It’s Fall and it’s time for cross-country here in the USA!
Cross-country (also X-C or X-Country) is an interesting running discipline. Many good track runners and road racers do not make good cross-country runners. A college steeplechaser makes a good cross-country runner. It’s not for the fast, it is for the tough. Unfortunately, most age group adult runners never get to run cross-country. There are some races but not many. Cross-country is not trail running though some trails may be incorporated into a cross-country course. And typically, trail races are longer and often in mountainous terrain. High schools run 5k cross-country courses that vary from all road surface to dirt roads to single track trails to pine forest trails to golf courses. Colleges run 8k and 10k distances and often are more difficult than the high school variety (but not always). Many championship courses for high school and colleges are on golf courses. European cross-country tends to be far more rugged with hurdle-type barriers thrown in for good measure.
Two aspects of cross-country that separates good from not-so-good cross runners are their ability to run hilly terrain well combined with the ability to maintain momentum – change gears rapidly with the undulations of the course. So, the following comments are some tips on optimizing your cross-country racing (and can be applied to training for rolling hilly road courses as well):
1. Build strength. You need strong core strength. This of course is advocated for all runners but in this discipline it is critical. So, pre-season has to include core work as well as leg work.
2. Get efficient in running hills. Charging uphill with huge powerful strides is a waste of energy. You are more efficient using somewhat shorter and much quicker strides and keeping your momentum. You should work on running tall. If it is a fairly steep hill you will need to slightly lean into the hill. But, do not lean too much from the waist. You might imagine in a picture drawing a straight line from your ankle (push off foot) straight up to your head. Too much lean from the waist will over tax your glutes and hamstring muscle groups leaving you very fatigued and without power. When I see runners leaning way over from the waist I know they have weak core muscles. Your arms will be used more working uphill but they still need to be relaxed and not tensely held.
3. Get efficient in changing gears. Hitting the top of a hill too often means letting up after working the uphill. The effort must be maintained. Keep momentum over the top and onto any flat area. This is done by focusing on leg turnover. Find a rhythm. Refrain from over-striding. Take some deep breaths and get yourself together without letting up.
4. Get good at down hill running. This is not something that just happens and is easy to do. If you do not practice this you will not get good at it. Take advantage of gravity and get your legs turning over quickly. Without extra effort (you are NOT trying to sprint downhill) you will use gravity and with little effort quickly descend. Refrain from breaking – holding back – too much. Remember, fast leg turnover is a neuromuscular thing. You must train your legs to go fast in order to go fast. The real bonus is that the best descenders will far out-pace any great ascender. Simple energy physics. You will use far more energy running hard uphill than hard downhill. The trick is to stay in reasonable contact uphill and go on the down hill. And someone who does not train to run down hill well will easily be out-run by someone who has practiced it!
A word on charging up hills. I often hear coaches exhorting their runners to fly up the inclines and “put distance on other runners.” This is a monumental waste of energy. The oxygen debt you incur from this effort will more than lose what you fought so hard to gain on the other side of the hill. Unless it is a single tactical move to “break” someone, this is a failed race strategy. Unless it is late in a race and you are now fighting for every advantage over your opponent it is a failed race strategy.
Now, go forth and have fun!