Can Cross Country Hurt Your Game?

By Joe Haefner

I first came across this a little over ten years ago while watching a Steve Alford shooting DVD. He mentioned that basketball players should never run cross country. He said it made you slow and that it didn’t transfer well being in basketball shape. Hence, the old adage “Train slow. Be slow. Train fast. Be fast.”

This certainly is not ground-breaking by any means. Many athletic development experts have been preaching this for years. According to Vern Gambetta, “many training experts and coaches confuse building a training base with developing an aerobic base.” Aerobic base would be referring to the slow, continuous long-distance running.

Now, don’t get me wrong. If you like cross country, by all means, go out for it! This is directed towards the athletes who run cross country to get in shape for basketball season. I believe that your time can be utilized more efficiently.

Rather than going to a 90 minute to 2 hours practice for cross country, I believe it would be better to follow a well-designed program for basketball and athletic development during that same time span. If you went to the gym and worked on your game for 45 minutes to an hour, then spent another 45 minutes to an hour on athletic development, you will be better prepared for basketball season and more efficient with your time compared to attending cross country practice then going to the gym to work on your game afterwards.

What legendary strength coach Al Vermeil has to say about endurance training:

A few years ago, I was listening to an interview from Complete Athlete Development with Strength & Conditioning coach Al Vermeil. Al Vermeil has trained the best football players like Reggie White to the best NBA players like Michael Jordan. He was the strength and conditioning coach for the Chicago Bulls championship teams.

He stated that there was an Italian researcher by the name of Camelo Bosco that studied training of kids from ages 14 to 18. Bosco found a group of kids with the same muscle fiber type. People who have more fast-twitch muscle fiber tend to be more explosive. People with slow-twitch muscle fiber tend to be slower and have better endurance.

Bosco took the young athletes with the same muscle fiber type and split them into two groups. The first group did explosive training through more explosive sports. The second group did more endurance training through endurance-type sports.

After some years of training, he tested both groups in both explosive events and endurance events. The group who trained explosively did everything better than the group who trained endurance. They ran faster. They jumped higher. They even did better in the endurance events, because they were naturally faster and it was easier to train endurance to the athlete who was already fast than it was to train more speed to the athlete who already had endurance.

During the interview, Vermeil also mentioned U.S. runner Jim Ryun. Jim Ryun was the first U.S. miler to break the 4-minute mark. Vermeil said that Jim Ryun was timed around 11 seconds for 100 meter sprint. It’s not Usain Bolt speed, but it’s still very fast. That time will win many events around the U.S. at the high school level. If you watch the world events, you’ll know that the athletes who win the 800 & the mile have fantastic speed. All of those athletes can run sub-50 second 400s.

So even if you were serious about cross country during your teenage years, you may want to avoid excessive long-distance running and train fast.

Well, my kid got stronger and faster running cross country!

If you have a good coach, this is a strong possibility. A good coach will work on speed and power development. As Vern Gambetta said in reference to long distance events, “Very quickly I saw that those who could run forever, but could not run fast were not going to be competitive in races.”

Another possibility is that any training would help. Due to the running, leg strength could have developed and the athlete got faster and quicker because they could apply more force against the ground. However, I still believe that a well-designed plan would be much more beneficial.

What are your thoughts on this?

47 Comments

  1. Lynn — August 25, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    Well, my first thought, for the high school level, would be how many kids would on their own follow a regimented training system on their own and stick to it to get prepared for basketball season. Sure there are a few…also, I suppose their are still cross country coaches that have kids run for super long distances, but what I have noticed in our program is a varied workout…one day hills, one day repeats of 200m…one day 20 minute run…one day 3 mile run…and who knows what else, I am just an observer. But…what I have noticed, the kids who took up cross country in the fall drastically changed in the following basketball season. Perhaps others run their workouts differently, but usually these workouts average about an hour or a little over…so there is still plenty of time to work other skills in the evening for the kids…that is once they have gotten in shape enough…

  2. Lynn — August 25, 2011 @ 11:02 pm

    So, what now gives me concern…the kid who reads these kind of articles, who figures all cross country programs are just long slow running, and decides to go on their own to prepare… but they don’t really have the self motivation to get the kind of workout one might encounter in a structured program even though they think they can…you know there are great benefits in numbers…their own personal trainer…then where are they at that point. I suppose you can guess I am watching someone make this choice…and this person demonstrated such an improvement this past year…

  3. Joe Haefner — August 26, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    Thank you for your thoughts, Lynn. I love a healthy debate. :)

    “How many kids would on their own follow a regimented training system on their own and stick to it to get prepared for basketball season.” If this is true, then basketball is not going to be a sport that is in their future and I would say go out for cross country, because if they are not intrinsically motivated for an activity, they will never succeed. Some super-talented kids might eke by and get to the college level, but they won’t last very long.

    As for the coach who makes their kids run super-long distances, I had one of those coaches. The shortest we ever ran was 400m and that was about twice during the season. The best transitional sprints for basketball are 5m, 10, and 15m. This isn’t including change of direction which I think is important as well.

    If it was my kid or my team, I would not tell any of them not to go out for cross country, but if they didn’t enjoy cross country or were doing it to get in basketball shape, I would rather have them do a program that I put together for them. It would consist of:
    - Skill work
    - Small-sided games
    - Athletic Development (Strength, power, speed, quickness, coordination, mobility, etc.)
    - Conditioning – as season approached, I would go from high rest ratios to improve power to low rest ratios to improve basketball condition.

    I have observed that kids who concentrate on long-distance running starting in their teenager years are slower kids. We had a kid at our high school who could run a 4:30 mile, but he was sprinting the whole time. He had maxed out his time. When they tried to improve his speed, it was too little too late, because he had focused so much on long-distance running while he was in middle school and high school, he developed his slow-twitch fibers so much that it was very difficult for him to develop any power and speed. So what would have happened if he would have focused more on power and speed at a younger age? I think his potential in the mile would have been better, because he would have had more speed.

    I think what Al Vermeil mentions above is quite true.

    I also had a similar experience. Since I matured later and I was not as explosive as some of my friends who had matured before me, I got stuck in the long-distance events as a middle schooler. I went from being a physically-immature kid who could hang with my buddies in sprints, but never beat to a mature kid who still couldn’t beat my friends in sprints. I blame that on the long-distance running and the type of training I did.

    Now it comes down to, what are your priorites and what kind of coach do you have?

  4. Lynn — August 30, 2011 @ 12:01 am

    I agree with considering your priorities and the kinds of coaches you have being important..and what kind of programs they are incorporating should be examined.

    We also have to keep in mind the kids who haven’t matured emotionally enough to develop goals and follow through, and they may not have that self- discipline. Some may never aquire the work ethic to be self motivated. Really, a strong work ethic is a rare gift of its own just like natural talent may run strong in others.

    Many students are also not planning on playing past high school, and if so, only for recreational purposes. Many students need the daily structure of a practice.

    We must also consider in some states, coaches are limited on contact time for basketball training in the off season. All of these need to be considered…so where does one draw the line?

    While I don’t have all the scientific knowledge behind, I am just considering some of the observations I have been able to make. I was considering an area school who is known for their basketball program. In this case, the basketball coach did the cross country program, and required all those who were not in football to be a part of the cross country team. I have talked with him some about this ..he said he would vary his training, and would throw in occasionally agilities or short sprints…and various other exercises..I suppose to develop the fast twitch you mentioned earlier. He did feel it was important as well to develop the aerobic end and give them the base for when basketball started in full swing. By the conversation with him, it seemed he tried to address both sides of the coin. The teams he produced over about a 32 year span lost approx 4-5 regionals, and made several trips to state. While this was not the only reason they did well, of course, he did acknowledge that most kids would not make the commitment or have the self dedication to do this on their own. Really, as most would attest to, the fun part of basketball is not the conditioning.

    I am curious, after reading the above information from Al Vermeil, are you saying that a person cannot develop both their fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fiber simultaneously? Or, once one is developed, the other cannot? Did the 4:30 miler only work on that skill, or did he vary the training?

    I think about my son in this case…as I look at the debate. He was slow in grade school, ran cross country in 5th 6th, played baseball in 7,8. When he got into hs he decided to run cc his frosh year. That basketball season, I saw an entirely new person. He was all over the floor, aggressive, and could last at this pace throughout the game. Others commented on his change.The transformation was hard to describe. He ran cc again his second year, almost making state, and still yet amazed me again in basketball…he does commit himself though to his own basketball workouts as well as those with the cc team…so I wonder what happens if Al Vermeil would have had another group that addressed a group who worked on both muscle fibers?

    My son has the potential to go to state in cross country, but now, because of his love of basketball, is hesitant to push himself running cross country. I am debating myself how I should approach this. I know he would love to play basketball in some college, he is just 6′…so idk. He works alot on his basketball skills on his own, and is a very determined kid. I really hate to see him blow his chance…actually, I think how he runs could make or break the team in going to state.

    I am also concerned about one of his teammates. His teammate chose not to run this year. He said running cc would not help him with basketball so he is going to do his own workouts. I do not see the same type of self-commitment built in. I am pretty sure he doesn’t have the drive it takes. The daily regiment of having to attend a practice and have a structured workout I am certain would be best. Because of his size, he has always been clumsy… After he ran this past year, I did see and improvement in his game. I don’t know if running the hills over branches and through creeks helped with his eye feet coordination or what, but things were looking much better. All the rest of the team are either running cc or playing football, i fear he will be left behind in the dust, get aggravated, and possibly give up…just based on personalities involved.

    I guess it boils down to a case by case scenario…but in those around me, without any science, I have seen way more good come about than the negatives. Perhaps I have been fortunate to be around and observe a couple of good programs that train the whole athlete.

  5. Mike — August 30, 2011 @ 6:13 am

    The goal for any runner is to run fast…most any young WANT TO BE athlete no matter what shape or size can be trained up to run very long…and that’s good.. if that’s want you want…you can always gain endurance. If you want to be fast in any sport …YOU HAVE TO TRAIN FAST..Please do not buy in just because you can run all day that you can compete as a distance runner…there nothing worst than a slow distance runner ( I know I was one that could run 100 miles a week after week) do not get me wrong I LOVED evey mile of it. If we as parents and coaches take the time to work on the fine motor skills,think fast,reaction time etc.our future distance runners would perform at a higher level..let’s remember any exercise is better than none at all…think sports specific on a higher level

  6. Randy — August 30, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    I see the concerns and comments about the pros and cons..fast twitch vs. slow twitch..the science of it all…etc..,but what about the team chemistry part of it?..the part of fighting to the finish?..goal setting?..mental toughness..etc..This part does not hurt basketball…As a basketball coach of junior high kids, I endorse the kids going out for cross country…plus, what are most kids going to be doing when they are adults?? Running is a Super Lifetime Skill…

  7. Joe — August 30, 2011 @ 8:29 am

    So I agree with article but I am also thinking about a little earlier in life. When kids go to PE, the traditional class runs laps at a slow pace everyday. Is this training their slow twitch muscles at an early age or are muscles not developed enough?

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  9. Joe Haefner — August 30, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    Great points, everybody. There are certainly many different dynamics that should be considered for each individual situation.

    Lynn, the coordination and speed that you are talking about could just be the result of maturation. A lot of kids are just getting physically more mature, so they get faster, quicker, stronger, and more coordinated. However, I’m not saying they didn’t get it from cross country, because that could well be the case.

    In regards to developing athletes, Gray Cook states that the first stage should be to develop quality movement.

    Vern Gambetta states that after you develop quality movement, you should develop work capacity. This is what he says about the continuous work method which is similar to cross country running “I have found this method to be less effective with sprint, intermittent-sprint, and transition-game athletes (basketball) who are accustomed to get a training effect and do not have the ability to push themselves to get a training effect any more than just feeling tired.”

    He actually recommends the interval method to build work capacity. Here is an example from Vern’s book “Athletic Development”
    - 16 x 100 meters in 22 seconds; 30 seconds of rest between runs.
    - 18 x 100 meteres in 20 seconds; 45 seconds of rest between runs.

    After the athlete has good quality movement and a good base of work capacity, you can start to increase the intensity to train power and strength.

    I’d be curious as well about the Al Vermeil study. My guess is that they did some work capacity training, but I don’t know.

    I like to stagger the program in the offseason. This is assuming they can move properly and already have a decent work capacity.

    In the spring, I like to focus on power and speed. In the summer, add a day of basketball endurance work. Then in the fall focus on basketball endurance work. Both, strength, power, and endurance are always incorporated throughout the year, the emphasis is just different. For example, in the spring time, I might do one day every two to three weeks of basketball endurance. In the fall, I might do 2 to 3 days a week of basketball endurance work.

  10. Jeff — August 30, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

    I agree with the article at the high school level. As a retired head varsity softball coach my players never ran just to run. We ran bases, timed with reason and or situational. I would laugh watching all the baseball kids running laps around the park, while the softball girls’ got quicker on the base path. As a current junior high basketball coach with limited resources, I would rather have an athlete out for C.C. than sitting at home playing video games. The student-athletes in my comminuty truly don’t have the time/space, resources for specific training. So, C.C. better than nothing, but of course not as good as explosive and/or specific skill training.

  11. Lance — August 30, 2011 @ 2:07 pm

    I played basketball at a suburban Kansas City area high school and our fall conditioning program (which you were encouraged to “strongly, strongly, strongly” particpate in if you weren’t playing a fall sport) consisted of…

    Monday / Wednesday / Friday – Running 200 meters, starting with 10 per day, progressing up to 24 per day and all of them had to be under a certain time (34 seconds if I remember correctly). That was followed by an hour or so of weight lifting (no routine, just what you wanted to work on).

    Tuesday / Thursday – We ran 3.2 miles in under 32 minutes and that was followed by an hour and a half of pick-up basketball.

    That was basically a two month program (September and October) until basketball season started in November.

  12. Joe Haefner — August 30, 2011 @ 2:29 pm

    Lance, where did you go to school? I currently live in the KC area.

  13. Lance — August 30, 2011 @ 6:58 pm

    Joe -

    I went to Lee’s Summit in the late 80s.

  14. Coach R — August 30, 2011 @ 9:58 pm

    I have personal experience with this subject. As an 8th grader had a bad football injury. (6 months) So football season came along in 9th grade and I couldn’t go thru that so decided to get in shape for basketball by going out for cross country. I went from being 2nd or 3rd fastest 100 meter runner in largest division school to being very average speed
    for a couple of years. Didn’t really have trainers back in my day except the weightlifting bulky muscled
    ex-football player. But we didn’t lift in basketball or baseball. I’m no expert or haven’t studied the subject thoroughly but my experience was proof enough for me.

  15. Lynn — August 30, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

    Once again, I am curious, is there anyone out there that did their off season training on their own? Are their a lot of kids at the high school age mature enough to keep a diligent program set up?

    I do not know how the two month program above could be accomplished in the states where contact time for coaches and players are limited…as well as for those who are in a small school, where student athletes are needed to field teams, and have to be multiple sport participants.

    Also, the team chemistry is a great point. I know our cross country kids have a fun time, not during the training part of course, but for some reason they tend to hang out together after practices and go to each others place swimming or jumping on trampolines and whatever fun stuff they come up with. They even went as a group paintball…so definitely team camaraderie is something they develop there…especially since all of them participate at some level, no matter how good they are. The kids that ran together in previous years, tended to hang out more. I guess it is pretty cut and dry who makes varsity and who is on jv based on times for cc, the jealousy of floor time encountered in basketball is not present. This can hopefully carry over.

    We did pick up a couple of runners this fall who would have been at home playing videos, so I am sure this has been a good addition for those two.

  16. Lynn — August 30, 2011 @ 10:30 pm

    I was thinking about my son and his running again…he ran track after basketball season, ran his 200 in I think around mid 20s, his 400 at the 53ish mark, his mile he broke under 5…I think 4:55ish. I really couldn’t tell you whether he was a slow twitch or fast….
    My question is then, if I am interpreting the research correctly, assuming he should want to make state in a three mile race, he would benefit by running some short intervals?

    Also to coach R…perhaps for your change, you may have done just the opposite of my son, you matured a little earlier or body makeup changed as well to take you from the fastest to just average. I know my son went exactly the opposite from his 8th grade year to frosh/soph year after running cross country….I am sure there are many variables in the equation, and again, I go back to look at the training the cross country group undergoes…which I give a lot of credit to our coaches there. Each day seems to be a little different kind of workout…

  17. Joe Haefner — August 31, 2011 @ 9:24 am

    Lynn, I think he would benefit from short intervals, but I also think he would benefit from just some pure speed work with a high work to rest ratio. That means he would sprint 5 to 10 seconds, rest for 30 to 60 seconds. The reason for the high rest ratio is to make sure he can give maximum effort on every sprint. This is how speed is developed. If you lower the work to rest ratio, say 1:1. That means he sprints 10 seconds, rests 10 seconds, that will work more on speed endurance.

    Here are some good articles on middle and long distance training: http://www.functionalpathtrainingblog.com/endurance-training/

    I’ve read lots of information over the last 10 years and Vern Gambetta’s work makes the most sense to me.

    Here is another site that I like:
    http://completetrackandfield.com/archives/

    I hope that helps.

  18. Joe Haefner — August 31, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    Lynn, your response to Coach R is a possibility. But I was a kid who was really fast when I was young. I was always the running back in flag football. Around 7th grade, all of my buddies matured. I didn’t.

    In 7th & 8th grade track, they were faster. I hung in there and I would probably lose by 10m to 15m in the sprint events, but I didn’t do bad for my size and physical maturity (biological age). Well, since I wasn’t as fast as my more mature friends, the coaches placed me in long-distance events (800m, 1600m, etc.). And for the next few years, I did a lot of long-distance running. By the end of my freshmen year, I had almost caught up physically to my friends. However, I still wasn’t as fast. It didn’t make sense to me. I grew 11 inches over the last 3 years and got stronger, and I still wasn’t as fast. It frustrated me and it didn’t make sense to me, because I worked harder than these kids. From my research and understanding on how much influence your training style has on you especially during and after you hit puberty, I blame this improper training which was my long-distance running.

  19. Joe Haefner — August 31, 2011 @ 9:36 am

    Oh and to finish my story, in 10th grade, I signed up for some classes to work on strength and explosiveness, it helped me tremendously. It helped me make the varsity team as 10th grader. My 10th grade year, that was the quickest and most explosive I was ever.

    My junior year, I went out for cross country. I ran too much too soon and ended injuring my knee. I felt slower and less explosive during basketball season, but I think it was less due to my injury and more due to my training methods. I just didn’t know any better at the time.

  20. Wayne — September 1, 2011 @ 10:05 am

    I put my daughter in cross country last year thinking it would be great to get her in shape. She participates in a homeschool basketball program and their season is long and grueling.

    As much as I love cross country, I would not put her in it to get in shape. She is already very lean and tall and halfway through Cross Country, she developed five stress fractures in her legs and had to miss the first three weeks of the basketball season to recover.

    Looking back having her in our off-season workout and having her do her own individual workouts was and should be enough.

  21. Lynn — September 5, 2011 @ 11:33 pm

    I’m back…..
    This whole topic has intrigued me enough to do A LOT of reading. What I have found so far, that really there is no conclusive evidence it seems either way. While I am still absorbing article after article, and sleeping through a few, I found one website I thought I would share with you and get your thoughts.
    http://www.pponline.co.uk/encyc/soccer-fitness.htm

    The closing paragraph intrigued me and has me now looking further into this debate. I am sharing this with you and your readers for their thoughts as well.

    ” What’s the bottom line? In several key ways, Soccer and basketball count as ‘endurance sports’, since they place a high demand on the cardiovascular system, and since performance ability appears to hinge on physiological variables such as VO2max, lactate threshold and running economy. Thus, performing the types of interval workouts used by endurance athletes should be helpful to players of both sports.”

    Owen Anderson”

    Just some more food for thought…thanks for listening or reading!

  22. Lynn — September 5, 2011 @ 11:34 pm

    Oh yes, forgot, he goes into detail about a couple of studies done on the website, but didn’t want to get into the details here…encourage others to check it out.

  23. WayneJR — September 7, 2011 @ 12:02 pm

    Hey everyone,
    Waynej here,Interesting discussion here.
    Depending on the persons fitness level Long distance running or CC can make u faster and perform better in basketball in terms of endurance.
    But, it’s very well known in the basketball community that long distance running can and will have an undesirable effect on your basketball game.
    How ?
    Long Distance runners will build up more slow twitch muscle fibers and by doing so will have less explosiveness than they could of had if they had more fast twitch muscle fibers.
    Also,once you have built up a certain type of twitch muscle it is very hard to change it and takes a long time(years sometimes).
    Just look at the game of Basketball its very explosive and can contain many sprints up and down the court,this style of running is not comparable to long distance running.
    Another note,Long distance running severely hurts your vertical jump, you will not only struggle to improve over years,but will most likely reduce your vertical jump immediately.
    Most ppl who “effectively” want to increase their Vertical jump, train sprints usually 25,50,100 metres.
    Ask a state High jump athelete, they will most probally be using sprints in their training.

    A person with a mixture of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres is not desirable for basketball,why?
    The person trained for fast twitch can ‘recruit’ more fast twitch muscle fibers when they decide to ‘explode’.
    I have nothing against long distance running or cc and are fantastic sports and are great for fitness, but if you are SERIOUS about playing basketball then i wouldn’t recommend them.

  24. Jerry McDaniel — March 1, 2012 @ 1:47 am

    You really nailed it with this post. Where did you get that image from on the top?

  25. Maylene — July 29, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    I am researching this data for my 15 yr. old son. He is 6’5″ and just got back from Basketball camp and wanted to play football. Our High School Football program is not as dedicated, supported, or organized like other’s in our area. Last season was terrible and I don’t believe we won a game.

    I was encouraging my son to run cross country instead of football. It sounds as if this is not a good idea. With the injuries during football season because the lack of quality coaches and the inability to prepare our kids for the field, they all are getting injured. To prevent injuries that would affect his Basketball season I do think Football is appropriate.

    It sounds as if a regular work out would be better for him to maintain his basketball condition….Is this correct? He is highly motivated and needs to continue to work, I just worry about a season off what may happen. Last year he played football, basketball, track and summer ball and then the summer camp up until now (he has had 3 days off). Any suggestions would be appreciated.

  26. Joe Haefner — July 31, 2012 @ 11:06 am

    Thanks for the comment, Maylene. Are there other options to consider such as soccer, lacrosse, volleyball or other sports that your son may be interested in?

    If your son wants to be a good basketball player, he is going to need to put in extra work irregardless if he chooses to play other sports or not. I would advise three to four 45 to 60 minute workouts per week if he is not play another sport.

  27. Newsletter 60 – New Multi-Purpose Ball Handling Drill, Emotional Balance, Cross Country, and more — August 1, 2012 @ 8:48 pm

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  28. Rachel — August 6, 2012 @ 9:20 am

    Hey, I’m going to be a senior in high school and I thought this article was interesting because a girl on our basketball team used to be decently fast and she started doing cross country to get in shape for basketball and is now one of the slowest people on our team!

    Anyways, I am trying to get in really good shape and improve in whatever ways I can for this years basketball season (I’m hoping to have a big year). But we don’t really have a trainer or anything so I was wondering if you could give me some ideas on the best way to get in shape and work on my fast twitch muscles before November. Any help would be appreciated! Thank you :)

  29. Joe Haefner — August 8, 2012 @ 8:23 pm

    Thanks for the question, Rachel.

    This is very difficult to give advice for somebody that I’ve never seen move. If I give you a program, it could be a great workout for somebody else and a terrible one for you.

    For example, if you have really bad movement patterns, I could give you a workout and it would only make things worse by further ingraining those bad movement patterns.

    While for somebody else, it might help them improve tremendously.

    I have Kelvin Giles’s movement tests for athletes that I train.

    I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help in this situation.

  30. gonzalo — August 11, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    is good congratuletions

  31. gonzalo — August 11, 2012 @ 6:58 pm

    I am of the opinion you coach a well designed also consider cross-country can be as long as it do otherwise supervised to do so is no good congratulations

  32. Tim — August 23, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

    Joe—

    I can find no evidence of this study by Bosco whatsoever, despite his work being widely published in Journal of Strength and Conditioning, etc. Link?

  33. Joe Haefner — August 24, 2012 @ 7:36 am

    Tim, I would ask the Journal of Strength and Conditioning. They could probably help you better than I could.

  34. Brian C — August 24, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

    Interesting article, but it has me in panic mode. I was hoping some of you could give me advice.

    Last season and I had the highest vertical jump on my basketball team. I worked diligently in the off season to increase my vertical jump. Recently some of my friends convinced me to do cross country. I’m in my first week of practice, and I play basketball before and after school in addition to running. I’m worried that cross-country will decrease the vertical jump I worked so hard to improve.

    But theres a kid on the cross country team who went to state last year who is 5’9 and can dunk. (he doesn’t play basketball seriously though)

    So do you guys think I should continue cross country? Any advice is appreciated.

  35. John Lockman — August 26, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

    The loss of fast twitch muscle will be so negligiable that it would not make any apparent difference. However the added benefit of more endurance could mean pulling out ahead for a close victory because you simply had that extra amount of endurance required to catchup to the fast break etc. I see more teams lose because of simply getting overtired on the courts as opposed to some fast twitch itch.

    On a college level or professional level the rules change because these guys effectively will run a half marathon every practice I used to watch Lou Carnisecca run St John’s practices. At the HS age all muscle development is good.

  36. Joe Haefner — August 27, 2012 @ 8:00 am

    Brian C, my question to you would be, are you running cross country because you enjoy it or are you running cross country to get ready for basketball?

    If you enjoy it, stay out for it. If you are preparing for basketball, I’d rather have my kids condition for basketball by participating in 3 to 5 sixty minute intense skill sessions while playing a a couple of times a week.

  37. Joe Haefner — August 27, 2012 @ 8:01 am

    John, that could be true. However, I’d rather have my players improve their skills while getting conditioned if their goal is solely to get ready for basketball. That makes the athlete much more efficient with their time so they could enjoy being a high school kid.

    If they enjoy cross country, by all means, participate.

  38. Brian C — September 1, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    I started doing cross country because a friend convinced me to, but I agreed thinking that it would help me with basketball. In addition to cross country I’m playing basketball 1-2 hours a day and doing cross fit 2-3 days per week (also to prepare for basketball)

    So my question is, does cross country decrease your vertical jump and quickness?

  39. Joe C — October 16, 2012 @ 8:32 pm

    I coach cross country at a small school. The basketball coach graciously encourages his athletes to run cross country. About 70 percent participate voluntarily. This involves three 6:30 a.m. workouts a week. After the first big meet (about two weeks) we run hills (6-8×300 meter hill) on Monday, distance (3-6 miles) on Wednesday, and speedwork (weights combined with running distances from 150 yards to a mile).Even the team center has decided he likes running and is working his butt off in the morning. Not only are the kids in great shape – they don’t seem to lose speed. They also are more mentally tougher because they are doing something other kids are intimidated by – pre-school workouts that take them to the edge of physical ability. We don’t practice the day after basketball games. The coach said he can tell the difference – the cross country runners don’t run out of energy as the game goes on. Our guys are also lightening quick – I don’t know that the speed has anything to do with the running but they certainly don’t lose any speed. Our guys have to be quick – we’re vertically challenged at our school. Last year the team went to the state tournament for the first time in years. We won state in cross country for the second year in a row.

  40. Joe C — October 16, 2012 @ 8:35 pm

    From what I’ve seen – most of the cross country runners who don’t improve in cross country don’t do so because they haven’t bought into running. Schools show up with big, out of shape kids who don’t want to be there. They race to see who can finish at the back of the pack. The players who buy into being competitors run faster and improve. Just my experience and what I’ve seen.

  41. Joe C — October 17, 2012 @ 5:33 am

    I would like to add an interesting link and then will shut up. I just believe cross country done the right way and with the athlete’s full support helps them in basketball. I know that motivated basketball players make great cross country runners. In many cases they might even be better than traditional cross country runners because they are used to competing every day in practice and in games. Some BB players who are running for the first time this year said they are faster on the court. I don’t know that they are building speed – I think the endurance and speed work allow them to better utilize their natural talent. Our top runner last year was an All-State basketball player and the individual cross country state champion.

    http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/sports/2012/09/01/city-league-teams-mix-basketball-cross-country.html

  42. Joe Haefner — October 17, 2012 @ 8:10 am

    Thank you for your input, Joe C! Great points and I’m glad to hear about your success. It sounds like you’re doing things the right way. I also hear you on the “small school” thing. I went to a small school and the athletic program usually functions most effectively when there is a high amount of participation among multiple sports for individual athletes.

    If a player comes up to me and says how can I best prepare for basketball season, I won’t tell them to go out for cross country because I feel like I can put together a program that will better prepare them for the basketball season and help them be more efficient with their time. Running cross country, practicing bball 3 to 4 times a week… at least, and school work can be quite overwhelming for a student. Now add a job on top of that, it can make things very difficult.

    However, if a player likes to run cross country, by all means, I will strongly encourage to participate in cross country as long as there is a quality coach heading the program.

  43. FTIR — February 20, 2013 @ 10:29 am

    I don’t know much about basketball but I know lots about running fast.

    The point of the best XC training is to build up the speed at which the slow twitch muscles can carry the runner so that at the end of the race the runner can use their fast twitch muscles (which also have to be trained appropriately) to accelerate and beat their opponents. If done just right this can only be an advantage to a basketball player. Imagine a player who hasn’t lost any of their explosive capability at the end of a double overtime game.

    However, ideal XC training is even less likely than the unlikely idea of kids doing reasonable basketball workouts on their own. The only reason I can see for basketball players to go out for XC is that basketball players rarely have any idea what it means to work hard.

    They have some idea what it means to work long. They have some idea what it means to play hard. But, the worse a XC team is coached, the more likely XC practice is to teach a basketball player how to work hard. I would think they should learn this their freshman year and then take that knowledge and use it to work hard the following three off seasons doing Breakthrough Basketball workouts.

  44. Ryan — February 28, 2013 @ 8:17 pm

    Not sure how I ended up on this article…but I happen to have experienced the whole cross country as a basketball player situation in high school. A lot of my close friends did XC, and I figured it would get me/keep me in shape for basketball season. I would suggest XC if the program is well coached. If there was a organized/coached basketball program after school, I might recommend that above XC, but in no ways would I suggest XC is detrimental to basketball season.

    For one, XC is coached (hopefully by a good one), and it forced me to workout, stretch, eat healthier on a daily basis. There was no room to slackoff with the coach breathing down my neck. I can’t say the same would happen if I were to just play pickup basketball after school. (Again, if there is a good organized bball camp/clinic/program I might lean towards that).

    The actual running did help me in a number of ways. The obvious is endurance. Running point guard for my school, it definitely helps down the stretch of games/practices when you look around and lot of players are pretty fatigued. XC was a lot of mental strengthening as well. As a basketball player, I found running long distances a daunting task. But you overcome it, and you learn to look inside yourself for that little extra to push you through. It taught me how to work at hard at something that I wasn’t particularly good at. Did I become a great runner? No, but I got better.

    As far cross country decreasing the explosiveness needed for basketball, I would disagree. I was always an more explosive/sprinter type athlete, so maybe I just did not feel a significant decrease. However, I think XC has more speed/explosive workouts than most people think and a lot rests on the coaching. Every week there were speed workouts (multiple short distance runs with little rest), and also hills workouts. These help you keep explosiveness. I also felt that the high emphasis on stretching everyday helped my basketball ability. The extra flexibility helps vertical jumping a ton.

    So all in all, I would say cross country is a good supplement to lead into basketball season. I still worked on bball on the weekends, and the few weeks going into bball season though. If there is an organized basketball program that makes sure of diligent hard work, I would suggest that, but with a good coach, cross country is not a bad alternative in my opinion.

  45. Will Cross Country Hurt Your Game? | One Motion Basketball — September 16, 2013 @ 4:48 pm

    […] http://www.breakthroughbasketball.com/blog/index.php/can-cross-country-hurt-your-game/ […]

  46. Seth — October 25, 2016 @ 4:48 pm

    Hey there,
    I am a homeschooled 16 year old, and I was wondering, if I work on running distance Mon/Wed/Fri, and speed/fast twitch muscles on Tues/Thurs/Sat, will I build both kinds of muscles? I am getting into off-road triathlons, but I also play volleyball, which especially in beach volleyball, takes alot of fast-twitch.

  47. Steve — May 25, 2019 @ 4:12 am

    This was a good read. I’m 44 now; but was diehard basketball kid turned runner in late high school and now a father. I see this debate goes on, as it should. I think we have to recognize that each young body is different, and you have to play to those strengths. Also, even as a college miler – what and how-much you did – in September was different come November, February and May. There was a mixture throughout (speed & endurance) but it started with a base.

    The information about fast-twitch and slow twitch training isn’t wrong but it’s often misunderstood or over-applied, because the process is simplified and not balanced to the degree that best suits an individuals strengths.

    Does the mile help the basketball player? Shots in the hoop win the game, but I routinely, even at 44, run a 15-20 year old off the court when playing 5v5 full court. As soon as I hear ‘man-v-man’ I’m the first down the court, working the back door and baseline. 4-5 minutes into the game I routinely realize the athlete has only prepared for the explosive move and doesn’t move or defend without the ball in a constant pace. Huge advantage I’ve sought throughout my life, but it fits my body and build. It’s my strength, and not everyones. At 6’ feet-tall, I’m not going to power many people, but if I can hit my open jumpers, I know I have a methodical way of getting open. It involves speed, which I have, but my secret ingredient is pace via constant motion that fits into a play.

    This rather small difference becomes an advantage, and coaching kids today – I exploit it for teens who I believe have this advantage. Moving without the ball constantly is pace. That wears down the player who focuses on explosiveness. Because pace is different than bursts of speed.

    So I train my kids differently, and I train them to the way we play as a team – and in a manner that gets to their strengths.

    As a coach, I teach tempo. My endurance guys must move without the ball to wear the defender. My bigs will play differently (more moderate pace, that look for opportunities to explode). The point guard is the general that surveys whether the defenders are giving up inches of space to my runners.

    Now, an explosive player is preferred these days, but I’m focusing on a growing blind-spot that exists across the basketball training. Endurance is a tool you want in the box. Cross Country can be a great base for those type of players (not all).

    A good high school cross country coach should know not to essentially coach to slow twitch. Speed, tempo runs, strides, and one long-run a week is the mix.

    Lastly, competition. Left to our own devices and views we all believe our views are the right ones. We give ourselves self-effectuating success stories, and find the data to support our beliefs, but having a teen race and compete is valuable. Basketball is subjective (who’s better, who should play, was there a foul or not) but racing is an objective test. Who is faster over 100, 400, mile, 5k… are your times improving? Teens who get objective competitive opportunities gain better awareness of their strengths, and weaknesses.

    Bottom line: If coached correctly, Cross Country can be a great base for basketball conditioning for some.

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