“For something to hurt that bad, and feel so good, it’s just inexplicable.” — 1998 NCAA cross-country champion Adam Goucher
If you’re thinking about tackling your first cross-country race, then mid-summer is a great time to prepare. Many local running clubs offer summer cross-country series that can act as great tune-ups for that goal race. But if you’ve always been a road racer, how do you prepare your mind and body for the rigors of the turf?
We recently sat down with Coach Greg McMillan to talk about how to best train for intense off-road racing. McMillan has enjoyed much success in the discipline as a coach, leading the now defunct McMillan Elite Team to victory several times at the USATF National Club Cross-Country Championships.
What is some initial advice you would give to a non-school-age runner as they think about their first cross-country race?
First and foremost, it’s critical that new cross-country runners get on surfaces similar to their race course. Many road runners find the transition to uneven terrain a challenge, so some practice on it helps ease that transition so race day isn’t the first experience. The ideal scenario is to run a workout or two on the race course, but if you can’t get on the course itself, then do research on the surface type (e.g., thick grass, smooth grass, bumpy or smooth surface, dirt, rocks, turns, hills—short, steep, long, frequent, infrequent) and find something that closely mimics it.
The next big thing for new cross-country runners is to understand that pace is less consistent and thus a less desirable way to measure performance. In cross-country races, the terrain and surface typically cause the effort to be higher for the same pace. In other words, cross-country races are run at a higher effort level but runners experience this at a slower pace. This can be tough mentally, unless the runner understands that cross-country is about best effort over the course of the race as opposed to pacing themselves like they often do at road races. So the workouts I suggest should be run on the race surface (and in the footwear he/she expects to race in), and the runner should focus on effort and not worry about pace—which could fluctuate greatly, depending on the terrain.
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What kind of workouts should runners who are tackling their first cross-country race complete?
The best cross-country workouts are fartlek or pace change workouts on the race surface. I suggest starting with 10-12 x 1 minute at cross-country-race effort, followed by 1 minute easy jog recovery. This is an easily accomplished workout and begins to orient the new cross-country runner to varying pace on the off-road surface. It also helps the runner dial in cross-country race effort so that on race day, he/she doesn’t go out too fast.
The second workout extends the effort to 6-8 x 3 minutes at cross-country race effort with 1-2 minute easy jog recovery. Again, this dials in effort on the race surface and helps the runner practice running his/her best on the undulating, twisting, turning terrain that most cross-country racers face.
The third workout is my favorite cross-country workout and is best done after the runner has a couple of preparatory workouts under his/her belt. The cross-country ladder involves varying repeat durations and intensities, and replicates the mental and physical toughness that cross-country races require. The workout goes like this:
— 1 minute at slightly faster than cross-country-race effort with 1 minute easy jog recovery
— 2 minutes at cross-country-race effort with 1-2 minutes easy jog recovery
— 4 minutes at cross-country-race effort with 2-3 minutes easy jog recovery
— 6 minutes at cross-country-race effort with 3-4 minutes easy jog recovery
— 4 minutes at slightly faster than cross-country-race effort with 3-4 minutes easy jog recovery
— 2 minutes at slightly faster than cross-country-race effort with 2-3 minutes easy jog recovery
— 1 minute all out
— A proper warm-up and cool-down would of course be included.
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Why these workouts? What do they achieve mentally and physically?
Physiologically, these workouts boost your VO2 max—the maximum amount of oxygen your body can take in and utilize. The workouts also improve your running economy—faster pace with less oxygen required—and help the body produce less lactic acid at race pace and improve the clearance of any lactic acid that is produced.
Mentally, these workouts prepare the new cross-country runner to the difference in effort and pace compared to road running. The workouts help the runner get used to the varying mental discomfort that comes from running fast over undulating terrain, and allow the runner the chance to practice running relaxed at race pace despite increasing fatigue.
What are some dos and don’ts for actual race day?
— Smile a lot
— Cross-country racing allows you to throw off the watch and return to the fundamental competitiveness of running—you vs. the course, you vs. the competition and you vs. you. Enjoy this.
— Capitalize on your strengths. If you are a good downhiller, then fly down the hills. If you are a good uphiller, then attack the hills.
— Surge on every turn. Think “quick feet” as you slingshot yourself out of corners.
— Run not just to the top of hills but OVER the top of hills. Many runners relax when they get to the top of hills. The best runners run hard over the top of the hill to keep their pace going.
— Challenge yourself to catch runners in front of you. This is the fun of cross-country. It’s about place, not pace. Each runner ahead of you is a target, so commit yourself to catching them.
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— Don’t warm-up on the hardest/most challenging terrain on the course. This will fatigue the body. Warm up on the smoothest part or even do most of the warm-up on the roads with just a few minutes of warm-up on the course.
— Don’t worry about pace. Worry about effort.
— Don’t go out too fast. Remember to be cautiously aggressive at the start but know that you’ll need some energy for the second half of the race.
— Don’t give up. Racing is hard. Racing cross-country adds new challenges, so go into it with the mindset that you are ready to accept those challenges.