full workout or race.

When to seek help

Fraser’s rule of thumb is that if an athlete has pain that persists in the same spot for three days it’s time to see a physiotherapist or other health-care provider.

“That’s usually a sign that something might be off with technique, they’re progressing too quickly or they’re not ready for that volume,” Fraser says.

Physiotherapists can work with athletes to make plans for how to safely navigate the cross country season. This can involve exploring taping and bracing as short-term solutions or helping students understand when it may be wiser to sit out a season so they can come back stronger later or focus on another recreational sport they are already signed up for, Fraser mentions.

“Cross country is, by far, the hardest sport to manage because of the timeline being so short. Sometimes it’s survival physio, doing whatever we can do to keep them running well that’s not going to create harm,” Fraser says. “Those kiddos are so happy and so motivated and you just have to be a support system to them; to listen and troubleshoot and help them feel OK during an exciting time. But we also sometimes have hard conversations when it’s just not working.

“Fortunately, these kids are a lot more resilient than those of us over 40,” she jokes, “So they have a really great opportunity for healing if something comes up.”