What Can Trail Runners Learn from Cross Country (XC) Training?

This past weekend, November 17, the top 31 women’s and men’s college cross country teams competed at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Madison, Wisconsin (photo above by Michael Scott). Cross country races are typically from 5 to 10K on grass and dirt (sometimes mud and creek crossings) at golf courses or parks. Even though there are few trails if any in cross country racing, our sports share many similarities. Both sports take place off the roads and track and runners are challenged by not only other runners, but also the terrain itself. Both cross country and trail runners have to be a bit rugged and be okay to get dirty.

There are a growing number of books specific to trail running, but the vast majority were written in the past decade. Conversely, cross country’s plethora of training literature and well-respected training methods span generations. Listed below are several common cross country training practices we can adopt to run faster and smarter on the trails.

Core Strength and Injury-Prevention Routines

Most cross country programs, from youth to college, include core and injury prevention routines to help runners build running-specific muscles, as well as balance the body by working muscles often neglected in running training. Much attention is given to exercises such as “planks” for the benefit of improved stabilization in the core while running.

There are specific drills to improve hip mobility, drills to increase leg-turnover, and drills to improve knee-lift (the latter is quite effective for learning how to run through mud effectively!). It’s common for cross country programs to practice these routines several times a week if not daily. As trail runners, we can keep our bodies balanced and strong by regularly practicing core and injury-prevention routines too. Here is a link to one example of a cross country core and injury prevention routine I enjoy.

Long Run for Aerobic Benefits

An essential component to most cross country training plans is the long run, which has been utilized by some of the best cross country coaches to improve runner’s stamina and aerobic development. The popular book documenting the University of Colorado Boulder’s 1998 cross country team, Running with the Buffaloes, contributed to the popularization of the long run and other training techniques for cross country programs across the country.

As trail runners, we can similarly benefit from the stamina and aerobic improvements associated with adding one long run per week to our schedules. I suggest once per week adding a run roughly 20-30 % longer than one’s daily run. Steadily increase by 5 to 10 minutes every other week. Individual running history can help determine how long the long run should be, but one should be cautious about increasing the length too quickly because of injury risks or increased fatigue throughout the week. Allow the body an easy day following the long run to recover sufficiently.

I Love Hills!

In cross country, like in trail running, “I Love Hills,” is an important mantra. Hills in cross country are typically much shorter than those found on trails, but the same mental and physical challenges encountered from tackling hills still apply. Hill-specific workouts or hill-sprint repeats are two common practices in cross country that one can add to trail routines to improve hill running techniques. For a cross country-style hill workout, I enjoy performing 5 one-mile repeats where the first ½ mile is up, and the second half mile is down. Take two minutes rest or jogging between each repeat. For trail runners, this workout will help one feel more comfortable pushing hard and moving quickly on hills.

Know the Terrain

In both cross country and trail running, knowing the terrain of the course provides an advantage in the race. In cross country, it’s common to encounter mud, long grass, hills, snow and sharp corners. Most cross country programs place a large focus on getting familiar with the terrain of the race. My cross country coaches had our teams run intervals with sharp corners often on variable terrain in inclement weather. It was also common practice to arrive early to race venues to scout out potential spots of difficulty on the course.

In trail running, we have the added challenge of running through boulders, twisty switchbacks, scree fields, rivers, high elevation, snow fields, and more, which makes it even more important to know the terrain. Although it’s not practical for some trail runners to scout the entire course beforehand (100 milers for example), one can still learn from the way cross country programs familiarize their athletes with the race terrain. Consider testing specific shoes on different types of terrain, such as snow or boulders. I suggest practicing on a variety of terrain to gain a level of comfort, which can translate positively to race day.

Lastly, I’d like to recognize the incredible accomplishments of all cross country runners this past fall season and give special recognition to my alma mater, The University of Portland, which placed the men’s and women’s teams third and 12th respectively at this year’s D1 cross country championships. Go Pilots!

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