Wednesday, September 12, 2007

As requested: Benefits of Cross Country Running and How to Train for it

Cross country running is beneficial from both a mental and physical aspect. On the mental side, it allows the athlete to become more robust and versatile. On the physical side, it provides for greater strength around the hips which gives greater leg speed. Training and competing for months in the cross-country season provides tough physical training, working over a wide range of speeds, without the damaging effects of the cumulative jarring that results from track or road training.

Cross-country has its drawbacks, the chief one being that it develops a style of running which is not efficient for the high speeds of track and road racing. The athlete who wins all the 10k races on the road or track will not necessarily have the same dominance over the country. The differences in the running style needed for cross-country, as opposed to the hard surfaces, may favour certain athletes more than others.

Cross-country races will not be run at the same speed as road races, and so the runner who is lacking in pace may be able to compensate by their style and run closer to their maximum than the road runner who cannot adjust to the special needs of cross-country. Cross-country running requires a different stride length, a different leg action and a different foot plant from road running.

As the surface in cross country running is softer and often slippery, the stride length must naturally be shorter. In road running the heel strikes the ground well in front of the body; in cross country running this would lead to skidding. Similarly, if your back leg is too far back, you will lose something in the push-off. A shorter stride requires greater leg speed made more difficult by the fact that there is less elastic return. In road running energy is stored by compression of ligaments and tendons in the ankle and knee joints. When running on soft surfaces, much of the energy is lost in compressing the ground underneath, so less is stored in the joints. This means that the runner has to bend the legs slightly more at the knees and ankles and use more effort in straightening them. The athlete will have to make a more deliberate effort to pick the thighs up, which requires more work from the muscles that run from the pelvis to the thigh, and this in turn imposes a greater strain on the abdominal muscles, which have to hold the torso rigid while all this effort is going on.

The efficient road runner can glide along relying on bounce and balance to make the work easier, the cross-country runner has to muscle their way along. As the ground beneath their feet is uneven, the runner has to make constant adjustments in balance, using more muscles. Even the angle of the foot will be different. When running on hard surfaces the straight line from heel to toe should be pointing in the direction you are running. On soft surfaces it is necessary to point the toes slightly outwards, so that you slip less. This is less economical than running in a straight line, but the wetter and softer the surface, the more it is necessary.

The phases of training, which will merge into one another, are endurance, hills, repetitions, tempo runs and race specific training.

The endurance phase should be four to six weeks, preferably without racing, as it usually follows the road racing season. The objects are:

• Building endurance by gradually increasing the weekly distance run
• Adjusting to the style of running on softer and hillier ground

The hill-running phase develops from the endurance phase by putting in more effort in the hillier parts of the daily runs, and then by doing a short hill session and a long hill session each week. The short hills will take from 30 to 60 seconds to run up, and the long hills from one and a half to two minutes. The recovery is the length of time it takes to jog down to the bottom. The number of runs should be built up week by week e.g. 10 to 20 of the short hills and 6 to 10 of the long hills. During this phase, you can start running in races in the knowledge that you are still building up. The total mileage should be about the same as at the end of the endurance phase.

After four weeks, the hill running merges into the full-scale cross-country training, which will continue until the peak racing period. Work on a 14-day cycle with one race in each period. The first week would include three hard sessions, two steady runs and two easy days. The second week consists two hard days, one or two steady runs, two or three easy days and a race.

The five hard sessions should include:
• One repetition session, 3-5 x 1500-2000m cross-country circuit
• One long hills session
• One 'tempo run' e.g. 20 minutes hard running
• One 'high quality' session e.g. 8 x 1k on grass
• One short hills session

Steady runs are an important part of the training, because they continue to develop aerobic ftiness, while allowing recovery from the more intense sessions. The pace here should be just below your anaerobic threshold. This is roughly the same as your 10 mile pace on the road although over cross country terrain the same effort will result in a slower speed. Training by heart rate becomes beneficial here because you can plan to run at certain pulse rate, say between 150 and 160, and keep this going over different surfaces.

If your season is centered on one or two major events, it is important to taper the intensity of the training before the event and to focus on the event by doing race specific training. This means finding out as much as you can about the nature of the course, how big the bills are, whether there are any difficult sections, what kind of shoes to wear etc. Your training in the last two weeks should be aimed at producing good quality running on the hard days, with plenty of recovery in between. Have two hard sessions in the penultimate week, and only one in the last week done on the Tuesday or Wednesday. In these sessions you are trying to get as close as possible to the feeling of the race, practicing fast starts, mid-race surges, bursts over the hills, whatever may be needed.

Tactically, front runners stand much more chance of success in cross-country, because the breaks in continuity allow more chance of getting away. You, therefore, have to be committed to a fast pace in the early stages. The 'interference effect' is considerable when the number of competitors is large so if three runners are going for a gap, which will only take two, one of them has to slip back. This means that one person just behind will be pushed back a yard, and this effect goes on down the field, so that 100m can be lost in a mile. Success in cross-country demands a courageous approach, which is why it is recommended as a way of developing distance running talent.

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