As promised, here are some tips to help you improve your cross country running.
If you have limited yourself to running on the roads, it is important to realize that there are some specific techniques that you need to be aware of when tackling cross country. If there is any place where a cut-down, quick and efficient stride makes a big difference, this is it. Over striding in a cross country race can sap your strength and endurance early, as well as making you less stable on uneven trails. Try to maximize your cadence and spend less time in the air for the best speed and efficiency.
Hills present their own set of challenges. When going up hills –– there can be a lot of them on Upstate New York courses –– take short, quick steps and keep up on your toes and forefoot. Going down hills can be tricky. In a mixed race with high school runners, I often gingerly pick my way down a steep hill as they rocket by. Be sure to keep control and remember that this is fun and you will want to run tomorrow, as well. Falling can be detrimental to your health and you will find that you can often catch the downhill speedsters later in the race.
My advice to high school runners (although everyone can benefit from this advice) would be to figure out whether you are better on the downhills or uphills. Some will find that they can pick runners up easily when charging the hills. Others have a nimble affinity for downhill running. Find out which you are not as good at and work on it –– these are skills that can be learned and practiced.
Finally, there is some controversy, of course, about pacing in cross country races. Some insist that getting out fast is absolutely mandatory to avoid bottle necks on the trail. Coach Jack Daniels, however, argues that this is an example of bad pacing. Racing should not merely be about who can hang on the longest after a fast start, which is very often what happens in the typical high school cross country meet. Evenly pace your race and you will find yourself catching and passing the runners who started out too quickly.
Planning pacing is much easier when you know the course, so you must figure out where the hills are located. It is always a good idea to tour the course a bit during your warm-up, so that you will not be surprised. The first time I tackled Tawasentha, I neglected this piece of advice and found myself slowed to a walk when I turned a corner only to find that what I thought was a steep hill had turned into an even steeper hill. Moral of this story: know the course!
Now you have to think about your footwear and this can get tricky. If you are trying cross country for the first time or don’t plan on doing a lot of cross, a pair of spikes is probably unnecessary. Be sure, however, to go with a shoe that has a lower stack height –– you don’t want to twist an ankle –– and a fairly aggressive tread. Trail shoes are a fantastic alternative to spikes that aren’t quite as specialized and can be worn during a greater variety of running pursuits.
The serious high school runner will want to invest in (and usually will find their performance enhanced by) a good pair of cross country spikes. Cross country spikes have an internal spike plate and are covered with a rubber outsole. Use longer spikes for muddy terrain and shorter spikes for dryer conditions. What do you do, however, if the course contains some road portions or crushed gravel? More than a very short stretch of road might necessitate using blanks in your spike receptacles. Many find that spikes on roads can be rather jarring and uncomfortable. DO NOT use track spikes for cross country: rocks and gravel will bung up the external spike plate and you can slip, injure your ankle or knee, and blow your entire season. You can, however, use a cross country spike for indoor track (In fact, in our area of New York State, this is mandated.) by replacing the spikes with blanks. This can also be a good strategy when using your cross country spikes on a course that has a potentially uncomfortable amount of asphalt or gravel.
Remember that Fleet Feet’s Cross Country Gear Up Weekend (August 28-30) is rapidly approaching and we will be happy to answer all of your spike and cross country questions, as well as introduce you to our new models.
Although you need to be aware of your pacing, cadence, and shoes, it is important to remember that at the end of the day this should be fun. Don’t overthink the experience and be sure to enjoy. Drink in the smell of the Bengay and the fallen leaves. Enjoy the chill in the air and be reminded that one of the great things about cross country is that it takes place at the beginning of the school year. Even if you are far removed from your high school days, cross country can usher in that feeling of potential and new beginnings. And it is, of course, fun.
Have you tried some cross country races? What was your experience like? Please tell us about it in the comments.