Cross Country Races: An Introduction

cross country races
Running coach Elkie Mace takes a look at cross country races and why they can be such great training (and fun!) over the winter, and gives some advice on how to get started if you’ve not done them before. The article also covers suggested hill sessions which are great training for cross country, and has session ideas both for beginners and for more experienced runners, including downhill training.


The mere mention of cross country will take some of you back to your school days, being barked at by the PE teacher and told to run for what seemed like eternity round a bog in plimsolls. But I bring good news – as an adult and a runner the experience is entirely different.

Up and down the country, in parks and green spaces most Saturdays throughout autumn and winter there is an opportunity to take part in a cross country race. Usually they are between 5k and 10k in distance. Most races are organised by local leagues and you need to be a member of a running club to take part. If you are not already a member of a running club you can search for a club here. Or if you prefer to keep your running as a solo pursuit, the trail running calendar is packed with events than you can take part in independently as a non -club member.

What are the benefits of cross country and trail racing?

If you are an endurance road runner (10km to marathon distance), preparing for cross country and trail races has numerous benefits:

  • Hills build strength in tendons, muscles and ligaments in a functional way.
  • Uphill running enhances technique by increasing cadence, improving your stride shape and encouraging better arm drive.
  • Uphill running also builds power.
  • The variety of courses offer a change and mental break from typical road circuits which you might train or race on.
  • Soft surfaces are more forgiving on your joints than the road.
  • Bad conditions, whilst feeling tough at the time, develop your mental strength.

What kit do you need for a cross country race?

The major difference from road running is the shoes. If it is not too wet your road trainers will probably do, but once you’ve tried and enjoyed a few events, investing in spikes or trail shoes is sensible.  You’ll gain extra grip plus they are often more lightweight than road running shoes.

cross country races
How do you train for cross country?

In terms of training, hill sessions are key to prepare you for cross country and trail events. For all hill work you’ll need to identify a hill local to you between 50 – 300 metres long, ideally off road.

Here are a few ideas for weekly hill training based on your experience and goals…

All sessions should be started with a 5-10 minute jog warm-up plus dynamic stretches. Finish with a jog cool-down plus static stretching.

Complete beginner’s hills

Try: 6 x 30 seconds uphill, faster than 5km pace, jogging back down as recovery.

Endurance hills

Try: 8 x 2 minutes uphill, just slower than your 5k pace, jogging back down as recovery.

Speed hills

Try: 15 x 45 seconds uphill at faster than your 5k pace, jogging back down as recovery.

Tailor these three sessions above to what you need by increasing intensity, by increasing the number of reps and/or the lengths of each rep. For endurance hills go up to three minutes. For speed hills, keep the reps short and hard-effort, because if you are running for longer than 90 seconds you are entering the endurance zone.

Form enhancing hills

For this you need a hill which has a flat section at the top where you will be focusing on your running form.

Try: 10 x 80 seconds at 5km pace. For the last 20 seconds (on the flat section) focus on form – as per the below pointers.

Downhills

Once you are comfortable with the ups, lend a thought to the downs.

The Kenyans spend a month on downhills: the main benefit being around improved cadence, body position and contact.  Running well downhill is a skill which needs practice; races can be lost and won on the downhill section.

Find a gentle hill ideally with a soft surface, or circuit of hills, with flat section(s) at the bottom.

Try: start off with 50 metre efforts running downhill. Focus on your technique and the natural pace of the hill. As you become more comfortable you can extend the distance that you are running. Walk or jog back up the hill. Or you could practice this on a route of rolling hills so you practice transitioning from uphill to downhill as you would in a race.

Pre-race sharpener

Try: 45 seconds downhill at 1 mile pace, 30 seconds rest, then back up the hill to get to your start point in 45 seconds or less. Have 3-4 minutes recovery and then repeat five or six times.

How is running technique helpful here?

Whilst hills themselves are form enhancing, it is worth thinking about your technique in order to maximise the benefits and enjoyment of hill training.

Uphill: Stand tall, look to the top of the hill and elongate your body by lifting your hips. Lift your knees high to power up the hill. Take short quick strides. Use your arms to drive you uphill and try not to let your arms cross the mid-line of your body. Focus on activating your glutes and hamstrings so that you don’t overstress your calf muscles.

Downhill: You will feel more relaxed than going uphill because your breathing is easier to control, but keep a fast cadence to maintain a short stride so that you don’t jar or ‘break’ as you come down the hill. Allow your arms to float to help you with balance. Listen out for the sound of your feet landing and try to quieten any slaps down.

Any final tips?

Remember to build up your training sensibly and avoid hill training if you have an injury/niggle.


Elkie Mace is a running coach based in South East London. She works with clients on a one-to-one or group basis. To find out more, visit runwithelkie.co.uk.

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