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Training, caution, intelligence key to preventing injuries

Pushing too hard can lead to trouble

It’s every runner’s worst fear — a season derailed by injury or fatigue, sidelining him or her for large chunks of the year and reducing the amount of precious practice time he or she is able to accumulate.

Injuries happen in every sport, and some are unavoidable, but many can be prevented with the right combination of training, intelligence and caution. In cross country, coaches are invaluable to their runners’ health, watching for signs of fatigue and knowing when to back off their training schedule if necessary.

To better understand the risk factors and get a clearer picture of how to keep runners fresh, azcentral sports spoke with more than 20 cross-country coaches from around the state. Their responses, while varied, pointed to a few common themes.

Too much, too early

Perhaps the most dangerous part of the cross-country season is the beginning. Runners are eager to get back on the course and test their abilities as the new year begins, sometimes pushing themselves too hard before they are fully ready.

Many cross-country athletes also run track in the spring and most schools conduct summer training programs, but it is still imperative to ease into a comfortable running regimen in the early weeks of the season.

Phoenix Trevor Browne girls coach Brandon Bertrom likens these easier runs to the cake upon which the frosting of more intense workouts can gradually be added.

“You got to build that big cake,” Bertrom said. “Because if the cake isn’t big enough and we put too much frosting on it, it gets too sweet and it’s too much for the body. And that’s when it breaks down.”

Bertrom uses another analogy, comparing a runner to an orange that must be allowed to ripen as the season progresses.

“I’m not trying to totally squeeze the orange to death (early on),” he said.

Outside factors

Often the bigger reason for an injury to a high school cross-country athlete isn’t cross country at all. With academic demands and other interests weighing heavily on them, many athletes aren’t 100 percent when they come to the course.

Saguaro junior Jelani Huma suffered a leg injury playing basketball midway through the cross-country season last year. She managed to place 10th at the Division III state-championship meet, but the setback undoubtedly had an adverse effect on her season.

“It cut it short, basically,” Huma said. “(It resulted in) me not running some workouts or doing as much in the workouts as I wanted to do.”

Saguaro coach John Prather has had kids show up to practice so exhausted from staying up to complete the previous night’s homework that he’s ordered them to take naps instead of participating in the day’s workout.

Another coach from a lower socioeconomic area has seen three of his girls have their families’ houses foreclosed on this season alone, making cross country an afterthought.

Communication is key

Every coach contacted stressed the importance of a healthy dialogue throughout the season, as a way to ensure no one is pushing themselves beyond his or her limits.

Runners, like all athletes, will almost never admit to being tired or sore, but with familiarity a coach can break through that exterior and prevent a potentially costly injury by shutting things down before it’s too late.

“It’s tough, because no kid wants to feel like they’re not doing as much as they think they can do,” Gilbert boys coach Terrance Johnson said. “There are times when it is very challenging, but I believe if you gain the trust of your kids, they’ll go ahead and respect your opinion and be like, ‘OK, Coach, you’re right.’ ”

Gilbert Highland coach Dave Montgomery agrees.

“The biggest thing we deal with is kids still think, ‘No pain, no gain.’ They come out and run way too hard for their fitness,” Montgomery said. “We do our best to teach kids to train smarter, not harder.”

In other words: build the cake; ripen the orange; preserve the runner.
Training, caution, intelligence key to preventing injuries
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