Before hitting the trails during a recent practice, the girls cross country team assembled at the Tien Track. The group stood in rows as they moved in synchronicity, mimicking a running stride while balancing on one leg. With one limb in motion, reaching chest height, then cycling behind them, they focused their eyes ahead as they stabilized their stationary leg in a semi-squat.
Runners are often reluctant to divert time from traditional cardio work to strength training, says Kate Daniels, the girls cross country coach. “Many runners have no problem putting in the miles, but consider strength training and stretching as optional or something to be done on a non-running day or ‘when there is time,'" explains Daniels. “The truth is strength training and stretching are necessary for building strength, agility, and explosiveness. It’s what makes a good runner great.”
This addition to the cross country team's routine is part of a more substantial move in the Athletic Department's approach to training. “Two years ago, we made a significant shift in redesigning our fitness center to have a greater emphasis on functional training,” explains Athletic Director Dick Muther. “We have moved away from the machine-based training and now focus our athletes on movements that are more applicable to their sports.”
The School’s on-site strength and conditioning coordinators Michele Rogers and Assistant Athletic Director Sheri Fournier introduced fitness coaches Pat Gigante and Ben Piecz from Xcelerated Performance to the program last spring. Gigante and Piecz create customized training programs for student-athletes based on their individual needs. They also spend three-days a week working with teams in season. Their approach complements the free-weight equipment the School installed at the start of the 2018-19 academic year. Gigante and Piecz’s work and the updated weight room serve as aids to improve performance, but also help participants work to prevent injuries by correcting strength imbalances within the body.
“Everyone's body is completely different. You want to create custom programs around free weights,” explains Gigante. “One of the things that I emphasize is educating everybody, not just athletes. You want to educate young minds on how to work smart, not just hard. Our goal is not just to make you gym strong, but to have it improve your productivity on the field or the ice.”
Sixth Former Ashley Davidson, co-captain of the girls cross country team, says Gigante and Piecz’s workouts are having an impact. “I’ve already seen progress from everyone on the team in just a few weeks we've been working with them," says Davidson. “Outside of practice, Pat and Ben have been present in the weight room and available for questions about absolutely anything. Just yesterday, I was squatting in the weight room and asked Pat about my breathing when I lift. He was incredibly willing and happy to answer my question and help me out, and he even gave me an extra pointer on my form – keeping my head in line with my spine.”
In addition to working with teams that are in season, Gigante and Piecz also designed workouts for Big Red competitors getting ready for their winter or spring sports. A recent afternoon found softball, ice hockey, basketball, baseball, lacrosse players, and rowers working through specialized circuits. Among them was Sixth Former Charlie Murphy, a member of the boys varsity ice hockey and lacrosse programs. “Both my sports require quick movements and flexibility, and I've been working with Pat and Ben to get stronger without sacrificing speed or endurance," says Murphy. "Their workouts are designed exactly to my body type and are based on personal evaluations. They have shown me that it's often not about how much you are lifting as opposed to your technique and doing the workouts the correct way.” His hockey peers have also joined in for offseason development.
Muther is encouraged by the teens’ efforts not just to challenge themselves but become stronger for the betterment of their various squads. “I am a particular fan of work they have been doing with our teams,” says Muther. “Whenever we can have our athletes working together, pushing each other to get bigger, faster, and stronger for the collective good, I think it speaks to the focus on the team aspect of competition that is so important to the growth and development of our student-athletes.”