Cross Country Training with a Purpose:
A Personal View
By Brian Gardner
(Brian has enjoyed considerable success in Masters’ contests – on track and road but especially country. He is a deep thinker about the sport, as the following advice on training will prove. Hopefully, the article will provide inspiration for readers keen to represent Scottish Veterans in mid-November in Dublin!)
What’s the point of training? Is it to maintain health and fitness and to remain competitive in later life? Or is there more to it than that? Do we want to be the best that we can be, given our limitations? If so, when do we want to be the best that we can be? And that’s the point of this article. It’s a personal view of how Masters cross country runners can plan effectively to peak at the right time.
Planning the Year
It’s a well known planning technique to start with your most important competitions and work backwards. But which competitions are the most important? Serious masters could have the Scottish or Regional Masters Cross County Championship in February, the British equivalent in March and maybe the European or World Championships, too. So, that’s simple, isn’t it? Work backwards from March. But wait a minute, the British and Irish Cross Country (Home International) event is in November. How can we be at our peak at the beginning of the season? But is it the beginning of the season? Not if we divide our year into three seasons:
- Cross Country 1: peak for the Home International in November and/or the National cross country relays and, in Scotland, the short course championship; work backwards – start training in August
- Cross Country 2: peak for the National (or Regional) championships in February and/or March plus possibly the Europeans or Worlds; work backwards – take a short break after Cross Country 1 and start training again in mid-late December
- Track: peak for the British championships in July, taking in the Scottish or Regional championships along the way; work backwards – take a break at the end of Cross Country 2 and start training again in late March/early April
An old swimming coach introduced tiered objectives: rather than set a goal which is too high and end up disappointed, or set one which is so easy that we don’t stretch ourselves, set objectives in three tiers:
- Should – get the training done and we should achieve this objective e.g. top 20 in our most important race
- Could – put the extra effort in, stay focused and we could achieve this e.g. top 10
- Just might – in a perfect race this is the dream outcome e.g. get a medal
This way we aim high but it’s not ‘all or nothing’: we have alternative goals to fall back on and can still feel proud of our achievements.
To give us the best chance of achieving our objectives at the right time, the training has to be progressive. And that’s not always about increasing mileage, although that’s important, too. We want our running to be of the highest possible quality in the most important races. So, we need to improve quality throughout the season. How?
If our most important races are cross country, then our most important training sessions should also be cross country. And now we come to my own favourite session: cross country reps. Find some fields, preferably with hills, twists, turns and mud: just what you’d expect to find in a race. Try out a lap and estimate the distance e.g. one mile; the exact distance is not important as long as you repeat the same distance on each rep.
- At the beginning of the season we might run 4 reps with 90 seconds recovery
- The next session in a couple of weeks’ time could be 5 reps with the same recovery or 4 reps with a shorter recovery i.e. alter only one variable at a time
- Approaching the climax of the season we could be running 6 reps with 45 seconds recovery
- Getting really close to the peak race we’ll taper e.g. 3 reps with 2 minutes recovery
Time taken to run each rep should be about the same within a single session but our times might get slower from session to session as conditions worsen throughout the winter. It’s the effort that really counts. It’s a good idea to have about three different settings for our reps sessions: the courses in our races will vary, so our training routes should vary, too. The above principle applies equally to hill reps.
A typical week could look like this:
Tuesday: cross country reps
Thursday: cross country reps or hill reps
Sunday: long cross country run
An ‘intermediate’ session such as a fartlek (speed play), a wind up run (multiple laps with no recovery, gradually winding up the pace) or a differential run (out steady/back fast or steady/fast/steady) could replace one of the steady runs. The confusingly named ‘cross training’ could also play a part e.g. swimming or cycling; as could resistance training such as weights, circuits or core stability, all of which should also be progressive. But that’s a subject for an article quite different from this one…
So, that’s Cross Country 1. Cross Country 2 is similar but it’s a shorter period of time, so how do we keep it fresh, rather than regurgitating Cross Country 1? Well, the pace varies in cross country races, and there are many ways to replicate this in training:
- Vary the distance of the rep e.g. half-mile x2, 1 mile x2, half-mile x2
- Vary the recovery, even when the rep distance is constant e.g. 90 seconds after rep 1, 75sec after rep 2, 60sec after rep 3, 45sec after rep 4; 30sec after rep 5; stop half way through rep 6, take 10sec rest and complete the second half flat out – it’s different!
- Hill reps are always followed by a long recovery jog back down – right? Not necessarily: why not stop for a short recovery at the top of the hill then run down fast? We can make up a lot of ground in races by descending quickly, so let’s practise it in training. We could also run ‘ladders’ or ‘up the clock’ on a long hill: running further up (and down) the hill with each successive rep.
- Combine cross country reps and hill reps e.g. 3 x (5min rep/90sec recovery/ 3min rep/ 90sec recovery/6x20sec hill/ jog back) x 90 seconds
- And a variation of (d) is: 4x30sec hill in set 1, 6x20sec in set 2 and 8x15sec in set 3
Although this article is about cross country, there are of course many road races including championships, with dates that are not always the same from year to year. With three peaks throughout the year, there’s a good chance that we’ll be at our best when some of them come around. And then there’s a track season, but that’s another story…
So, there you have it: purposeful (or masterful) cross-country training.
We began by questioning what we’re running for. Assuming we are targeting important races at different parts of the year, we worked backwards from them. We split the year into three seasons and planned sessions which are progressive in quality throughout each season, ending with a taper in the final period before the Big Race.
This article is based on personal experience and, to paraphrase ‘How They Train’ from Athletics Weekly, it won’t suit everyone. But I hope it’s been interesting. Your comments via the editor are welcome.
Enjoy your cross country training and racing!