Craig Virgin, three-time U.S. Olympian and twice World Cross Country Champion, maintains that high school coaches are looking for strong, healthy, athletic kids who want to run. Who ran the fastest in elementary school is not terribly important. He tells the Journal of Youth Running that his working on the family farm made him fit and strong long before he became a runner, and how being fit, being strong, were the foundation for his future success. His high school career was highlighted by a record 13:50.6 3-mile on the Illinois State Championship cross-country course, a record he set in 1972, which still stands today (2019).
Craig tells coaches and young runners that being strong, being athletic, is integral to running. For many runners, being strong, being athletic, is the product of cross training; time spent building upper body, core and lower body strength along with drills to improve fitness and range of motion that complement running. Best yet, cross training reduces the risk of overuse injuries in runners while continuing to build both aerobic and anaerobic fitness.
Here are some very simple things coaches and parents can offer to help young runners be strong, athletic, and have fun doing it. None of these require a set of weights in the basement or take a great deal of time. The key is to make getting strong a part of running, not something extra.
For young runners, start with alternating moderately easy runs (not jogging, but not a sprint) with doing a short exercise circuit on the school or park playground equipment. Include climbing, balancing, “walking" hand-over-hand on the monkey bars, and whatever else you can find that builds strength and improves agility. For new runners, three or four runs with three or four circuits on the playground equipment will be good exercise and great fun.
Again, think about the playground equipment but now as an obstacle course. Set a route the runners will follow -- up the slide, across the horizontal ladder (monkey bars), across the bridge, down the slide, up the ladder, down the pole and back to the start. Time them and then do the course again, but this time faster. To add to the challenge, start the obstacle course a reasonable distance from the playground so running fast becomes necessary to record a fast time.
BODY WEIGHT EXERCISES
Body weight exercises are those where the child’s body weight creates the resistance that the muscle attempts to control or work against, like push-ups. For kids, start with what the child can do comfortably rather than try to squeeze out as many reps as they can. If they do three quality push-ups, this becomes their starting point and one more becomes their goal. Then have them do just two push-ups, but three, four, or even five times, with running drills or maybe short sprints between each “set” of two. When they struggle to complete two, or lose form, move on to something else. Soon they will be doing four quality pushups and five will be the new goal.
PIT STOPS [TO REFUEL]
For days when the kids are running laps around the playground, a short trail or even laps around their neighborhood, have them make a pit stop halfway or at the end of each lap to refuel. In this case, refueling is a short pause from running; time enough to do two or three upper body or core exercises. Not only does the pit stop offer time to build a little muscle, it allows the runners to cover a distance farther than they might on a run without the pause.
START EARLY ON STABILITY AND BALANCE
Stability and balance are important to runners, young or old. Start with simple things like standing on one leg for a few seconds and then the other. For some this will be easier than for others. When it becomes easy, do it with the eyes closed. Next, match up kids with a teammate and play catch with a playground ball while standing on one leg. A few may even graduate to playing catch with a teammate while standing on a BUSO stabilizer platform sold at any of the big-box sports stores. For more on improving stability and balance do an online search using “stork-stance” as key words.
…PRE and EARLY TEENS
THE RUNNING MUSCLES
For young runners, getting strong isn’t only about how many push-ups a child can do, but strengthening the muscle groups that do most of the work in running, the “prime movers,” i.e., the glutes, quads, hip flexors, adductors and hamstrings; and the lower back, the obliques, and the abdominal muscles. For young runners, Side Hip Raises, Crab Crawls, Fire Hydrants, Lunges, Knee Crunches, Lateral Leg Swings, Standing Hurdles, Kickbacks and Supermans are the staple to both improve running efficiency and to reduce the chance of chronic injuries, the result of demands placed on weak muscle groups.
Jeff Horowitz’s book Quick Strength For Runners is a good source for exercises that strengthen the muscles runners depend on most. Although written for adults, Horowitz details exercises that can be done safely by young runners, even down to elementary school ages.
Teach young runners that if they can do 20 or more repetitions of some exercise, the first 10 or 12 may not be of much value. When they reach that point, it is time to consider adding some resistance.
When adding resistance, there are two good options. First, think of exercises using a weighted (medicine) ball. In Quick Strength For Runners, medicine balls play an important role in strengthening the prime movers, the running muscles. There also are good sources online that offer illustrations and descriptions of how to build strength and become athletic through medicine ball training.
Another good option is something called SandBells - a rugged neoprene disk that comes in a range of sizes that when filled with sand weigh from two pounds up to 50 pounds. SandBells, different from medicine balls, have a handle to maintain a good grip, but also can lay flat when placed on the upper back for adding resistance for push-ups. SandBells are available online and at some larger sporting goods stores.
Complex exercises employ multiple joints and muscle groups to complete the motion or exercise in one continuous movement. Visualize a youth with their knees bent, leaning slightly forward from the waist, back straight, eyes looking forward, with a medicine ball (or SandBell) held at arm’s length down between the knees. In one movement they push their hips forward and raise the ball at arm’s length out and upward over their head. In the finishing position they will be “standing tall” with the ball above their head at arm’s length. This is a complex or multiple joint exercise. Another complex exercise popular with kids is flipping tires – squatting down, keeping the back straight, getting leverage, standing up, pushing.
YOUTH AND GYMS
For parents that go to a gym for exercise, it is okay to take the kids, assuming they want to go, and if the gym allows children. But stick with body weight or the medicine ball exercises they have been doing. Many machines, even when adjusted (moving the seat forward or back, etc.), are oversized for children and youth. And be especially careful of any machines that involve a pressing movement -– bench press, seated overhead press or incline press. The grip is often spaced way too wide for youth, putting unreasonable strain on the front of the shoulder (the rotator cuff).
If, or when, pre-teens or even teens begin working with dumbbells and barbells, it is time to find a coach or personal trainer that is certified to work with young athletes. Teaching proper technique is critical, but so is making sure safety is a priority.
Plyometrics employ explosive movements that include jumping onto and off from boxes, etc., to bring about “explosive” strength gains. Plyometrics are popular with mature athletes but carry some risk of injury for youth, and almost certainly if they try doing the plyometrics that super-fit adult athletes do. For youth, the ligaments, tendons and growth plates (soft cartilage in the long bones of the legs where growth occurs) may not be ready to handle the overload that characterizes plyometric training.
FOOTNOTE: Check out this vintage World Cross Country Championship race video. Watch how in contrast to other runners, Craig Virgin’s arm action, posture and sheer strength, power his way to the title. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYr-anCd300
The Journal of Youth Running is supported by the
MICHIGAN RUNNING FOUNDATION