Run Cross Country This Fall
It’s the middle of August in San Francisco and I haven’t seen the sun in weeks. What does that mean? It’s cross country season!
Yes, the fall “harrier” season is just around the corner. For high school teams the first official day of practice is probably next Monday. Many college runners are reporting to campus for running camp before school begins. Here in United States of America Track & Field (USATF) Pacific Association territory, the first of ten grand prix cross country races is Saturday, August 21. Are you ready to go?
No matter what level of runner you are there is great benefit from running cross country. At the high school level, if you are a distance runner, then this is your season. For other high school athletes not participating in another fall sport (where I live the primarily other fall sports are football for boys and volleyball for girls), cross country can be a way to get in shape for another sport. High school cross country races are relatively short (usually three miles at the most) so the training volume does not have to be extreme. Any soccer or basketball coach is going to love a kid with endurance, a kid that can outrun everyone else up and down the pitch or court.
For sprinters, hurdlers, jumpers, and throwers on the track & field team, cross country can be daunting (“What! I have to run 3 miles!”) but there are many upsides. Cross country develops strength in the legs, and leg strength is needed to run, jump and throw far and fast. Cross country also improves endurance. When event-specific workouts and drills begin during the track season the athlete can do more repetitions at a higher quality because he isn’t gassed after one or two. A well rounded cross country training program includes bi-weekly sprints so there is no need to worry about “losing your speed.” It appears that for about the fifth time since I’ve been head coach at Sacred Heart Cathedral, I will have a thrower on the cross country team (Kudos to Evan!). Finally, I think there is great benefit in having structured workouts in the fall season and in maintaining a sense of competition by racing with the cross country team.
For adults cross country also has many benefits. In the September 2009 edition of Running Times Marc Bloom lists his top ten reasons for running cross country. I won’t list ten, but I definitely can cite reasons why I think all runners should consider cross country.
Number one is: fun. Going to cross country races and being part of a team is just plain fun. In cross country you get to forget the clock and just run for place. Everyone can help the team. All you have to do is try your best. Sometimes the most valuable runner at a meet is the one whose accomplishment was just finishing so that there was a complete team. With separate men’s and women’s races at cross country meets, there are opportunities to cheer on teammates and to be cheered for.
Racing cross country usually means racing on some combination of grass, dirt, sand, and other trails. There are likely to be hills, both up and down. Possibly even something to jump over. Your leg muscles will get stronger navigating trails, which take more work to cover than the road. This sounds like perfect training to get faster for the roads or a marathon to me! Trails are more forgiving to the joints than asphalt; plus you won’t need to go do hill repeats on Tuesday because you will have already covered that at the Saturday race.
Cross country racing can fit into just about everyone’s training schedule. The cross country grand prix races here in the Bay Area tend to be held about every other weekend. So running cross country does not mean giving up every single weekend to a race, or sacrificing a weekend long run every week. I think the series has a perfect number of races. I suggest the Saturday cross country race be used as your weekly tempo workout. Complement them with a medium-long run (maybe with some lactate threshold pace running if you are an advanced runner) on Tuesday instead of doing a fartlek or hills. On the weekends that there are no cross country races you can get in a long run. If you are in marathon training mode and need a weekly long run, I think a perfect training weekend is to run the cross country race on Saturday and then run long (two to four miles less than your usual long run) on Sunday. For the long run after a cross country race, ease into it but then try to run marathon race pace for the second half of the run. Your legs may be tired from the cross country race, but this is a great way to simulate the later stages of the marathon when your legs are tired and running marathon race pace really becomes a challenge.
A final hidden benefit of cross country is that you race frequently. Nothing makes you a better racer than experience. In a cross country grand prix you get to hone your racing skills often. You can try something one week and if it doesn’t work so well you can try something different the next time out. If you learn something at one race you get to compete again soon and apply what you’ve learned. I have seen runners go from “racing novice” to “experienced veteran” over the course of one season; this is something that could take more than a year when racing only periodically on the roads.
If you are young or not so young; fast or wish I was fast; marathoner, 5K’er, or sprinter, cross country can be a great experience for you. Find a team, seek out that coach, and get ready. Cross country season is just around the corner. I can hear the starter calling the runners to the start line already…