3. Focus on Strength over Speed
Cross country training is all about building your running endurance and aerobic capacity.
In addition, cross country courses incorporate hills and uneven terrain, which even more so requires you to develop good strength and familiarity with different racing surfaces.
I recommend 2 main ways to promote strength within a cross country training period.
The first is hill training.
Incorporating hills into a few runs per week will go a long way to prepare the body for the undulating cross country courses that will most likely be experienced during the season.
Map out a couple courses with some solid climbs of 300-600 meters, and then throughout the building phase of your training program, incorporate these into your easy days as a way to gradually build endurance for climbs and develop the hill climbing muscles, hamstrings, glutes and calves.
Later in the the training period, I recommend one hill day per week where you perform series of hill repeats of anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.
The second critical strength building piece to any cross country training program is the long run.
The long run may very well be the most important element in any program.
I’ve seen long runs adopted in various ways from just longer, slow recovery day, to a moderate tempo quality day, to a hill training day.
Which of these is right?
Well the truth is, the long run serves an extremely valuable purpose physiologically, expanding capillaries, and improving blood flow to muscles for a prolonged period of activity.
This results in the body’s ability to more effectively move blood and oxygen to your active muscle regions.
Long runs also train the body to operate on reduced stores of glycogen in the liver, resulting in more efficient energy consumption. Any long run over an hour, your readily available stores of glycogen are most likely used up and your body will switch to burning fat stores, which in runners is not much. It’s important to get in the habit of eating simple sugars prior to long runs and any runs over an hour, to consume some nutrition during, whether that be Gatorade or Gu.
Will these benefits be realized if you run at a 40-50% effort? On some level, yes, however, from experience, I believe the long run is best performed at 75% effort, or close to a moderate tempo. So let’s say your easy recovery pace (50-60%) is 7:30 per mile, then your long run pace would be 7:00-7:10 per mile.
I think incorporating undulating hills into a long run is good, but not long, exhausting climbs. I also recommend working in some longer uptempo strides into the run, no more than 4-6 at 5k race pace. These should last for about 30 seconds each.
The purpose of these is to shake out the legs. I’ve noticed on some long runs, that athletes become complacent and the repetitive pounding in the exact same form can result in muscle fatigue and even pain. Many times, I’ve recommended if athletes feel a slight twinge of muscle pain or cramping, to do a 30 second shake out stride, and more often than not this snaps them out of their rut, and improves circulation.
So enough about why to perform a long run, the question now is how long should a long run be?
A long run should never be more than 20% of the week’s total mileage, period. That means if you or your athletes are running 60 miles a week, they should not perform a long run further than 12 miles.
Anything more than this is just asking for an injury. This 20% is the perfect distance because it’s right in the sweet spot where you’re pushing your body to a certain level of fatigue and stress, but not to the point of risk.
I only recommend a greater than 20% long run for individuals who aren’t doing high mileage but are training for a half or a full marathon. In this case, then the long run is the only important quality day, and the rest of the week is recovering from the previous long run and building towards the next.