Many runners have a love-hate relationship with winter cross-country running. It raises your heart rate, covers you in mud and often freezes your fingers to the bone. But those muddy courses build strength and stamina, essential for spring marathons.
As many of us know, off-road running tends to be unpredictable. The changing nature of the surface will help develop your proprioceptive skills… but expect your heart to feel like it wants to leap out of your chest.
Running on boggy, softer and more pliable surfaces uses more energy.
Credit: Mike Bell, Southern League Cross-Country race series
You are focusing on overtaking the person in front of you, rather than racing against the clock. Expect the terrain underfoot to constantly change; having to focus on this allows you to be completely present, providing both mental and physical stimulation. This is not the time to be worrying about mile splits or next week’s laps around the track.
Two races are never the same, which is why cross-country is perfect winter training. A combination of hills, mud, snow, and rain will build strength and power. You’ll be working both your aerobic and anaerobic respiratory systems as you trundle up a hill then hurdle a fallen tree.
Your kit list is simple; trail shoes, which have more tread on the bottom than road shoes, to help you pull on the ground beneath your feet. And a pair of gloves when it’s frosty.
Running a cross-country race has many benefits; the quality of air going into your lungs is better than the smog that you get from running in a city. Although it’s harder under foot, is also great mobility training as unstable surfaces improve your foot and ankle strength.
Cross-country also impacts your core strength – many muscle groups come into play as we tackle uneven, muddy or steeply downhill parts of a course.
If you can run over uneven ground in all sorts of weather in the winter just think how much easier it will be to run a road marathon in the spring, summer or autumn. Even on a cross-country course that you’ve run before you probably won’t run the same time. So, it’s that time of year to ditch your GPS watch and focus on beating the person in front, rather than any PB.
Braving the elements, working your way through the field, and the heavenly cup of tea after breeds a strong feeling of camaraderie between club mates, too. The bath when you get home is incredible! As most cross-country races are free, there’s nothing to stop you from giving this historic running event a go.
Six top tips to make your cross-country running easier
- At the end of the summer/beginning of autumn do regular interval, hill and tempo sessions to improve speed endurance and strength, to prepare you for the energy-sapping mud.
- Start your race positively, without running so fast your legs are left heavy from a spike in lactic acid. If you start at the back, it can be difficult to overtake in narrow parts of a course.
- Try to achieve the best line to save energy. It may be worth taking a longer route around boggy areas to conserve energy. Running straight through deep, long puddles isn’t always the best option, even if it is the most direct path.
- Attack muddy areas – don’t fear the mud!
- Invest in a good pair of trail shoes (or spikes if you plan to race consistently). The lugs will give you essential grip.
- Don’t sprint at the bottom of a hill; it’s better to run at an even pace up a hill so you can run hard off the top.