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How To Train For Cross Country: 6 Effective Workouts + Training Tips

Our run coach gives you her top tips to prepare for your next race.

Cross country is among the most exciting, challenging, and varied types of running.

Because this sport involves traversing off-road courses, cross-country training can be unique compared to marathon or 10K training sessions.

Knowing what specific workouts will benefit you as a runner and how to train for cross country properly will ensure improvement in your performance, whether you are on a high school cross country team or a master’s team.

This article will explain how to train for cross country and cross country workouts you can try as you prepare for the upcoming cross country season.

A muddy cross country race underway.

What Is Cross Country?

Cross country running, sometimes written as XC or XC running, involves racing on off-road courses, such as open fields, trails, wooded areas, forests, wood-chipped or cinder paths, or even golf courses.

Cross-country races are usually 3k-12k, depending on the age group and level of the racers.

Although cross country is primarily contested among youth, high school runners, and collegiate runners, there are also open and master’s cross country races.

Cross-country races are usually a team event, with five runners scoring for each team, although there are open and individual races. The sixth and seventh runners are alternates for situations where two or more teams have a tied score.

According to USATF,1USA Track & Field | Cross Country. (n.d.). Usatf.org. https://www.usatf.org/disciplines/cross-country the first English championships for cross country were in 1876,2Historical National Cross Country Championship website | English Cross Country Association. (2020, January 28). https://www.englishcrosscountry.co.uk/news/historical-national-cross-country-championship-website/ and the first national cross country championships in the USA were in 1883.

Somone training for a cross country race.

How to Train for Cross Country

Cross country training programs should involve workouts similar to those you would perform for other distance races–hill repeats, tempo runs, speed work, long runs, distance runs, easy runs etc.

However, how you do these workouts and prioritize them can vary when deciding how to train for cross country.

Here are a few training tips for how to prepare for cross country races:

#1: Train Off Road

Because cross country is run on uneven terrain, training for cross country running should involve workouts that occur off the roads and track. You can supplement these off-road key workouts with weekly mileage on the road for recovery runs.

Running on grass and trails activates the core and smaller stabilizing muscles in the ankles and hips more than running over smooth, even pavement or the track. 

Additionally, cross-country runners often need to take shorter strides and run with a faster cadence. This helps keep your center of mass more directly over your feet so that you can maneuver quickly around obstacles and stay better balanced and stable on race day.

For these reasons, it’s important to practice running on trails to get accustomed to maneuvering around roots and rocks, spotting the best footing, and adjusting your stride.

Many cross-country courses are rather hilly, so training in varying grades is also important to develop your leg strength and technique for different terrains.

A coach showing a runner how to train for cross country with a quick start.

#2: Fast Starts

Cross-country races usually have a mass start, which often involves a very wide starting line with runners lining up side by side across the entire length of the starting line rather than forward and back along a narrower road, as with most road races.

After the starting gun goes off, runners might quickly funnel into a narrow trail or path, depending on the particular cross-country course.

For this reason, it’s important to practice getting off the line quickly and be able to run fast for the first 400-600 meters before settling into your more comfortable race pace.

This is one way in which cross-country racing strategy often differs from road races, wherein pacing yourself and not starting too quickly is recommended.

#3: Hill Workouts

Hill workouts are particularly important to include in your cross-country training plan because most courses are quite hilly or will have at least one or two significant climbs.

Try to run your hill sprints on grass or trails to best simulate race conditions.

Choose hills that take 30 seconds to 2 minutes to climb at max effort, attacking each hill with good form. Keep your stride short but powerful, focusing on staying on the balls of your feet and keeping your cadence quick.

Now that you have the tips and tricks on how to train for cross country races let’s look at some specific workout ideas.

A close-up of a running shoe.

6 Cross Country Workouts to Try

#1: Hill Workout for Cross Country Runners

Here is an example of a hill workout to prepare for cross country races:

  • Warm up 1-2 miles, ending at the base of a 100-300 meter hill.
  • Run 10-12 reps at max effort, jogging slowly back down for recovery.
  • Cool down by running 1-3 miles, depending on your level.

#2: Tempo Run Workout for Cross Country Runners

This workout will help you increase your lactate threshold, helping you maintain a faster pace before shifting into anaerobic metabolism.

  • Warm up 2 miles at your easy running pace.
  • Run 20-40 minutes at your tempo pace, depending on your level and race distance.
  • Cool down by running 1-3 miles.
A coach and a group of people running on grass.

#3: Threshold Workout for Cross Country Runners

Threshold intervals are run at your tempo pace but are broken up into shorter segments than a continuous 20-minute (or longer!) tempo run.

  • Warm up for 2 miles at your easy running pace.
  • Run a ladder of 4, 5, and 6 minutes of threshold pace with 60 seconds of easy running in between. Advanced runners can reverse the ladder, running 4, 5, 6, 6, 5, and 4 minutes at lactate threshold pace. You can also skip the second 6-minute interval for an intermediate level.
  • Cool down by running 1-3 miles.

#4: Speed Workouts for Cross Country Runners

Try to find an off-road course you can run on for your speed intervals, although a track will suffice if you can’t find a measured distance on grass or trail. 

Running on an actual cross-country course (such as your home course or the cross-country course at the local college) is often the best way to find a safe, measured, appropriate course to train on.

This speed workout is great for training for 5k races. 

  • Warm up for 2 miles at your easy running pace.
  • Run 5-6 x 1,000 meters at 5 seconds faster than your goal race pace.
  • Cool down by running 1-3 miles, depending on your level and race distance.

This speed workout is great for distance runners training for 8-10k cross-country races. It’s super challenging, so feel free to modify it as you build up your endurance.

  • Warm up for 2 miles at your easy running pace.
  • Run 2 x 1,000 meters at 5k pace, 3-5 x 1,600 meters at goal race pace, 2 x 1,000 at 5k pace. Take 60-90 seconds of rest in between intervals.
  • Cool down by running 1-2 miles.
A group of runners training.

#5: Fartlek Run for Cross Country Runners

Cross country is typically a team sport, and working with your teammates is a great way to build camaraderie, foster teamwork, and push one another to do their best.

This fartlek workout can be run independently, but running it with your teammates is fun. 

A pack of 3-7 runners works well, but a single buddy or solo runner can also replicate the workout.

During the “on” intervals, the pack should try to stick with the lead runner, but it’s natural to spread out.

Each runner gets to lead different intervals by commanding the pace for the interval.

Here’s the fartlek ladder you will do. The effort for each interval should be 5k cross country race pace or faster:

1 minute, 1.5 minutes, 2 minutes, 2.5 minutes, 3 minutes, 3.5 minutes, 3 minutes, 2.5 minutes, 2 minutes, 1.5 minutes, 1 minute.

Runners who are training for a 5K cross country race should just do one round of the fartlek ladder, whereas runners who are training for longer distances should do two sets.

Two runners training on gravel.

#6: Progression Long Run Workout for Cross Country Runners

Long runs are typically run at an easy pace because the primary goal is just to accrue time on your feet to build endurance.

In fact, running your long runs too fast is one of the most common mistakes that younger runners make when training for cross-country. 

Doing so is actually counterproductive because it’s overly taxing on the body, and the same benefits can be gleaned while respecting the body’s limits by running much slower.

However, some cross country coaches believe that decreasing the overall distance of the long run a little but adding some intensity can be a more effective approach to inducing adaptations that allow you to run faster in races.

Advanced runners training for cross country can try this progressive long-run workout.

If you are training for a 5K or 6K cross-country race, run 6 miles. If you are training for a 10K cross-country race, run 9 miles.

Runners training on grass paths.

5K or 6K Progression Long Run Cross Country Workout: 6 miles

  • 2 miles easy 
  • 3 miles at 15 seconds per mile slower than 10k pace 
  • 1 mile at goal 5k pace

8K or 10K Progression Long Run Cross Country Workout: 9 miles

  • 3 miles easy
  • 3 miles at half marathon pace 
  • 3 miles at goal 10k pace

Knowing how to train for cross country can help prepare you for your best season yet!

If you enjoyed this guide, check out this next one for more information on cross country distances:

References

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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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