High school and college cross country seasons are coming up in mid-August. That’s when summer officially shuts down for the scholastic and collegiate set. It’s Back to School and for cross country kids, it’s back to serious training.
Some teams even conduct tw0-a-day practices. I recently heard that the Illinois High School Association (ISHA) has banned two-a-day practices for football. I don’t know if that same rule applies to sports like cross country.
The fitness one can build during tw0-a-day weeks is considerable. You’re basically running through a consistently tired state. Morning workouts typically consisted of 4-6 mile runs. Evening workouts might be longer, from 8-10 miles. And so it went for several weeks on end. By September, the first races were scheduled.
That’s why so many coaches do encourage summer running. It makes the early season intensity less of a shock.
Our high school cross country program at St. Charles served as something of a magnet for area runners. Our early season practices often saw competitors from Burlington or Batavia joining our team for runs. This dramatically altered the feel of some practices, which almost turned into early season races. But that was the psychology of the day. What doesn’t kill you will toughen you up. Make you faster. Help you race better.
It could be tough enough doing two-a-day workouts. But if one of those runners from other schools showed up for an afternoon workout without having already done the morning run, it simply wasn’t fair to expect to keep up. The difficult truth of endurance sports is that you will quite often get put in situations like that. Just last weekend while training with the Experience Triathlon group ride, I could feel the previous day’s bike ride in my legs as we went out. Coming back, it was tough to hang on. And ultimately, I could not keep up. The right thing to do in that circumstance is to draw what you can from the workout, and not beat yourself up for not being able to compete when your legs or body are tired from a workout others might not have done before the current one.
That takes confidence as an athlete. It also takes a touch of humility. Those are things you first learn in sports like high school cross country, when your body is still figuring out its limits and capacities. Yet any athlete that takes up an enduracne sport eventually faces the same type of tests.
During periods of multiple workouts per day, fatigue can be both immediate and chronic. There is the fatigue of that specific workout, and fatigue built up from multiple workouts. Every Ironman triathlete knows the drag of soreness and exhaustion that deep training creates in the leadup to the race. Multiple daily workouts involving swims, runs and bikes plus weight work can wear you down.
But as we all know, they also build you up. That’s why the frequency is so important. It trains your internal engine and your vital limbs to deal with the stress. That’s why disabled athletes can be so inspiring to us all. They accomplish the same levels of training without the same physical balance or capabilities as the rest of us. I regularly see the one-armed cyclist that won the Olympic Gold Medal for America in the 2012 Paralympic Games. He rides at the local crits on a regular basis and I have never come close to keeping up with him. He’s a CAT 3 rider even with one arm. He does all the miles the rest of us do, and even changes his tires with one hand. Try that sometime.
The answer to fatigue
Doing two-a-day workouts when you’ve never done them before can make you feel as if you are doing nothing else but training. You call on your body to answer, and all it says to you is, “I’m tired.” The same thing happens to your mind. So you stop asking questions altogether. You just go do the training. Perhaps that what Nike meant with its slogan, “Just Do It.” But you have to consider the Saucony campaign as well, which marketed its shoes with one word: “Whoa.”
In high school, that sensation of fatigue could literally be dizzying. Cross country season always starts in the heat of late summer. You sweat so much your salt intake can’t keep up.
And then there’s the Jeopardy of workout frequency. By the time you got home and did the chores your mother asked, such as mowing the lawn, it would often be time to head back for the afternoon workout.
I recall that on the very first day of cross country training as a callow freshman at little Kaneland High School in the cornfields, I was made to walk home from the first six-mile workout I’d ever done because my mother had just started teaching that same day at an elementary school 15 miles in the other direction from our high school. So I trudged home three miles on exhausted legs and collapsed into bed. Then a friend’s mother brought me back to school for another workout. But I made it. I didn’t die.
I’ll take Jock Itch for $50 please….
There were other lessons to learn from two-a-days as well. If you were unwise, your jock and shorts might still be wet with sweat from the morning workout when you put them on in the afternoon. This was disgusting of course, but if you forgot to take your gear home to wash it, that was the only alternative.
And yes, some people came down with a massive case of jock itch. Coaches would bark at us to stay clean and be disciplined but tired runners are often prone to forgetfulness. At least we didn’t smell as bad as the football players with their pads and helmets and pimpled skin from tw0-a-days in the heat of August.
Triathletes learn early to change equipment frequently and wash it regularly. That irritated pimple on your butt can turn into a saddle sore if you’re not careful. Even an ingrown pubic hair can turn into something that takes you out of action. All this on top of aching feet, compromised ligaments in your legs and hips, and shoulders sore from thousands of yards of swim training. They don’t call them brick runs for nothing.
Then we combine the three sports to boot. Brick runs test your fatigued legs after a hard bike ride. You start out wobbly and unsure. In essence, you’re doing three-a-days.
But even pure road cyclists will sometimes break up workouts into two sessions. More than once I’ve done a morning ride and joined a group ride that night.
Sometimes these risks have weird, transcendant payoffs. Your body is so warmed up from all the work it simply flows through time on its own. I recall an afternoon when a friend and I ran eight miles out in the country to his cousin’s house for a day at the pool. That eight miles felt long in the morning heat. But the relaxation of spending the day in the company of two young women our age, one that had just that summer sprouted a pair of breasts previously unknown in her chestal region, was more than enough compensation for our first workout of the day. We returned to cross country practice that afternoon inspired and relaxed. We both ran out of our minds. And laughed about it.
It’s a rite of passage, two-a-day workouts. No matter what stage in life you engage in them, fatigue is the answer to the question, “What if I do even more?” It’s the Jeopardy of endurance events, a category all its own.