Be Ready for Cross Country Running Season

girls cross country runners
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There's no running circles around a track in cross country running—the unique courses and terrains keep many runners coming back for more. In this sport, races are held outdoors on natural terrain. That usually means hills and grass or dirt surfaces. Golf courses and parks are common venues. Participants love cross country for that variety, because it's social (you train and compete as a team), and because it's fun to play in the dirt and mud.

It's also hard work. Races are short and intense and they're held in all kinds of weather (usually in the fall and even through the winter). Whether you’re new to cross country running or a veteran runner returning for another season, you’ll need to put in the work to get race-ready. Distance runners have to build strength and endurance, as well as work on mental preparation and racing strategies.

What Is Cross Country?

While the sport got its start in England, cross country running is now very popular among middle school, high school, and college athletes in the U.S. Tens of thousands of students participate, and the number grows every year.

In cross country competition, runners race individually, earning points for their team based on their finishing position. So a first place finish earns one point, second place two points, and so on; the team with the least number of points wins. In many scholastic events, only the top five runners on a team are scored. But everyone can run, and even if their time does not count, they can still help with race strategy and displacing other competitors.

Races for middle-school runners are usually 1.5 to 2 miles. In high school, cross country races are usually 3.1 miles (a 5K). College men and women may run longer distances, and trail running races not affiliated with a school can vary greatly in length. A course may be one loop or a few, and usually starts and ends with a straightaway.

Cross Country Running vs. Road Running

Because of the uneven terrain, cross country running requires a different technique than running on a track or road. Runners have to be able to shorten their stride, use their core muscles to help balance and stay upright, and angle their toes slightly outward to keep from slipping on the course.

If you're brand-new to cross country running, one of the most important things you can do is get a good pair of running shoes that are suited for your foot type and running gait. Stop by your local running store for recommendations and running shoe selection tips. Some cross country runners wear spikes or trail running shoes. You can talk to your coach and the running store staff about what they recommend for you.

Your first couple of weeks of practice may be difficult and you may feel like others on the team are much stronger and faster than you. Try not to compare yourself to other runners. Instead, track your own progress and notice how you get stronger as you continue training.

Pace is also less important and consistent in cross country. Work to your best effort, but pace will vary. It's important to build endurance and speed, but also practice running on uneven surfaces as well as up and down hills. To reach your full running potential during cross country season, pre-season training is critical.

Building a Base for Cross Country Season

As seasoned cross country runners know, there’s no cramming when it comes to preparing for cross country races. Start training for the season several weeks before it starts. Some cross country runners like to run (or play other sports) year-round to stay in shape for cross country season.​

Start your training by running between 2 and 4 miles about three or four days per week. During base building, do your runs at a comfortable, conversational pace. Some treadmill running is OK, but it’s better to run outside, especially on dirt paths, trails, and other surfaces that are similar to the typical cross country course. Your body, especially your ankles and knees, will start to adapt to running on those surfaces. In addition, cross country meets are held in all kinds of weather—rain, heat, cold, etc.—so it’s helpful to train in the elements and start mentally preparing yourself for your races.

Whenever possible, do your workouts with your teammates. Running with others will help you stay motivated to keep running and make you push yourself harder during your workouts. If you’re unable to train with your cross country team during the summer, look for a local running group that you can run with. During the season, you can expect to do a mix of steady-state training runs, speed training, and hill workouts.

Workouts for Cross Country Runners

Once you’ve done about three weeks of base training, you can increase your overall weekly distance by 10 percent and bump up your training days from four to five. For your longest run of the week, most runners should max out at 6 or 7 miles. Some advanced runners may run up to 10 miles at a time in training, but most really don’t need to run more than that. At this point, it’s also safe to add some speed work and hill training one or two days a week (just don't do speed work two days in a row).

Speed Training

If you're brand-new to speed work, check out tips for getting started, so you don't get injured. Here are some speed workouts to try:

1. Ladder Workout

Ladder workouts are a fun way to pick up the pace. You work the way up the (time) “ladder” with your intervals and then back down again. You can do this workout on a treadmill, roads, track, or trails.

How to do it: Start with a 10-minute warm-up at an easy pace. Then pick it up to slightly faster than 5K pace for one minute, followed by one minute of easy jog recovery. The rest of the ladder goes like this:

  • 2 minutes at faster pace + 1-2 minutes easy jog
  • 3 minutes at faster pace + 2-3 minutes easy jog
  • 4 minutes at faster pace + 3-4 minutes easy jog
  • 3 minutes at faster pace + 2-3 minutes easy jog
  • 2 minutes at faster pace + 1-2 minutes easy jog
  • 1 minute at faster pace + 1 minute easy jog
  • 5-minute cool-down at an easy pace

2. Interval workouts

Interval workouts are a great way to build speed, endurance, strength, and get your legs used to a faster turnover. They’ll also help you sharpen your racing and pacing skills.

The key with interval workouts is to be consistent, both with your work and recovery intervals. For example, you don’t want to start out really strong with your first couple of intervals and then slow down a lot for the later ones or need a lot more recovery time. If that happens, it means that you ran the work intervals too hard.

Short intervals: This interval workout is a fun one to do outside, whether on a track or road, but it can also be done on a treadmill. For your recovery intervals, go at an easy pace, which means a slow jog or walking:

  • Warm up: 5-minute easy jog
  • Run: 30-second, full-speed sprint
  • Recover: 1 minute at an easy pace
  • Repeat the run/recover cycle for a total of 20 minutes.
  • Cool down: 5-minute easy jog

Finishing kick intervals: Start with two 800-meter intervals at your 5K pace, with 400-meter recovery (at easy pace) in between. Once you've finished that, do four 400-meter repeats at 5K pace, with 400-meter recovery (easy pace) in between. Try to push yourself during the hard intervals, as if you're in your final kick and trying to beat an opponent to the finish line.

3. Fartleks

Fartleks, which are runs in which you alternate between fast segments and slow jogs, are a fun way to do speedwork, especially for pre-season because they're not structured and your work-rest intervals can be based on how you feel. Fartleks are great training for cross country runners because they teach you how to surge during a race or fight off an opponent who’s trying to make a move on you. And they can be fun to do as a group, as each person take turns picking the next landmark or time interval.

How to do it: To do a fartlek workout, start with 5 or 10 minutes of easy running, and pick up the pace and surge for about 20 or more seconds, then jog for about the same amount of time until partly recovered, then surge again.

These speed bursts could be anywhere from 100 to 400 meters, or longer. You can also base them on time or use landmarks such as trees or telephone poles. Your intervals can be on flat or hilly course. Your pace for your fast segments can be at top speed or at your 5K pace.

4. Practice Races

Local 5K road races during the summer can help you stay motivated and offer a change of pace from your regular training schedule. While cross country runners shouldn’t be doing a 5K road race every weekend, it’s fine to do a couple of them over the course of the summer. If you’ve never done a 5K race before, you should learn what to expect. Doing some practice 5K races will help you keep your racing skills sharp and also give you a good indication of your overall fitness up to that point.

Hill Training

One of the best ways cross country runners can improve their strength, speed, and confidence is by running hills. Most cross country race courses feature some inclines, so running hills in training will also help you sharpen your racing skills.

You can incorporate hills into your easy run routes, but you can also do specific hill workouts for one-speed workout a week. Here are some hill workouts to choose from:

1. Push the Downhill Workout

Downhill running is a critical skill for cross country runners, as the downhill is often where runners pick up time and make a big, strategic move. This workout gives you a chance to practice downhill running at a strong effort.

How to do it: Start with a 10-minute easy warm-up. Choose a short hill with an average gradient. Run at an easy pace up the hill. Then push the downhill, running at your 5K pace effort. Although you’re pushing it, you should make sure that you stay in control and you’re not overstriding. Your feet should be landing beneath your hips, not in front of you. Recover by walking or jogging back up the hill. Do 6 to 10 repeats.

2. Hill Repeats With Push-Ups

This hill workout is excellent for strengthening and conditioning, as it combines hill running and push-ups.

How to do it: Start with a 10-minute easy warm-up. Find a hill that’s about 50-75 meters high and run up it at about 80 to 85 percent effort. You shouldn’t be sprinting up the hill, but you should challenge yourself. At the top of the hill, do 10 push-ups. Then, jog downhill. Repeat that sequence (including the pushups!) six times. Each week, you can add another hill until you reach 10 repeats. If you're feeling ambitious, you can also increase the number of push-ups.

3. Cresting the Hill Repeats

These hill repeats can help you prepare for the pace changes you'll experience when running hills during a cross country race. After cresting a hill, rather than turning right around and going back down, you'll continue for a short bit at the same effort level (as you would during your race).

How to do it: Find a hill that flattens out for a bit once you reach the top. Run at your 5K effort from the bottom. Once you reach the top of the hill, continue running at the same effort and observe how your speed picks up. Run for another minute at that effort, and turn around and recover going downhill. Start with 4 repeats and then add another hill each week until you reach six repeats.

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