If the “Running Man” theorists are correct, humans evolved as a species by running across the savannahs of Africa chasing prey. What our ancestors lacked in sharp claws and venomous stings they made up with the ability to persevere for long periods of time in pursuit (and sweat — no other creature can cool itself through sweating like hominids can).
Today, the essence of running through the grasslands lives on in the sport of cross country, a popular sport at the high school and college level. Still, many running stores, outfitters and community organizations put on cross country events for runners of all ages and abilities these days.
Unlike its track and road racing counterparts, cross country and its undulating terrain rewards stamina and grit more than raw speed. It also diminishes the importance of the watch, as cross country courses can vary from blazing flat and fast to hilly roller coasters. What’s more, with most cross country races being in the fall and winter, conditions shift from September heat waves to hats and mittens in February. Oh, and mud. Lots and lots of mud.
All of these qualifiers mean that cross country training requires a special blend of endurance training, strength work and just enough speed to make it all count at the end. For the sake of this article, I’m going to assume you, the reader is already running four to seven times per week and that you’re coming into the season in respectable shape. I’m also going to assume you’re getting in solid recovery runs in between your workouts and that you are already incorporating long runs into your training diet. If those assumptions are incorrect, you’ll probably want to spend a few weeks getting in some consistent miles before jumping into the workouts prescribed below.
Alright, let’s go:
The ability to run far is essential. So is the ability to run fast. To be good at cross country requires you to run pretty fast for a pretty long time. Most cross country races are between two and five miles in the US, though they can be as long as 12K (7.4 miles) at the elite level. This requires the stamina to endure racing at a high intensity for an extended period. Nothing develops that ability quite as well as tempo runs, also known as lactate threshold runs and/or steady-state runs. These workouts increase the speed at which you can run aerobically, making you more efficient on race day.
A good rule of thumb when determining tempo pace is to make it 30 seconds per mile slower than your 5K pace. So, if you run seven-minute miles in the 5K, tempo pace should be around 7:30 per mile. Working this energy system can take many forms. Some runners like steady tempos of three to five miles. Some like to do cruise intervals, which are simply repeat one- and two-mile runs at tempo pace with a shortened recovery. If you don’t have a GPS watch, you can run for time instead of distance. When in doubt, the best way to determine pace is by effort. “Comfortably hard” is often thrown around as a descriptor, and in many ways, it captures the fact that a tempo run should be challenging without being overwhelming.
Racing over hill and dale requires an ability to climb and descend hills well. While sprinting downhill can overburden the quadriceps and increase the risk of injury, running uphill provides numerous benefits. Not only does it force your body to work ancillary muscle groups and develop power by working against gravity, but it also does this with decreased impact forces, as you land with less force running uphill than on the flats or downhills.
I frequently prescribe hill repeats to my cross country runners for these reasons. The increased gradient makes running more difficult, so I keep the intervals shortish; 400 to 600 meters is usually sufficient. These runs don’t need to be on an excessively steep hill, as doing so changes normal running mechanics. A four- to eight-percent grade is perfect. The recovery is quite nice, too — an equal jog downhill to where you started.
Because of its unchanging nature, it can sometimes be challenging to simulate what you’ll encounter in a cross country race. A workout consisting of two tempo runs with a series of hill sprints in the middle can give you the chance to adapt to these inconsistencies.
Start with a 10- to 15-minute tempo on flat terrain. After a three-minute jog, begin a series of hill sprints. These hills can be shorter and quicker than those in workout 2; 200m hills are perfect. Sprint these powerfully and with excellent form. Jog back for recovery. After doing six to 10 of those, return to the flat terrain and run another 10-to-15 minute tempo. Not only will this ensure you can change pace and climb powerfully, but it should show you that you can still run a pretty fast even on tired legs.
Workouts run at goal pace are the most specific way to build the fitness necessary to run fast on race day. Beginning runners will benefit from intervals lasting three to five minutes, or roughly one kilometer (.62 miles). More advanced runners can do intervals between 1200 and 2000 meters (.75 to 1.24 miles). Depending on what you have available, you can run these on a track, road, bike path or cross country course. Don’t worry if the terrain match isn’t perfect; these workouts are more about fitness gains. Run them in a place where you can run fast without interruption. Because the pace is more intense than tempo runs, you’ll need to recover for roughly 75 percent of the time that you ran fast.
Many athletes make kilometer and mile repeats the heart and soul of their training. At the same time, these workouts utilize the same energy system as shorter cross country races. If you’re a frequent racer, I recommend performing these sparingly, as the training is redundant and could be better served by workouts #1 through #3. If you race less frequently, you can incorporate a session like this every 10 to 14 days.
For any race lasting over five minutes, the aerobic energy system is key. Long runs are the best way to develop this raw endurance. To make your long run the most cross country-specific, you possibly can consider adding some pace changes to these long runs to simulate running fast on tired legs.
Pace changes can take numerous forms. It could be a series of one-minute surges thrown in during the last few miles. It could be progressively moving from a leisurely pace to a medium pace to a tempo pace over the course of a run. It could be charging up hills during the back half of the run or sprinting the last half-mile of the long run to see how fast you can run while fatigued. However you do it, make sure you don’t detract from the main purpose of a long run: putting in lots of time on your feet.
By Philip Latter. Latter is a former senior writer at Running Times and co-author of Running Flow and Faster Road Racing. His work has also appeared in Runner's World, runnersworld.com, and ESPN.com. He currently coaches athletes at The Running Syndicate, in addition to his day job coaching high school runners at Brevard High School (NC).