The close of the cross-country season after the State meet, or (for some runners) the Regional and/or National meets, marks the start of a roughly five-month gap until racing resumes. This raises the question of whether or not the Minnesota State High School League should join the 20-or-so other states in the country, and create an indoor track season. Doing so has the potential to keep kids racing throughout the winter. It offers an entire season to demonstrate improvement and ability to colleges, and perhaps improve athlete's times/marks come spring, however, over-training, burning out, and the consequences of too much running have to also be taken into account. This week, we take a look at the implications of what that would look like, and give a verdict on whether we think it is the right choice or not.
To be clear, Minnesota high schoolers do have options for indoor track, but not as a MSHSL-sponsored sport. For athletes who wish, the Minnesota USATF offers several meets at varying locations for athletes of all ages to compete (the first of which was today!). Competition is often very good, with the meets drawing on local runners from teams such as Run 'N Fun, as well as top caliber high school athletes.
Many states, primarily on the East Coast, but also places like Utah, Nevada, Montana, and Illinois, already have a State-sponsored indoor track season. This can perhaps explain why so many high school 'superstars' are from these areas, and by training throughout the winter, it often appears that Minnesota times cannot compete with them come spring. The argument for indoor track here would be that we could make our own runners more competitive nationally if we had a longer season that encouraged them to train and compete for six months instead of three (or, for distance runners, nearly year-round).
It must be acknowledged that these faster times, and 'superstars' aren't necessarily 'ahead' of where Minnesota runners are. Every one of these athletes is still in high school, and once they reach college, they will more or less even out. Many individual cases of excellent Minnesotan runners, who didn't compete throughout the winter, can be used to show how their participation in another sport during their high school winters did not negatively affect their performance later in their careers (for example, Tierney Wolfgram, who competes in nordic skiing, will still be among the nation's best come spring).
In my experience, I see many high school runners move from cross country to either nordic skiing, basketball, swimming, or wrestling. A few choose to not do a winter high school sport, and others simply train throughout the winter to prepare for spring.
Particularly for athletes my age, who are young and still growing, injury is easy to come by from overuse. Taking a break from heavy mileage weeks can provide a much-needed rest for your muscles and help prevent injury.
Participating in a non-running winter sport can further aid student athletes by introducing them to another activity. In their later years of high school, some students can have a pretty clear picture of what sport they want to pursue, but for younger students this can become a dangerous thing. Furthermore, focusing on one sport too early can lead to burnouts, dislike of the sport, and unhappiness for the athlete.
It is important for student-athletes to make sure that they have tried a wide range of sports before choosing only one to focus on. For me, I started out wanting to be a hockey player, then a baseball player, then a soccer player, then a speed skater, then a nordic skier, and it was only in my junior year that I decided I wanted to run in college. I am thankful that I had the opportunity to try out so many sports because I enjoyed my time in each, and it led me to the decision that I made.