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Ellie Lawler speaks to camp participants

SOUTH KINGSTOWN —Training for cross country isn’t just about running anymore, and South County’s high school runners are learning that lesson this summer.

Every Wednesday night since getting the all-clear in Rhode Island’s reopening plan, a few dozen runners from South Kingstown High School and Narragansett High School have been gathering at Curtis Corner Middle School for captains practices with a twist. A program developed by Bert Reid of Olympic Physical Therapy and run through the South Kingstown Parks and Recreation Department has incorporated high intensity strength and conditioning into the usual time on trails. The group is also getting guidance in the same vein from former South Kingstown High School All-American Ellie Lawler, now a runner at Syracuse.

“Everyone thinks it’s just running, but there’s more to it,” said South Kingstown High School boys cross country coach Jim Champion. “A big part of it is strength and conditioning. Everyone in South County knows Bert Reid because he’s at the forefront of physical therapy. We’ve done stuff in the past with him for injuries. But it’s kind of neat – now he’s helping us with preventing injuries. We wanted to run the camp and make it something different than just logging miles, and Bert approached me with this awesome idea.”

Camps run by the Parks and Recreation Department have allowed student-athletes in several sports to get back together this summer, with guidelines in place. The organizers of the cross country camp wanted to think outside the box, and the result was the training program.

It’s based on evidence that strength and conditioning allows for greatly improved performance and a reduction in injuries. The days of just going out for a run for conditioning are over, Reid said.

“We’ve been fortunate to work with some great runners from our state, but also runners who travel in from all over to get tested, get physical therapy or go through some kind of a specific functional sports training program,” Reid said. “Many who have reached a very high level of running have been through our program.”

Olympic Physical Therapy has recently merged with Pappas Physical Therapy and now has 16 offices statewide. Clients from the running world – who turn to the company for physical therapy, orthotics and the training programs – include former Olympians Shalane Flanagan and Adam Goucher, plus a host of collegiate runners like Lawler. The company also has the Optogait system, which measures performance and can predict injury patterns for runners.

The cross country program is similar to functional training that Olympic Physical Therapy has put together for baseball, football and basketball, with exercises and drills designed to mimic the movements of each sport. At last week’s camp, groups of runners did drills in a circuit, then switched out for high-intensity runs up the hill behind Curtis Corner.

“We’re trying to give the high school runner a variety of workouts besides just the average logging miles,” Champion said. “We’ve had huge attendance and it’s a great atmosphere.”

Lawler’s presence has given some weight to the proceedings. A three-time state champion and a Foot Locker All-American, Lawler has shared stories from her experiences in national cross country races and in the collegiate ranks.

“When I first heard that this was happening, it wasn’t something I could refuse,” Lawler said. “My running right now has been solely individual and being surrounded by people who love the same thing I love, I was like, ‘Yeah, of course I’ll do it.’ Knowing that I could give them some tokens of wisdom was cool, and I definitely get some from them, too. They’re just as much an inspiration to me as I could be to them.”

“Ellie is a huge star from the past in our program and she’s come back to help. We love it when athletes come back and help where they came from,” Champion said. “I like the fact that Ellie and some former runners who work for Bert are sharing their experiences. You get some dos and don’ts from their time as high school runners, and that’s so valuable to share with the kids. I think the kids relate to them because they’re young. It captures their attention to hear the young speaker talk about training, nutrition, injuries.”

No one yet knows what high school sports will look like this fall, but these runners will be ready for whatever happens.

“So far, I’ve heard all positives,” Champion said. “I think they like the variety part of it. It’s been great.”

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