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Get the most from your winter: XC running

Over the next few weeks we will be putting together a few blog posts to help you get the most from your winter running. The next few months can be a period where you can choose to go fallow and then wonder why you're playing catch up before your key spring goals, or it can be a platform of crucial strength and endurance on which you will build more race specific training early next year. Some of these posts will be tips for beginners or those who want a simple summary and ideas, some, including this one, something a bit more in-depth for those who want to understand how AND why. Don't worry if this is a bit too much detail for you, we have plenty of other simple tips coming up soon!

This week we turn the focus on cross country running. Having a proud tradition in the British distance running community cross country, whilst perhaps not a fiercely competitive as it used to be, remains a important part of many runners' training and racing calendar. This blog covers some of the basics of XC training and racing, please do get in touch with for more!

The Benefits - Why do it!?

Cross country running (XC) conjures up for many memories of cold mornings of mud and toil at school. Whilst it remains the entry point to distance running for many junior athletes for the more experienced runner it might be time to banish some of those negative connotations and consider what XC can add to your training and racing year;

* Pure racing: In a world of standard distance races, Powerof10, GPS and stats running can sometimes be drawn back to purely times and PBs. It's worth remembering though that even when the gun goes at the start of a mass event like the London Marathon it's still a race, the goal is certainly to get the finish line as best you can but that those around you are still racing, whether at the front or the back of the field. Cross country running is racing in the purest sense. Times don't matter, no mile markers, no drinks stations, just your finishing place. There is (nearly) always a vest in front to try to catch, and in most cases one behind to run away from! Having the freedom to forget the watch and just get used to running and racing hard can be a very positive addition for all runners, particularly those who get a bit too hooked up on whats going on on the wrist rather than the actual race.

* Competitive edge: It's easy to lose your racing edge in the winter. If you plan on a key racing period in the late winter and spring coming straight into this off several months of limited or even no racing might see you competitively 'rusty'. This is particularly true if you are a more experienced athlete targeting an indoor season which is short and doesn't allow for a gradual easing in to find your edge. I would argue though this the same for road runners targeting 5km-marathon. It's easy to drift through the winter. Staying sharp, competitively, over the next few months will make your racing next year feel that bit more familiar.

Lorna Russell

Lorna Russell, RwU athlete and GB XC runner racing in Edinburgh

* Strength, balance and awareness: Hills, mud and uneven surfaces can help to build strength and power but, importantly, strength endurance in the calf muscles, glutes, hamstrings and quads. Holding an intensity as your spikes get weighed down, or feet stick in deepening mud is a rather different prospect to the more linear, predictable onset of fatigue in a road race. Aside from this, the unpredictable twists, turns and variable surfaces can help develop your core stability, technique and sharpen your spatial awareness.

* Mental gains: Resilience, drive and willingness to hurt are some of the most important qualities if you expect to hit the roads in 2017 and run faster than you ever have before (i.e. achieve PBs!). This can be trained just as you can train your physical strength and resilience. Cross country racing definitely can be hard, embrace that, it's part of turning you into a bomb proof runner able to shake away discomfort and negative thoughts. One more hard hill, one more tight bend, one more vest to catch. It's not all puritanical hardship though. Every XC course is different and will have different characteristics year on year depending on route and weather. This variety, never knowing what to expect, and frankly running in some beautiful places can help to freshen you up mentally and naturally periodise your year a bit more, something runners often struggle to do.

* A team sport: At it's heart XC is a team sport. That's a big difference with most road races. Running as a part of a team gives you a different purpose and focus and many runners feel it can draw more out physically as a result. Depending on your club standard and age category you might well find that even if you are nowhere near the front of the race, fighting for one more vest can make a big difference to your team result. I genuinely believe part of the decline in standards in male British distance running is that there are less groups and squads training and racing together. XC is a important part of the health of the British club running scene and in a broader idealistic sense, I think its great if athletes feel they are contributing to something bigger...(with some caveats - see below).

Things to Consider

If you are considering your first XC season or if you are a regular campaigner there are a few obvious considerations;

* Access to races: Whilst it's possible to run in most UK XC leagues as a guest it's generally an easier, and more fulfilling experience if you are competing for a club within that league. The structure of XC racing in England and Great Britain is much a like a pyramid from local XC leagues to regional and national championships, as well as inter-counties races and and competitive series such as the British Cross Challenge. Your local club will give you plenty of good advice about how to access your local league and more information can be found at the ECCA, EA and British Athletics websites - / /

* Will it add value? There is no off the shelf way of developing yourself as an athlete to maximise your individual potential. We all have own own strengths and areas for development. Whilst this article is covering some of the key benefits of XC this doesn't mean its the only way to develop your running this winter. The key to choosing whether to do an XC season or not is to understand what you, individually, will gain out of it in terms of your medium and longer periodised plan. This article highlights some of the potential gains on offer but you need to consider whether they apply to you. I have coached competitive club athletes within the top 40 in the UK on the road who would not finish in the top 40 in their local XC league. This doesn't have to be a problem of course but it depends on how you handle this as a competitive animal. If you find that an XC season would gradually shake your racing confidence then you have lost much of the value already. I would of course suggest re-considering your targets and setting different goals for an XC season so that this doesn't happen but you do need to be honest with yourselves.

* Do you enjoy it? For the vast majority of us, even for most 'elite' runners in the UK running is not our full time profession. Of course there are things we do which challenge us and test us. I think any runner who says they love every single run, race or session they do is either not telling the truth, or perhaps not training with a performance goal in mind. Having said all that just doing something because it feels hard, because toiling away in adversity makes you tough without any enjoyment is pointless. There other other sessions, and other ways to train in the winter. Most runners will race and train best when they enjoy and believe in what they do. I believe in the romance of XC running, I think it's one of the purest forms of our sport, but if you don't feel that, and never have that buzz...maybe XC isn't for you.

* FT vs ST: Slow-twitch muscle fibre type runners (I am talking ST vs FT distance runners here...not comparing to sprinters!) who will often be very economical at threshold and sub threshold efforts from 10km up to marathon but who often have a more limited anaerobic capacity can often find XC disproportionally hard. The ability to glide over a tarmac surface efficiently and economically relying on very good elastic return is not possible on the same way in XC. This is not a reason to not race XC but might involve a bit of consideration about what you plan to get out of it and setting of some more individual goals. I have also worked with runners who will run well on some courses and not others. Taking the Met League as an example I have coached athletes who will run well on a generally faster track like Claybury who would struggle on a heavy course like Alexandra Palace. Then we go back to may be in those circumstances a high qaulity training session will add more than just getting out and racing for the sake of it...think about it, basically! This sometimes requires a balance between whats best for you and whats best for you club. I shall leave that to you! Canova has a nice section in his book, 'Marathon Training, A Scientific Approach' that describes the difference between an 'enduring' marathon runner, and a 'fast' marathon runner. It's quite a neat summary and could probably extend to cover runners over other race distances as well.

* Kit: This is an obvious one and most athletes will already know that UK XC racing is a rather different experience to what you may see in some places in the States or particularly Australia. Muddy, wet conditions are the norm cross most leagues in the UK and road shoes are generally never an option for UK XC racing. It may be that early in the season if you are lucky to get dry conditions some of the courses can just about tolerate road shoes but mostly spikes or trail or fell shoes are the way to go. Personally I prefer spikes. Running over the mud and grass already does plenty to remove much of the elastic return of your running gait without adding to it through extra cushioning. Spikes tend to promote a more forefoot running form which will help marginally reduce your ground contact time and therefore likely improve balance and stability with less chance of slipping. However if the lower profile of spikes, particularly on dry courses can also put greater load through the calf muscles and strain on the achilles. If you are new to running, prone to injuries in this area or even suspect that you may be running a bit slower and therefore need a little more stability a trail or fell shoe (fell shoes generally have more aggressive lugs and grip) might be a good option. None of these shoes really need structure in the road running sense as your foot will be moving slightly differently with each ground contact, as opposed to the consistency of pronation you will experience on the road.

Aaron Scott at the Lincs XC Championships

How to Prepare

XC isn't just a means to race well in the Spring, the goal should be to compete and race well during the season itself. There are certain features that I would be looking to include in the winter months to help this process. I will give a few examples of sessions but the exact nature of the session and progression will vary from athlete to athlete. It goes without saying that standard features such as long runs, recovery running, steady state work, drills and strides all remain in this period - I am just drawing out some of the more specific elements I consider;

* Engine Building: If you are a more experienced athlete, and certainly those competing towards the front end will be racing at heart rates at the top end of or above anaerobic threshold (or lactate turn point in British Athletics terminology). Pushing heart rates up in excess of 85-90%+ requires some preparation to compete and sustain the intensity well. Having a good base of longer blocks of running - of between 2 and 4 minutes is important, on a weekly basis for most. 800s, 1k reps, 1200s and mile reps are sound sensible options that fit well with XC season. There are countless sessions and combinations and right or wrong here. Here are just a couple of sessions we work in these zones;

4 x (1200m + 400m) - 1200s at XC effort, 400s harder between 3-5km effort. with 45-60s rest between the 1200m and 400m and 2 mins between sets. 8-10 x 800m alternating odd numbers around 10km effort, even numbers 5km effort from 75s recovery. Sessions which get you used to pace changing can also be effective especially for those racing towards the front of a field such as 5 x 1200 from a longer 3-4 minute recovery with the first 800m at XC effort and the final lap harder at 1500m effort.

* Threshold + Tempo Work: Anyone who has worked with us at RwU knows that threshold and tempo is the cornerstone of all of our training and this is no different in this period. I have no wish to open up a can of worms relating to terminology here. Clear definitions and terms of 'threshold' training vary but simply put plenty of training time spent spent working in the zone between roughly 75% MHR and 85% MHR will help develop the endurance and running economy needed for race well at XC and build your training platform for your more race specific sessions later in the year. If you're measuring lactate in the lab we might consider these to be align to British Athletics terms of lactate threshold (roughly 2Mmol of BLOOD (not muscle) lactate) at the lower end and lactate turn point at the upper end (Roughly 4Mmol of blood lactate). Just be aware though that you can become far too strict and rigid here and fixated on specific HR or lactate levels. Learning to 'feel' these sessions is just as important as there is individual variability in these figures that no book or article can cover neatly. It's also worth pointing out here that and increase in lactate itself does not cause fatigue, but as it closely corresponds to increases in levels of hydrogen ions and changes in blood PH balance it is still a useful measure. Some of the ways we can train in this area;

Simple sessions of 6 x 6 minutes or 3 x 10 minutes etc off relatively short recovery between 60s and 120s working around 85% max HR or a notional 3-4 word answer effort can be very effective. I am not worried about paces here because as you will see below we can do these sessions in different training environments that make pace irrelevant. Longer sessions of sustained effort such as 45 minutes with the final 25 approaching 85% max HR again are very useful for someone with a bit more experience. Mixing rep lengths up for example 2 x (10 mins / 8 mins / 6 mins) working HR up down down a little around that 80-85% area can keep sessions a bit more interesting. Progression runs of anything from 10km up to 1 hour starting around the lower end of the 'range' and gradually pushing the pace on to finish at the upper end of 3-4 word answer effort can be fantastic group training runs and can be great options to gradually wind up a pace without the stress of formal reps.

* Fartlek: Simply meaning 'speedplay' fartlek training can be very effective in the winter months as it tends of be a period of less specificity for many endurance runners. Fartlek sessions, because of their slightly more relaxed structure, can be a great way of mixing up efforts and paces over different terrain - I will often use fartlek sessions to mix threshold and more VO2 type efforts with shorter faster efforts focused on developing power and leg speed. The nature of XC racing, with lots of changes in pace and rhythm also make this type of session very relevant to prepping for upcoming XC races;

You can take a more traditional unstructured approach to these sessions going out for a mixed terrain run of 45-60 minutes and mixing in a range range of different paces including longer stretches of 80-90% MHR with plenty of shorter efforts of 20-90 seconds with easy recovery stretches in between. Doing this on feel, in an unplanned way, can be great if you find structured reps stressful. I tend to add a bit more structure in order to be able to benchmark progression a little more easily so fartlek sessions become almost more like relaxed intervals. Simple sessions such as 6 mins, 5 mins,4,3,2,1 or 4 sets of 3/2/1 gradually picking the pace up throughout from a 60-90s jogged recovery can be great when build into a 45-60 minute run. At this time of year picking a undulating, mixed terrain route will keep these sessions a little more relaxed and XC specific. The key with this is that pace changing sessions are highly effective in preparing to race well at XC.

* Hills: This could be a separate article in itself (and will be!). I tend to find runners avoid hills if they have the option, or sometimes that more experienced runners will include a 'period' of hill training into a winter or early half or full marathon training. Personally I feel regular runners hills should, if you have access to them, feature in your training every week of the year. Whether that be based on physiological fact (read the countless books and journals on the benefits of hill training) or on anecdote (look at the amount of elite runners who come from or train in hilly areas) the benefits of hill training are clear. This doesn't necessarily have to be in structured sessions, converting some of your easy and steady state runs or even progression or threshold work to hilly and undulating routes can be perfect. For a more structured approach at this time of year I will use a mix of either short to medium faster hills, or long continuous hills at threshold effort depending on the individual areas for development or physiological profile of the runner I am working with. Aside from year round benefits if you are going to race well at XC you better get used to running hills don't have to be a genius to work that out.

Short hills mixed with XC effort reps on the flat can be a challenging and interesting way to train. 3-4 x (1km at XC effort on flat + 4-5 x 40s fast hills) is a session I use a lot with different variations. Mixing the hills amongst race effort running on a flatter surface is a physiological and psychological test. Continuous, sometimes called, 'Kenyan hills' can help build strength endurance and add more eccentric load as they involve also running down hill faster. I tend to use these over longer blocks of time e.g. 3-4 x 10 minutes repeating up and down at around 80-85% max HR either on stretch of 45-60s of hill or over a small loop to include a stretch of about 45-60s up hill, the same down and short sections of flatter route at the top and bottom. Recoveries for these are a relatively short around 2 minutes. There are loads of interesting and creative ways to add hills into your training and different coaches use them in different ways...but whatever the session if you want to race XC well they need to come in somewhere along the line.

* S&C: I am not going to say much here because S&C and conditioning should be a part of all runners weekly training mix throughout the year. Ideally 2-3 sessions covering core and glute strength, single leg stability and power and upper body and postural strength. Plenty more advice on our blog about this...but sustain a hard effort in excess of 85-90% max HR over variable terrain requires a frame on which to carry your engine that will cope with those demands.

* Leg speed and power: Plenty of easy and steady state mileage, racing off road, combined with longer reps of 800-mile reps and threshold work will build a fantastic aerobic engine but can sometimes leave your legs feeling a bit rusty. An occasional shorter faster session of of 200s or 400s, with limited volume can help. On a more routine basis including drills and strides at the end of easy runs is a great way of ensuring your neuromuscular system stays switched on and your recruitment of fast twitch muscle fibres doesn't get lazy. 'Alactate' hills of 10-12 seconds of fast running up hill can be a fantastic way of achieving this as well within minimal impact on recovery.

* Training environments: An obvious one but I am always surprised by the amount of runners I see doing all their reps on the track throughout XC season. Whilst it gives you a consistent, Measurable distance to run on a nice consistent surface most UK club runners racing 5km-marathon rarely race on the track, even in the summer. If you have a group training together mark out at loop on grass or trails, if it's dark get cones and lights. Our training group in Winchester, which includes a elite European Triathlon Champion, #4 ranked UK marathon runner, sub 30 minute 10km runners are doing all of their harder interval work on grass, in dark conditions using lights. It's doable. Why not even add in some tight turns and different shaped loops and run reps to time instead of distance...the effort can be the same but the session becomes more XC specific - learning to run to effort, not pace is critical for XC anyway....

How to Race

Regarding race day most XC races for seniors will take place in the late morning or early afternoon which can be an unusually time to race for many runners. You need to balance getting enough energy in early in the day to have readily available to work at high intensities but without overdoing it and leading to discomfort. Trial and hopefully not to much effort basically. I will often have my runners to a short might shakeout run in the morning of an afternoon XC, no more than 20 minutes. How you approach the race itself will in part depend on what you want out of it and will also depend on the course itself. If you are looking to compete to win or finish in the top places you need to think carefully about your tactics. If the course is tricky for overtaking or narrows quickly from a mass start you are going to have to trust your fitness and get out hard to get a position before settling to a rhythm focusing on the vest in front, one at a time. This is also true further back in the pack but you can also expect even more pace changes here as the field condenses and stretches out again. You should know your default effort level and for all but the most inexperienced this needs to pretty hard. An standard league XC race is a hard sustained effort at 85%+ max HR for most and a fair bit harder for those towards the front of the field. This will clearly depend on the race though. Many main pack club runners tackling a long course like the Southerns at Parliament Hill will be (at least for the men) taking between 50-60 mins, some a fair bit more. If you go off at VO2 max intensity there you will blow up. Know the course, the effort you can sustain will depend on how long you anticipate the race taking you...obviously!'s supposed to hurt, go with it, limit your thinking to your immediate surroundings and racing the vest in front, and pulling away from the vest behind. Pretty simple really. Play to your strengths - if you are strong up hill this is the time you can pick up some places, if you know you lack a finishing kick you will need to move on those around you a bit further from home. For road runners this more tactical approach to running can take a while to learn, aim to asses your full performance after each race and think about areas to work on next time around, be they physical or tactical.

A word on technique. As I mentioned earlier you will get less elastic return when running XC. Your speed will rely less on bounce and glide and rely a little more on more muscle, more effort and a bit more push. In your training and conditioning work your focus should be on maintaining a high hip position as you run using strong lower abs and glutes. Wet and slippery conditions, combined with spikes don't make a happy combination for heel striking runners so you really need to think about your form as you race cross country. A little bit more knee drive is generally helpful and so really focusing on remaining tall form the hips, and avoiding a lot of upper body rotation through aiming for your arms to drive (powerfully up hill) back and forth rather than in a rotational pattern should be the goal. Proprioception - physical and spatial awareness is also import in order to maintain position and to apply power and speed a the right times....this is why training in similar conditions to what you expect to race if can help as well.

Final thoughts

An cross country season is not going to be for everyone but for me, whether running, or watching it's an incredibly romantic, pure form of our sport. No GPS, no stops for selfies, short enough to rely on both endurance and power, rather than just going longer and longer. It is tough, you can't afford too much in the way of ego (particularly if you are not used to racing more competitive fields), but thats where you learn most about your self as runner. Cold, hard breathing, team mates and friends, poise and balance, always the vest in front and a smile at the finish. Enjoy!

Tom Craggs.

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