More than 450,000 high school student-athletes participate in cross country every fall in the United States alone. Ask them about the sport and they’ll tell you they absolutely love it. Then ask any adult runners, triathletes, cyclists, etc. who ran cross country in high school. Not only will they tell you they loved it too, but they may just start rattling off old war stories about mile repeats, tempo runs and grueling 5k races with crazy hills that seem to grow in length as the years go by.
As I think many a runner would tell you, cross country is where I really fell in love with running. There were big moments like handing over our team’s third place team trophy to my coach in high school (his first) or when we finished fourth in the country in college at the NCAA Division II Championships. But, there are also hundreds of smaller moments; fartlek workouts in the pouring down rain, pre-race team pasta dinners and workouts that taught me I could push my body to limits I didn’t know existed. All of them are moments I will never forget.
What I want to do here is give you guys a little insight into cross country training and racing at the high school and college level and let you know that you’re never too old to get out on the grass and do some of these crazy workouts and races yourself. Especially with the recent rise of mud-themed off road races (think cross country on steroids), there is nothing stopping you from experiencing the simultaneous joy and pain that is cross country!
For my money, the beauty of racing over hill and dale is in its simplicity. The best high school and college coaches in the country, in my opinion, know this. Read the now famous book, Running with the Buffaloes, by author Chris Lear about the 1998 cross country season at the University of Colorado and coach Mark Wetmore. Read John McDonnell: The Most Successful Coach in NCAA History by Andrew Maloney. Watch the Long Green Line documentary about legendary high school coach Joe Newton and his York Dukes. Though each coach does things a little differently, the overarching theme is the same; cross country workouts are about preparing the body for the rigors of race day and race day is going to be tough!
My own cross country training philosophy (a blended mix taken from the coaches above, my high school and college coaches and many others) can be broken down into three main categories:
1. Race on the Grass, Train on the Grass
I was lucky in that my high school was right across the street from one of the country’s largest urban parks, Forest Park in Saint Louis. My coach, Jim Linhares, was fanatical about staying on soft surface so he had mapped out “grass loops” all over the park, ensuring that we never had to run on pavement. He believed this cut down on injury, but I believe the biggest benefit may have been that constantly running on uneven surfaces strengthened our feet and ankles and prepared us for the unique energy return, or lack thereof, we would encounter on race day.
Even if you don’t live next to a 1,300 acre park, you can almost always find a plot of grass large enough for a cross country workout. In fact, creating your own course is half the fun. Find a field, bring some cones and get creative. Ideally, your loop will contain an uphill, a downhill, and a few turns. Remember, you’re trying to simulate what you’ll face in the race. Don’t take the easy way out…make it tough!
2. The Big Three; Fartleks, Mile Repeats, and Tempo Runs
So what exactly makes up a cross country workout? I honestly believe if you had to you could get through a whole season just by alternating the three workouts I have here (with recovery days in between of course). A fartlek (Swedish for speed play) is a sort of unstructured session where you alternate hard running and easy running. You could do 20 x 1 minute hard, one minute easy. You could do a mix of longer and shorter hard segments so three minutes hard, two minutes hard, one minute hard, with two minutes easy in between everything. Or, you could go completely unstructured and randomly pick spots along a certain course and run hard from one tree to the next, one light pole to the next, etc. There are a million options. The beauty of the fartlek is that you don’t have the constant feedback that a structured workout with prescribed splits provides. In a cross country/off-road race, you typically don’t have the convenient mile markers that a track or road race provides. Also, with such varying terrain, splits are often irrelevant anyway. Your internal clock has to be your guide.
Mile repeats are equal parts agony and ecstasy for the cross country runner. There are variations of course, but the classic mile repeat session in high school or college consists of four to six total repeats with two to three minutes for recovery and each repeat is at cross country race pace or faster. Our toughest session in college was always six-by-mile on a killer hilly grass course that our coach had made up around the campus of a local factory. We always felt like whatever pace we could average for that workout is what we’d be able to average in a 10k cross country race. And it usually was.
Finally there is my personal favorite, the tempo run. Fartleks and mile repeats are great and they’re plenty tough, but in the race you don’t get to stop and take a recovery jog. For me, nothing better simulates a race than a tempo run. The classic version of a tempo run is three to five miles at the pace you could race at for one hour. When picking your pace just remember that it’s what you could race at for one hour on whatever surface you’re running the workout on. Obviously, if you use a pretty gnarly grass loop then your one-hour race pace is going to be much slower than it would be on a freshly paved bike path. When done right, a tempo run will start off feeling relatively easy, get a little tougher in the middle and be gosh darn hard by the end. Truthfully, no matter what race you’re training for, tempo runs should be a part of your training diet.
3. Strength, Strength, Strength
Cross country, or off-road racing in general, is all about strength. Even if it’s just 5k, the nature of the race with its surface, its hills and its turns make strength a much bigger asset than speed. So a good rule of thumb, if I’ve convinced you to try and train for one of these crazy races, is to try and be prepared for an even longer race than the actual distance you’ll be running. I feel like the best high school programs are the ones who could race a 10k if they had to. In college, it’s often the team that has the best last 2k who wins the National Championship. Coach Wetmore’s Buffaloes have won multiple titles with that very strategy. So don’t skimp on the mileage or the long runs. You’ll be happy you had those extra miles in your legs on the final climb or the final sprint to the finish.
Speaking of that finish, and I’ll leave you with this, I know that crossing the line in a marathon is an intoxicating feeling. However, go to your local park and watch the finish of a high school cross country race. Watch the parents hustle over to the final straightaway to cheer for their athletes. Watch the athletes dig down deep to try and get those one or two extra points for their team. Listen to the coaches going absolutely nuts. And then watch the runners stumble through the finish chute, spent beyond anything they’ve experienced to that point in their young lives. Those are some of the special moments that they’ll remember forever. If you’ve experienced those moments before, don’t forget that you can do it again. And if you haven’t had that experience then it’s high time you sign up for a cross country race!