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Cross Country

Cross-country races will not be contested at the same speed as track races, so the runner who lacks pace may compensate by their style and run closer to their maximum than the track runner who cannot adjust to the unique needs of cross-country. Cross-country running requires a different stride length, leg action and foot plant from road & track running. These cannot be identified instantly; they will only become instinctive if the runner adopts specific cross-country training.


As the going is softer and often slippery, the stride length must naturally be shorter. A shorter stride requires a higher leg speed made more difficult because there is a less elastic return. If you use the road-running action, you will likely skid with the heel striking the ground well in front of the body. Similarly, if your back leg is too far back, you will lose something in the push-off. In road and track running, energy is stored by compression of ligaments and tendons in the ankle and knee joints. When running on soft surfaces, energy is lost in compressing the ground underneath, so less is stored in the joints. It means that the runner has to bend the legs more at the knees and ankles and use more effort to straighten 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. In turn, it strains the abdominal muscles, which must hold the torso rigid while all this effort continues.

Whereas the efficient road or track 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 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 running direction. On soft surfaces, it is necessary to point the toes slightly outwards so that you slip less. It is less economical than running in a straight line, but the wetter and softer the surface, the more necessary it is.

Pros and Cons of Cross-Country Training

The benefits of cross-country are both mental and physical. The runner experienced in cross-country is more robust, more versatile and less likely to be thrown by a sudden change in the weather - an event surprisingly common in major championships in the UK.

The benefits of training and competing in the cross-country season provide demanding physical exercise, 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, and the chief one is that it develops a running style that is not efficient for the high speeds of track and road racing.

A training program

The training phases will merge into one another, endurance work, 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 track racing season. The objects are:

  • Building endurance by gradually increasing the weekly distance run
  • Adjusting to the style of running on the 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 doing a short hill session and a long hill session each week. The short hills will take 30 to 60 seconds to run up, and the long hills will take one and a half to two minutes. The recovery is the 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 hill climbs.

During this phase, you can start running in races knowing that you are still building up. The total mileage should be about the same as at the end of the endurance phase.

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 two hard days, one or two steady runs, two or three easy days and a race. After four weeks, the hill running merges into the full-scale cross-country training, which will continue until the peak racing period.

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 of hard running
  • One high quality session, e.g. 8 x 1k on grass
  • One short hills session

Steady runs are essential to the training because they continue to develop aerobic fitness while allowing recovery from the more intense sessions. The pace here should be just below your anaerobic threshold. It is roughly the same as your 10-mile pace on the road, but the same effort will result in a slower speed over the country. Here a Heart Rate Monitor is benificial because you can plan to run at a specific pulse rate, say between 150 and 160, and keep this going over different surfaces.

Race preparation

Suppose your season is based on one or two significant events. In that case, it is important to taper off the intensity of the training before the event and to focus on the event by doing race-specific training. It means finding out as much as you can about the nature of the course, how big the bills are, whether there are any problematic sections, what kind of shoes to wear etc. Your training in the last two weeks should produce good running on the hard days, with plenty of recoveries. Have two hard sessions in the penultimate week and only one in the last week done on Tuesday or Wednesday. In these sessions, you are trying to get as close as possible to the feeling of the race, practising fast starts, mid-race surges, and bursts over the hills.

Tactical approach

Tactically, front-runners stand much more chance of success in cross-country because the breaks in continuity allow more chance of getting away. Therefore, you must 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 has to slip back. It means that one person just behind will be pushed back a yard, which goes on down the field so that 100m can be lost in a mile. Success in cross-country demands a bold approach, so it is recommended to develop distance running talent.

Article Reference

The information on this page is adapted from Tulloh (1991)[1] with the kind permission of Electric Word plc.


  1. TOLLOH, B. (1991) Cross Country without tears. Peak Performance, 14, p. 8-9

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • MACKENZIE, B. (2003) Cross Country [WWW] Available from: [Accessed