Cross country's elite find unique ways to train

By Glenn Reeves Shortly before 6 a.m. each day, roughly a half-hour before she starts getting ready for school, Fremont cross country standout J.J. Escalera is doing what she calls "a basic core workout." That means one minute of elbow lifts on a plank, leg lifts, four sets of 25 push-ups, form curls with 10-pound weights, then four repetitions of one-minute wall squats with 30-second intervals of rest. "It gets my endorphins going for the day,'' Escalera said. "It also helps me in school." When it comes to training for cross country, there's more than just running involved. For elite runners, it's a year-round undertaking. Los Gatos' Chris Foster was the Central Coast Section Division II cross country champion last fall as a junior. He took a two-week break from running after the track and field season concluded, then embarked on summer training for cross country season. "We start off with base training, three- or four-mile runs, then build up mileage,'' Foster said. "By the end of summer, we're doing eight-mile runs.'' Foster typically meets teammates for summer workouts in the morning. But once school starts and the competitive cross country season begins, the routine changes. "We get out on the track when school ends around 2:20,'' Foster said. "We stretch for 10 to 15 minutes and do a couple laps around the track before our main workout." Foster alternates six- to seven-mile trail runs with speed workouts. If the team is not competing in a Saturday invitational, a typical weekend regimen involves a slower-paced long run on one day and rest on the other day. There are differing opinions about when and how often to decrease the intensity of workouts. Foster said he finds it helpful to have a light day -- a 15-minute run -- the day before a meet. Some coaches conduct a regular workout the day before a meet, especially if there are both a league meet and an invitational that week, rather than have two light days in a week. The traditional approach is to point toward a late-season reduction in training mileage. "I've found a one-week unload (reduction in mileage) to be very helpful,'' Monta Vista coach Kirk Flatow said. "The question becomes do you want to do it before league or before sectionals or before state?'' Most top high school runners put in around 40 miles a week. (College runners do significantly more.) Avoiding injury is a big concern at the high school level for an age group that is maturing and growing into their adult bodies. "Boys develop higher oxygen capacity and gain more lean muscle," Fremont coach Mark Shields said. "Girls retain higher levels of body fat when they start to turn into women. If they're not on top of their training, that change can be such an uphill battle. If they're doing the right kind of training, the body adapts." The motivation and dedication to excel at distance running often also translates well to the classroom. Many cross country runners are also excellent students. But all that hard work can result in a price to pay. "I think that most of the high schools kids that I work with are overextended and under-rested, not just from cross-country but they take too many hard classes,'' Gunn coach PattiSue Plumer said. "They have too much homework. They feel like they have to do well all the time. "Because I have to sort of balance that, I don't encourage morning runs or double workouts, just because for the most part I think they need to sleep. If they can sleep an extra hour, honestly, that's probably going to help 99 percent of the kids I coach more than another extra five or eight miles in a week.'' For Fremont's Escalera, she has another routine to end her day. After practice, dinner and homework are over, Escalera pulls out her foam roller. "I roll my muscles on it to help prevent cramps," she said. "If my legs are tight, I take a hot bath. If they're sore, I take an ice bath." As Escalera can attest, training for cross country is more than just putting in the miles. It's more along the lines of a lifestyle. Staff writer Darren Sabedra contributed to this report.