The problems with long, slow distance (LSD) for basketball players are: 1) the energy system that it develops. 2) the muscle fibers it exercises. 3) the plane of motion it trains. 4) the, unrelentless, repetitive nature of the sport on key tendons, ligaments, and joints.
1) Energy system development
The body creates energy used by the muscles via one of three ways: 1) aerobically 2) anaerobically via glycolysis 3) the ATP-CP system. Different muscles fibers use the energy systems to different extents depending on the duration and intensity of the activity. Slow, less powerful muscles that are used for longer durations primarily rely on aerobic metabolism. Fast, explosive muscles that provide quick bursts of activity rely primarily on anaerobic glycolysis and the ATP-CP system.
Basketball is explosive: jumps, sprints, starts, and stops. Cross country is long and boring. So by using cross country as a training stimulus, we’re not really training the energy systems, nor the muscle fibers that we use during basketball. All we’re really doing is making them better at running long, slow distances. So just because the athlete may be more aerobically fit, they still won’t be in “basketball shape.”
My high school basketball team had one of the best cross country runners in the state. His VO2max far surpassed any of the other players. Every year he’d make it to the state cross country meet the week before basketball practice began so he was at peak physical condition. And every year he’d be just like the rest of us during the first week of practice after line drills: hands on our knees, gasping for air. Why? Because he only developed one of his energy systems, which happened to be the one that contributed the least to the sport of basketball. It’s the equivalent of doing bicep curls in hopes your calf muscle would get bigger.
2) Type I and II muscle fibers
Next to sumo wrestlers, cross country runners probably have the smallest vertical jumps of any group of athletes. Why? Because the miles upon miles of running trains the least explosive muscle fibers in the body, the type I fibers. These fibers are perfect for LSD: extremely fatigue resistant and they’re loaded with mitchondria and bloods vessels to supply oxygen to the muscle. However, they are absolutely horrible for generating power and strength, key requisites for jumping high and running fast. And to make it even worse, research has shown that LSD training can actually alter the athlete’s muscle fiber type, decreasing the number of type II fibers.
The running joke among strength coaches is that if you want your athletes to be weak and slow, put them on a training program designed for long distance runners. LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, Dwight Howard, etc have been blessed with a genetic makeup that has much more Type II fibers than Type 1 fibers. Athletes that want power need programs that are designed for power. The first tenet of strength training – what you train is what you get.
3) One plane of motion
Cross country is a linear sport that focuses solely on the sagittal plane. So it would make sense that runners only become efficient in the sagittal plane because those muscles/movements are the ones that are trained consistently. However, in basketball there is as much lateral movement as there is linear movement, as evident by the extreme soreness of groin area after the first few days of practice. The sagittal, frontal, and transverse planes are all frequently used in a game of basketball. If you don’t train in those planes, you don’t get faster and/or more efficient in those planes. Put Chris Paul against Usain Bolt, the fastest human on the planet, and CP would make him look incredibly slow on the basketball court. Why? Because CP is quick in all 3 planes, as well as has unbelievable acceleration and deceleration, while Usain only trains linearly and works in the sagittal plane. Once again, the first tenet of strength training – what you train is what you get.
4) Repetitive nature of running
Running, even though it’s just bodyweight, is extremely hard on the joints, especially when an athlete’s running form is not correct. The repetitive stress on the foot, ankle, knee, and hip eventually leads to problems. Can you think of a long distance runner that doesn’t have a nagging injury? Once again, we’re stressing one plane over and over and over again without addressing the other two planes. So, common sense would tell you that you’re eventually going to break down those muscles leading to injury. There are clinicians that even believe that it’s not necessarily the amount of force that leads to arthritis, but it’s the frequency and duration that are the primary culprits of bad feet, knees, and hips. The primary focus of a strength training program is injury prevention. Cross country completely ignores that focus.