Cross country running is like no other distance type of running, it is not only the athlete competing against other competitors, it is also about the athlete confronting mother nature and beating whatever she throws at him. The ideal cross-country runner will be able to cope with all surfaces, including mud, grass, gravel, dirt, water and asphalt. But the runner will also be comfortable running long distances, facing hilly terrain and taking sharp curves, along with navigating over railway lines, bridges and other man-made obstacles. In short, the cross-country runner has to continuously confront obstacles that will disrupt rhythm and concentration, it is probably the hardest form of long distance running, or any type of running for that matter that there is.
So how would you even begin to prepare for such an ordeal? Well the answer is that it is quite tough to train for cross country discipline. In normal long-distance running, athletes try to set an even pace but this is unreal for cross country, instead try to keep a steady overall effort.
Correct training for cross country running follows the basics of any distance running, your body must get acclimatized to long runs, interspersed with short bursts, recovery and maintenance running. The difference with running cross country is that you will also have to include the terrain, elevation and practice on a course that will be similar to the one you will be racing on, a bit like F1.
Basic Training – Gradients
Training for cross country has to be wide and encompassing, the courses are all different but endurance and basic physical elements are the same. The real difference is getting used to going up and down as no track runner has to face this. A way to cope with this undulating terrain is to practice regularly on a course that will test you. Look around where you live for a course that is roughly a mile long and has a hill at the end. You should regularly practice trying to run the gradient part of the course at race speed to build up the required muscles, then at the top take a 5-minute breather in the way of a slow jog before heading back down, again quickly at race speed. Build up your stamina so you can repeat this around five times or so, always control the downhill run, be swift but under control.
When you have conquered gradient running you need to also find a similar course but with different surfaces than you have been training on, any surface at all as long as it is not level. This will help prepare you physically and mentally for any terrain.
Basic Training – Mud, Grass and Dirt
As well as hilly terrain you must be able to handle different surfaces and undulating land, thick grass, water, and mud all sap energy and put pressure on your knees and ankles. To cope with sticky underfoot conditions your knees must lift higher and the energy required to maintain balance and form is far greater than on flat surfaces. You will also find that running through rough terrain you will not be able to maintain an even stride, you gait will be choppy and irregular. To learn to accept this you must train on different courses, mix running on long hills with country trails say in woods, or forests.
An ideal training schedule for mixed terrain running is a loop, ideally on a proper cross country course that has been designed to throw up obstacles.
Additional Training Needed for Cross Country
Given the different terrain and the amount of gradient running involved in cross country running, the muscle groups involved are slightly different than in normal long-distance running. You must pay particular attention on your core, the hip-flexors and your lower legs. A good exercise for this is to lie on your back, holding up one leg and to draw the alphabet in the air with your foot. This will reintegrate all the muscles that you have in the lower leg, which will make then stronger for coping with the uneven terrain encountered on a cross country run.
Pay attention to your Achilles tendon too, perhaps try some additional eccentric strengthening to build it up. This is especially wise if you are new to the sport and have previously been running on the track or roads.
Finally develop a strategy to see you through the course and stick to it, know how your body works and be confident that you can handle anything the course has in store for you. Cross country is an endurance test and there will be times when you are knocked off your stride, ride with the rough and calmly climb back on the horse and resume your proper effort once again. Try not to panic if things are not going your way, be confident in your preparation and stay focused and you will eventually come out on the other side and will have collected valuable lessons along the way.
Taking a Rest
One of the most important things to think about when training hard is to make sure you take suitable rests away from your sport. Sadly, many people miss out on this and effectively come close to burning out.
Personally, for me, when I have had to train hard for an event I have tried to use my rest time to do something completely different. Sometimes I get my PlayStation out and enjoy a few hours of FIFA or Call of Duty; however, there are also times when I like nothing more than going online and spinning the roulette wheel. There is something almost therapeutic with getting away from my main focus point for a few hours!
Not only do you rest the body, but you also reset the mind. Getting away from your core focus will very often allow you to come back stronger than before, ready to step up to the next batch of cross-country running training.