How to Start Cross Country Running

As the summer track season draws to an end, you might be starting to think about planning for the fast-approaching cross country season. Here are some quick tips to help you prepare for your training and races – whether you're new to cross country, or coming back to it.


Cross Country Training

Before you start, it is important to speak with your coach (if you have one) about what sort of training is suitable for you, your age and your fitness ability.

Take a break

First of all, if you have had a long and tiring track season, it is most important to consider taking a short break - about a week or so, or whatever you believe your body needs! You want to allow your body to rejuvenate physically, and also mentally, from the intense work of the track, so you enter the cross country season with a fresh mind and body, to attack the mud and hills and higher weekly mileage in the long winter ahead.

Check your running gear

Do your trainers or previous cross country spikes need to be replaced?

Starting back from your break

It is important to start back running gradually. Allow two weeks to do so, including some easy runs and light training sessions. Starting back too quickly can cause injury, and this is the last thing you want at the beginning of a new season. Listen to your body, and back off if you feel any niggles. It is common to feel muscle tightness when starting back running after a break, so a massage from a sports masseur or a friend are helpful to get rid of the knots.

Endurance training

Cross country training is quite different from track training. Weekly mileage is higher, and training sessions focus on building your endurance and aerobic base. When upping your mileage, do so sensibly. Training is about quality rather than quantity! Talk with your coach about a training programme that is suitable and unique for your age and your ability, and not your training partner's. Think about including interval or fartlek runs and hill sessions to build on your strength.

Run with a group

If you train on your own, consider joining a training group. Training with a group of people of a similar speed to you is very beneficial. You can work together to get through the long training sessions on cold winter nights, and it will encourage you to keep on working hard until the end. It will let training be a fun social event too. Running in a group will let you become familiar with the aspects of cross country races by having a field of people running around you.

Core strength

The undulating terrain of cross country tests your strength, and reveals your weaknesses. Core work is often forgotten in a training schedule. It is, in fact, a key element of training, that is going to put you that step ahead of your competitors, when the going gets tough towards the end of your races. Speak to your coach about setting out a core programme to follow, two or three times a week. Core work will help to strengthen and stabilise your posture during a race, helping to reduce energy wastage.


Cross Country Racing

Race kit

If this is your first cross country season, consider investing in a pair of cross country spikes. If not, check your cross country spikes from the previous season are still in suitable condition, and fit comfortably. Cross country spikes provide a bit more flexibility and movement in the sole than track spikes, to allow the shoe to follow the movement of your foot over the rough terrain. This will help prevent you going over your ankle during a race. The length of a cross country spike is usually around 9mm to 15mm, longer than the average 6mm track spike. Keep the longer spikes for the muddier races!

If you would prefer not to wear a spike, you can wear a good trail or fell shoe. The grip on the sole of the shoe will work similar to that of a spike, and it will provide your feet with a bit of added support.

The winter months can become very cold, so make sure you own so warm layers and thermals so you don't freeze on cold training nights or your race day!

Fuel and hydration: before

Everybody has their own preferences about eating plans before a race. It is important to consume a meal providing you with the right source of energy, a few hours before your race. If your race is around midday, have a good breakfast such as porridge or muesli with toast. Complex carbohydrates will give you the slow release energy that will keep you going through the race. This will also be the time to make sure that you are adequately hydrated. Avoid foods that give a fast release energy, such as those high in sugars. Try to refrain from eating and drinking too much close to your race, as you don't want to feel nauseous while running. Instead, have small snacks, such as a cereal bar, and sip lightly on water or an energy drink to sustain your energy levels.

Fuel and hydration: after

Consuming food after the race is equally, if not more, important than what you eat before a race. This time, different food groups are more important. Try and eat a snack that will provide you with a source of proteins to stimulate muscle recovery after your race. Good snacks with a protein source include, for example a banana milkshake - not only easy to carry in your bag, but also tasty! You could also try SIS Rego (see below).

Walk the course

This is a very important step to follow, especially if you are unfamiliar with the race course. It allows you to identify the sections of the race which you are going to find challenging (or are extra muddy!) so you can think ahead in your race.

Warm up

Before your race day, plan out your warm up. Depending on the length of your race, take a good warm up run for 10-20 minutes. Do some stretches and dynamic drills, and follow with some short interval reps at a moderate intensity for up to 3 minutes, to get your heart rate up. Don't forget to allow time to take off your layers and put on your spikes about 15 minutes before the gun goes off. Added stress of rushing to get to the start line is unnecessary and wastes energy!

Race tactics

It is important to pace your race. Starting too fast can cause tiring early during the race. Cross country races focus more on the placing rather than time. Different courses will suit different people.

Warm down

Don't forget to fit in an easy 10-20 minute warm down jog after your race. This will help loosen off your muscles and ease any tightness which you may feel the next day.

Good luck and enjoy your cross country season!

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  • ayr seaforth athletic clubSeptember 20, 2013 at 9:13am
    Hi Dipika
    I contacted you a few months ago about using your videos etc. on our club website and I have to say they are provinvg to be very popular with our members. Each item provides excellent information and advice for both new and seasoned runners. Thanks for allowing me to use them and please keep them coming. Reply
    • Dipika SmithSeptember 23, 2013 at 11:06am
      Looking at your website, I can see what a valuable job you are doing with the club.
      I know how much selfless time is given to make A.C. Clubs work. So happy to hear that the videos are helping. (Plus I really enjoy making them)--it's so much fun to be able to 'chat' with everyone :)
      Hope you and all the club have a great winter season. Reply
  • KMReesMarch 8, 2014 at 11:57am
    Please help if you can. We have a very lively and (we've been told by his gym teacher and after school club teacher - herself a PE teacher) talented 'good little runner'. The unfortunate thing is that he is too young to join his schools cross country team so were thinking about taking him out ourselves. Where do we start. He is 7.
    Thank you
    Karen Reply
    • Adrian Tarit StottMarch 9, 2014 at 8:57am
      That's great your son has been "talent spotted". Your question is a topic we should put on our little list for future blog posts. In the meantime, here is a link to a couple of great bits of advice from respected American running coach Hal Higdon.

      Our own experience is before they start any structured training with a club, any training should be fun, and even incorporate games like: let's jog to the shops for the paper/milk, round the block, or round the park. Mixing walking and running at the start is good. It is so important not to ask too much of youngsters, and let them develop naturally. Even more important: let them develop their own love of running.

      When your child is old enough to join the club, he will probably have a head start on the others!

      Adrian Tarit Stott Reply
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