“Cross Country: No half times, no time outs, no substitutions. It must be the only true sport.” –– Chuck Norris
(I don’t know if he actually said this, but I’m not going to question Chuck Norris.)
It’s that time of year again. If you are a high school runner, formal cross-country workouts are coming up fast and, hopefully, you’ve been putting in the miles this summer to get ready. If you haven’t been to school for awhile, you can still get excited. The annual XC series at Tawasentha Park (188, Route 146, Altamont) starts up on Monday, August 6, and continues every Monday until August 20. The 5K race, which includes a creek crossing (ford fun!) and a few hills (ha!), kicks off at 6:30 PM. This is a fun time and the vibe is friendly and relaxed. The running, however, can be hard. For those of you who have been grinding it out on the roads all summer, it can be fun to mix it up, change surfaces, and run some true cross-country. At the start of every season, I usually write a piece about cross-country. You may have read some of this before. Some advice bears repeating. The one thing to really keep in mind is to have fun.
For those of you who haven’t done this for awhile (and for those of you who need a refresher) I’ll touch very briefly on some techniques and other considerations that, while they may not be unique to cross country running, go hand-in-hand with the sport. First, don’t worry about your pace. You need to think about overall effort. Varied terrain and surfaces, not to mention the twists, turns, and the weather (At Tawasentha it can be in the 90s; at the Saratoga Cross-Country Classic held at the end of October it can snow…) can compromise your overall pace. Try to run by effort rather than by pace. Inexperienced cross-country runners tend to go out very fast, trying to match their regular 5K pace. This is a good way to crash and burn. Run by effort and try to keep that effort even. You will probably find that runners that you are normally around during a race will be nearby in cross-country. Everyone, however, will be running slightly more slowly.
For the high school cross-country runner, run-by-effort advice guides the common tactical wisdom associated with the sport. It’s all about place rather than pace. This is a team sport and it is critical to run as a team in a pack. It’s all about grouping. Remember that cross-country scoring is simple: low score wins. Your top five team members score, but six and seven are also critical because they can push the other team’s top scorers back in the rankings. This is one reason why it’s good to run together and not get too spread out. Team scoring also makes it imperative that you keep your eyes up and key in on the runners in front of you: every place counts.
It’s true that a lot of us run cross-country as individuals –– our high school days are long behind us and the opportunities to run on a team are few. Many of the imperatives that drive the dictum of place versus pace still hold. For one thing, you should still run by effort and not get concerned about pace. Try to maintain an even effort throughout the race. To do this, you will need to know the course, which is one of those top three pieces of advice that high school and collegiate runners also need to hear. It’s much more of a possibility to maintain an even, hard effort during a cross-country race if you know what’s coming up. Knowing the course will also give you valuable confidence. This piece of advice is, of course, readily transferable to the roads: it’s always helpful to know what to expect (That’s why preview runs can be so useful.). Even if you are just racing as an individual at a local 5K, remember to keep your eyes up ahead. If you are running for a time goal it can be helpful, particularly during the last several miles of a race, to keep your pace and motivation up by focusing on the runners in front of you: keep contact and keep your head in the game.
In addition to running by effort and knowing the course, there are some form considerations to take into account when running cross-country. Remember that if you lose your form, you lose your speed. The best way to tackle the uneven terrain and mixed surfaces typical of cross-country is to keep your stride short and quick. A fast cadence helps with stability and will help you more quickly navigate cross-country’s varied terrain. Another way to strengthen your form is to work on running hills. This advice, of course, is helpful for all of your running. Training on hills will increase your leg strength, running economy, and aerobic capacity by replicating weight training for your glutes, quads, and hamstrings. By hitting the hills, you will be less likely to lose your form (and your speed) during races. Ideally, you will achieve that elusive goal of running relaxed and fast.
Varied terrain is the name of the game.
After you have worked on strength and speed, adjusted your form, and thought about place versus pace, there are several tactical tips to consider. One of the most controversial parts of cross-country is the start. Do you go out fast so that you don’t get boxed in as the trail narrows, or do you run at a hard, steady pace so that you don’t risk running out of steam before the end of the race? Just like any running competition, it looks like the key to success is a controlled, even pace that will allow you to pass competitors during the final miles. Many cross-country races are typified, however, by a frantic start at an unsustainable pace, followed by an attempt to “hang on.” The winner is merely the runner who has managed to slow down the least, rather than the competitor who utilized the ideal combination of athleticism and savvy tactics. No less an authority than Olympic coach Jack Daniels recommends a consistent, even effort for ultimate success in cross-country racing. There are, of course, some places where it makes tactical sense to throw in some surges. Be sure, for example, to run over the tops of hills –– you’ll catch a lot of runners who slow at the crest. Also, be sure to surge around corners. This is yet another way of getting a step on your competition.
You need to surge at the top of these.For younger runners, cross-country is a great introduction to the sport of running and it can be a great entry point into a lifetime of running. It’s also an ideal combination of individual effort and responsibility in a team environment. A successful cross-country team can remind us that success can come from finding supportive people with similar goals. This is a great lesson, as well, for older runners just discovering the joys of cross-country and this brings me to my final point: cross-country is best when you allow yourself to enjoy running through the woods, bounding up hills, and fording streams, when you allow yourself to be present in nature and run with joy.