Running cross country is not easy; you need to be prepared for anything in your path. Weather, rocks or holes in a trail, a steep incline or even a stream crossing can all be challenging but fun obstacles. Getting the proper training will give you the strength, endurance and agility to improve your performance.
Unlike running track or on a treadmill, cross country runners must be versatile and ready for changes in surface, elevation and weather.
One of the most important tweaks a runner can make to go faster, stave off injury and recover faster is to improve running form, or technique. Running on softer ground will require a shorter stride than running on pavement. Striking on the midfoot or forefoot will provide a more stable landing than heel striking.
Training for cross country races is similar to training for long-distance road and track races, only you should incorporate mixed terrain, elevation and weather into your runs.
Run off Road
Mixing up the surface you run on will increase your ability to deal with whatever comes your way on the cross-country course. Running on dirt, gravel and grass will strengthen the different stabilizing muscles needed to endure softer and more variable surfaces. Keep your eyes on the ground, too, as a surprise hole, rock or fallen branch will have you acting quickly to get around or over it.
Go Out in the Rain
Running outside means dealing with the elements. So don't wait for that perfect sunny day to go out for a run. Go in every kind of weather to get used to dealing with it, within reason, of course. Pay attention to the forecast. You wouldn't want to run when there is a tornado warning or during blizzard conditions.
Get up the Hill
Cross-country means alternating elevation, and you will want to be prepared for that challenging uphill grade and even running downhill safer. Your stride and posture will change depending on the elevation; going up a hill, shorten your stride and going down a hill, lean forward and lengthen the stride.
Speed up, Slow Down
Be prepared for alternating your pace from running at a slow, easy pace to picking it up to a sprint during workouts. Adding speed work will increase stamina, endurance and overall pace.
Tempo runs sandwich a fast pace between a warm up and a cool down at a slow pace. Length of the tempo run can vary depending on your goals and fitness level, but the fast pace should be at about 80 percent effort, or a hard pace you can sustain for a long time.
Intervals are short bursts of effort followed by an equally long period of recovery. Think 100-yard or 400-yard sprints going as hard as you can, followed by a one-minute easy jog or walk. Then repeat.
Fartlek runs can add some fun to your training by alternating speed at indiscriminate intervals. Picture running down a dirt path and then picking up the pace until the next tree, then returning to a regular pace only to sprint again until you get to that fork in the trail. Fartlek runs are more free-spirited with no intended pace or length of effort.
While improving running form and adding speed work into your regimen will garner positive results, it is also important to add strength training. Including weight training, Pilates or yoga into a routine will provide the body with more muscular balance and overall improved strength and conditioning. Conditioning the core muscles as well as the legs will provide more support for better running form.
Hitting the weight room may seem counterintuitive for an endurance athlete, but many swear by the benefits of lifting. Weights or resistance bands are used to strengthen key muscle groups.
Body Weight Exercises
Body weight exercises, such as yoga and Pilates, can help build strength and endurance while being gentle on the joints. Get to a class or do some moves on your own, such as side plank, lunges and squats.
Plyometric exercises are high-intensity, explosive moves used to increase agility, power and strength, such as box jumps. Runners can benefit from plyometrics that target the muscles in the backs of the legs, such as the calves and hamstrings.
Eating right is important to improve running performance. Balancing nutrients can take finesse, but nutritionists say concentrating on whole foods, rather than overloading on carbs or sports drinks and energy bars, will give you more of what you need to run your best.
Thinking of food as fuel can help you visualize what your body needs to perform. Ensure you are getting enough nutrients by:
- Eating whole grains
- Eating lean proteins
- Eating leafy greens
- Getting enough fluids
The day after a long or hard run, you'll want to give your body time to recover by not running. This is a good time to incorporate cross training into your routine, doing some light exercise to keep blood circulating.
Riding a bike, swimming laps, taking a walk or doing a yoga class are some good ways to actively recover. Chris Chorak, a physical therapist in San Francisco recommends that on an effort scale of one to 10, you put out an effort of around four.
Immediate recovery after a long, hard run can start as soon as you are finished running. Stretch while your muscles are still warm, refuel with nutrient rich food and lots of fluids, ice the legs and the put your feet up to get the blood returning to the heart.
Clothing and Shoes
Finding the appropriate shoe to fit your foot and meet the needs of your terrain can take some work, but if you have a specialty running store nearby, that is a good place to start. While more bulky than regular running shoes, trail running shoes have substantial tread to deal with varying terrain. Other low-profile running shoes are lighter but provide less support.
Depending on your climate, your clothing needs will vary, but layering never hurts. With the increasing popularity of running it's easy to find inexpensive, good quality running clothes. Look for wicking or "climate controlled" base layers. If you're running in cold weather, thermal pants help insulate the legs, and a good pair of gloves can keep the fingers from going numb.
Eat, Train, Run
Most anyone can go out and run. But to be a good cross country runner and see improvement in your pace and endurance takes some effort. Paying attention to your nutrition, gear, cross training and following well-guided training plans will help you achieve your cross country goals.