What is cross country running?
Cross country may well conjure up hideous memories of school, being forced out on a long slog across fields in the cold by a sadistic P.E teacher, but cross country racing can actually be a lot of fun when it isn’t being inflicted as a punishment!
Cross country is popular with running clubs as a winter sport as it is both a team and individual sport.
In our experience the dirty, messy off-road nature of cross country running makes it feel more relaxed and fun, even though the racing and competition is as hard, if not harder than any road 5km or 10km run in summer. It keeps a competitive focus for road runners whose seasons have ended.
Routes are short and can sometimes involve more than one lap, the terrain is off-road and variable so involves a lot more technical skill than road running and steep off-road hills can really test your fitness.
Cross country events are very inclusive, it is a chance for all club runners to have a crack at being in the team and supporting each other as there are categories for everyone from kids to vets. Read on for our top 7 cross country running tips.
Step 1: Ensure you have the equipment essentials
If you are already a regular runner you need very little specialist kit, if any, to start racing cross country.
Your shoes need to be suitable for off-road running with good mud clearance and grip. On traditional grassy courses, you may find lightweight cross country spikes dig into soft ground even better than trail shoes.
Look for something that is light and gives you plenty of feel for what is beneath your feet. These are short races so you don’t necessarily need the bulky cushioning and protection of a long distance shoe.
Running attire: Unless it is really really cold things haven’t changed that much since your PE days, just shorts and a vest is fine! Most clubs will have a team running singlet that you will need to wear if you are running as a team but as a solo runner, your usual shorts and technical tee will be fine.
If it is really cold add arm warmers and a wind-proof gilet or long sleeved top. You will get very hot - it’s an intense pace! Covering your legs is not a good idea when muddy as the material just gets waterlogged and heavy.
- Accessories: Unlike road running, your sports watch won’t be much help to you in terms of pacing as you won’t be running at a set speed. It’s all based on feel and running as flat out as you are capable of! However, it’s still nice to have the data for afterwards and to add it to your training diary.
Step 2: Pick a cross country running event
Finding a cross-country race is easiest if you are part of a club (see step 3) as they probably have a calendar of events that they will commit to sending teams to.
Running shops normally know a fair bit about what is going on locally as well. Compared with trail running, which can be highly commercialised, cross country running is a lot more grassroots so less well-publicised. However, as a solo runner, there are great online resources such as on Timeoutdoors.com
Step 3: Consider joining a running club
Being part of a team will make your running experience far more exciting. Even if you aren’t the greatest runner knowing that your time counts towards your team’s final position will give you extra motivation to push yourself and pass just one more person as you make your last gasp toward the finish line.
Running clubs will normally be a part of a league and affiliated to regional and national cross-country bodies so your race entry will generally be a part of your club membership fee. Plus, as mentioned in Step 2 it makes finding out about your local race scene much easier. You can also enter races independently or as a guest, with the fee ranging from anywhere from £5 to £15 or so.
Step 4: Train smart
Train specifically: As with any type of running your training should prepare you for the specific demands of the race, which if you are used to training on the road will introduce some fresh variety into your workouts.
Typical cross country challenges are short and consist of steep hills, uneven terrain, sand and mud (lots of it). Running on soft-mixed terrain calls for a slightly different stride length and gait, plus you will have to get used to scanning the surface and picking your lines. To get your legs and ankles used to the changes in terrain make sure you run off-road a couple of times per week.
Pick a short steep hill for your intervals and vary the way you running it; try attacking hard at the bottom and hanging on to the top, but in another session try pacing it so you can sprint over the top of the climb.
Prepare for a fast start: Cross country races start fast and sometimes stay that way! Forget pacing and negative splits - this is vomit tasting effort right from the gun! There is also a lot more jostling for position and head to head to racing than on the road so be prepared for a little more body contact as you get away from the line.
In order to best prepare yourself both physically and mentally for the possibility of a fast start it’s a good idea to try and replicate it in training. Try including 2-3 x 300-400m efforts at the start of your interval sessions.
Fast intervals at the start of your session will elevate your blood lactate levels, making the rest of the session hard, but it will force your body to become more efficient at buffering the lactate. It will also give you a taste for the intensity of race day.
Step 5: Fuel your cross-country training
Cross country training needs a combination of endurance sessions, tempo work and speed/HIIT type sessions, preferably done off-road. If you are a long- distance runner then you may find your total weekly mileage dropping but the intensity increasing. You will certainly, as it’s winter and off-road, be spending a lot more time getting wet and cold! So what does this mean for your nutrition?
Fuel before your session. Approach every training session with enough energy to give it your all which means eating a small meal or energy bar 1-2 hours before your training is due to start. We find if we are training straight after work a Pronto bar really hits the spot thanks to its caffeine boost and great taste. Drink plenty of water too as dehydration can be mistaken for fatigue.
During your session. Longer runs of 45 minutes or more need fuel on the go. Especially if your body is also coping with the cold or wet weather. We find Veloforte Mixed-Bites the perfect solution as they are easy to carry and just one mouthful, ideal for running.
Keeping your muscle glycogen stores well-stocked by eating carbs before and during your run plays a role in keeping you warm and maintaining a healthy immune system - important for winter well-being.
Plus, when the weather is grim a deliciously tasty bar takes your mind off how you are feeling and gives a little boost of pleasure and motivation.
After your session. Recovery is critical for gaining fitness and staying healthy after training sessions. Sometimes it isn’t convenient to have a meal straightaway which is when we would reach for a Veloforte Forza bar. These combine apricots, almonds and fennel into a truly deliciously tasty and nutritionally balanced protein and carbohydrate bar, perfect for your body after a tough run.
We like to have a stash in the drawer at work and the glove box of the car - anywhere you might need a quick, healthy snack after exercise.
Step 6: Fuel properly on race morning
The intensity of cross-country racing, combined with day out in the cold will leave you feeling ravenous! Not only do you need to think about your fuel in advance of the race you also need a plan for afterwards.
Breakfast: A good breakfast will set you up for the day and may be the only ‘proper’ meal you have until after the race.
Make sure you eat something filling and nutritious with a combination of carbohydrate and protein.
A familiar favourite is porridge made with milk and topped with fruit and nuts. This gives you some long-lasting slow-release energy and a little bit of protein which is important for your muscles. Alternatively, toast or bagels with nut butter and a banana is a great choice.
Pre-race: There may well be quite a long gap between breakfast and the race starting so you need to keep topping up your energy levels without weighing yourself down or eating anything that might sit badly with a fast, hard race start!
We like to keep a selection of Veloforte bars & Mixed Bites around for nibbling on, especially during and after walking the course. A Veloforte Pronto bar 30-40 minutes before the start will give you a gentle caffeine hit that will peak in the early part of the race when you will need the focus to maintain an uncomfortably fast pace.
- Post-race: At the end of the race you will be feeling exhausted, wet, cold and muddy. Whilst recovery is important at this point no one is going to enjoy a cold, tasteless recovery shake. Our choice is a hot cup of coffee, from our favourite flask, and a Forza bar which is packed full of tasty dried apricots, almonds and fennel. This will kick start your recovery with plenty of carbs and protein but also tastes like a delicious reward for all your efforts in the race!
Step 7: Ready, steady, go!
Try to arrive at the race venue in good time so that you can take a look at the course beforehand either on your own or with your teammates.
This helps you to pick your lines through any technical sections and make a mental note of where any hills are. If you think you are going to be at the front of the pack make a note of anywhere the course narrows, forcing runners into a single file, as you will want to be near the front before then. Cross country courses are comprised of laps so you don’t have to walk the full race distance to see the whole course.
In cross country racing places matter, not finishing time, so be prepared to give it everything you’ve got until the moment you cross the line.
Think tactically about the people around you and as the races goes on try to notice where you are stronger or they are weaker so on the final lap you can make your move!
If you fall behind the group, you are in because of a slip or error, resist the urge to sprint back up to the front. A better tactic is to find and regain your rhythm and save your speed for the end of the race. As you enter the final Kms kilometres launch an all-out attack and sustain it to the end, if you can, overtaking as many runners as possible in the final few hundred metres.
Sprint past the line not to it, every place matters!