Go Wild in the Country
Dr. Matt long provides an insight into the benefits of cross-country running.
Students of our sport's history will be aware that the discipline of cross-country running has its origins in ‘paper chase' races, which consisted of 'hares' laying a trail and an ensuing pack following. As we moved from agricultural to industrial societies post the Industrial Revolution, access to continuous and uninterrupted miles of land became more problematic with cross country running beginning to take a foothold over these traditional races, from the mid-nineteenth century onwards and our first national championships being staged in 1876.
Training and racing over the country are great for building both the aerobic and strength endurance components of fitness because it involves working for a considerable duration of time over undulating surfaces. Another specific physiological benefit is the development of lower leg strength with stabilising muscles having to work especially hard over uneven, unstable and often slippery surfaces.
Whilst many of you will undertake additional core strength and stability work as part of your periodised programme of training, racing over the country will test your core strength to its limits as you struggle to remain relaxed in maintaining traction and balance on the underfoot conditions.
England Athletics area coach mentor, Rob McKim, who has recently guided Reading AC's Jonny Davies to a European U23 cross country gold in Toulon-Hyeres, France, is convinced that the psychological benefits of running over the country should not be overlooked. “The ebb and flow of cross county running and racing over different terrains helps to focus the athlete's concentration as well as developing the athlete's robustness”, he says before adding that, “I feel there is a sense of well-being and achievement through participating in cross country, so the psychological benefits flow through to the physiological benefits”.
In terms of long-term athlete development, McKim believes that “The often softer terrain is also beneficial particularly for youngsters to protect them from the harder impact surfaces”. These sentiments have been endorsed by Bud Baldaro, whose team under head coach Luke Gunn have supported Jonny Davies at Birmingham University, with Baldaro having pointed to, “the sense of exhilaration and freedom from racing through the countryside”.
Horses for Courses?
Davies himself has enjoyed considerable success on a variety of diverse courses and acknowledges that “I am lucky in that I am able to run on most courses and surfaces well. I have had successes on some of the muddiest and hilliest courses in the UK such as Parliament Hill but have also done well on fast and flat courses in Europe”. Indeed, in February 2015 Davies bagged the national Under 20 title over the famous Parliament Hill course before winning the Home Countries International at the IAAF Permit meeting in Antrim, one month later.
When pressed the 21-year-old admits to, “Ultimately preferring faster and flatter courses as it slightly favours my longer stride length” and this latter point explains the role of cross country in preparing him for the kind of speed endurance work effected over the spring and summer months, which saw him run 3:46s for 1500m and 13.43 for 5000m last season.
The last word to coach McKim, who implores you to, “Just give it a go and you will soon be part of the rewarded cross-country community. As one of my athletes says, 'Got to Love the Mud!'”
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About the Author
Matt Long is a member of the coaching and support team at Birmingham University AC and Editor of BMC News magazine.
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