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?