The end of the summer marks the start of something dear to my heart: cross country season! Though I began running track races in elementary and junior high school, I consider my life as a “serious runner” to have begun with cross country in high school. And while I have run cross county races sparingly since finishing my collegiate eligibility, I still feel as though I am in “cross country mode” when running between Labor Day and Thanksgiving.
I was very privileged to be on great cross country teams both in high school and in college. And when I say great, I don’t just mean in the traditional term of the fastest team with the lowest point score. I also mean in terms of being on these teams as an enriching experience that I will look back on fondly for decades to come. I won’t lie, part of these enriching experiences included being the top team at certain meets, but I think to have a truly great team you must have equal parts success and fun.
This article will be the first in a three part series in which I will describe how you can help make your cross country team great this season. The series will align with the critical parts of the season, with advice on what kind of training should be implemented during that portion of the season, as well as what a coach (and athlete) can do to make being a part of their cross country team a fun, memorable experience that will make the team great now and in years to come.
PART 1: PRE/EARLY SEASON
The first day of school usually includes the first day of “official” practice, depending on your school system regulations. The first day of practice includes runners of greatly varying experience, talent, and commitment. Hopefully you were able to implement a voluntary summer schedule in which both newcomers and returning veterans were able to put in some base mileage and get to know, or get reacquainted with, their teammates. I don’t remember where or from whom I heard it, but since hearing it, I have always believed in “Cross Country champions in October/November are forged in the hot summer runs of June and July.” Now, if you weren’t able to implement those summer runs, or were disappointed with their attendance, don’t worry too much. There is still time to put in the strength work needed, there is just less potential for how much improvement athletes can have.
Think of a runner’s potential as a pyramid. The wider the bottom of the pyramid, the taller you can build. The training during cross country pre/early season should focus on building the bottom of each runner’s pyramid as large as possible. This is done primarily with attention to running volume. A coach can plan out how long the runner’s season is anticipated to be, and how much running volume they believe each individual athlete can handle without getting hurt. This will obviously be a lot different for young inexperienced runners, compared to their older, more experienced teammates. The first quarter of the anticipated season length should start at or around half of each runner’s weekly mileage goal, and gradually build each week until they are running their desired mileage by the end of this first quarter. In the next quarter of the season, runners should continue to run at this top end of their mileage, allowing for an occasional drop every 3-4 weeks to better adapt to the training. But, always remember that injury free is the place to be, so modulate the mileage goals for your runners so they always stay injury free. Training isn’t an equation and runners aren’t robots so adjust as necessary to keep them running.
Volume/weekly mileage isn’t the only concern during this first half of the season. The other major factor is training intensity. During this part of the season, the intensity of every run, but especially hard days should be relatively low to what they will reach later in the season. The body has enough of a challenge handling the increase in volume, it can be overworked if it is also asked to handle too great of training intensity. Good workouts at this time of year include steady states, fartleks, and long runs. (See the McMillan Running Calculator to learn more about these workouts.)
A great way to check that runners are staying in the desired range of intensity is to check their heart-rate during and immediately after workouts. You can find optimal heart rate training zones for each running pace in the McMillan Running Calculator. Make sure they don’t approach their max heart rate at any time during this segment of training, which can result in overtraining and disastrous running later, in the most crucial part of the cross country season. Keeping this combination of high volume and lower intensity is the best way to build the biggest base of each runner’s pyramid, increasing their potential for the rest of the season. Outside of running, you’ll want to include injury-proofing and running form exercises and strides to build durable runners with picture perfect running form.
This early portion of the season is also when the most attention can be given to ensure that being a part of the cross country team will be a fun, well-rounded experience. Establish team traditions, seek out as many new team members as possible, and set individual and team goals along with team rules/expectations. Team traditions can range from superfluous to serious and an establishment of strong team culture. My teams, like so many others around the country, included the tradition of team dinners. There is something about being together to replenish your body (and no longer being in running clothes?) that brings young athletes closer together and is why so many teams have some form of this tradition. A less common tradition I loved as part of my cross country teams was an annual “river-toss.” At the end of the first day of practice, all returning members of the team would toss the newcomers into a river nearby, representing a form of baptism to now be a part of the team.
Finding and keeping new team members is crucial at this point in the season. Many may be new to running, and might be a bit hesitant to join a team in which “all you do is run!?” Make joining the team as easy and welcoming as possible. These newcomers help to keep a balance of fun on the team for some of the more serious, experienced runners, which often times helps them continue to improve their running. Most of these new members are unlikely to have a big impact on the varsity team’s success at meets right away, but you can bet that some of these newcomers will become crucial veterans that help keep your team scores low in years to come.
A factor that I have always loved about cross country is that it is both completely an individual AND team sport. Think about it, it is individual because you have to run the race, no one can do it for you. You have to go through the internal battle of how much suffering you are willing to tolerate, there are no timeouts or substitutions to help you. But, at the same time, you rely completely on your teammates in order to have a successful team. You could be the best runner in the world, but be on a last place team if your teammates aren’t able to carry their share of the load. This is part of why it’s so important to set both individual and team goals for the season, as well as a set of team rules/expectations.
Individual goals will vary greatly. One tip you can follow from sport psychologists is to focus more on process goals than outcome goals. Process goals are something that you have more control of: I want to do my strides after every run, I want to eat healthier before practice, etc. Outcome goals are less predictable because you can’t control what other runners and teams will do: Wanting to finish top 5 at a race is an outcome goal. If you’re out of the top 5 but those 5 ran faster than ever before, should you be too disappointed in not reaching your goal? Don’t get me wrong, I still believe it’s important to have outcome goals and to strive for them, but remember there is an element to those goals that are completely out of your control.
Team rules can be set by the members of the team, they can include things like consequences to multiple absences, supporting one another at practice and meets, and all kind of other things. By allowing the members of the team set the rules, they develop a greater sense of accountability to the team, and often times will set more strict standards than coaches might. Coaches can always adjust the rules a little if they are too lenient or strict.
Now, let’s review. Here are my quick tips for starting the fall cross country season right:
- Remind your runners that the work they are doing now is building the base of their pyramid. The bigger the base, the better the potential!
- Train optimally each day: remind your athletes to stay within the proper pace/heart rate zone for each run so that they gradually build fitness, stay healthy, and maintain motivation.
- Seek out new team members: look for athletes in other sports needing fall off-season training such as soccer, basketball, and swimming.
- Develop team traditions, both coach-initiated and team member-driven.
- Start goal setting now. Talk with your individual runners on a weekly basis about what they are doing each day to reach their goal. Talk with your team in a group setting to build accountability and expectations.
- Most importantly: Keep things fun! Running can be a serious sport, but developing the social element among coaches and athletes builds trust and relationships that can lead to better race results.
Following these training and team building guidelines early in the cross country season is the best way to get the season started on the right foot, and ensure the best chance of having a great team on and off the fall cross country courses.
PART 2: MID/REGULAR SEASON
PART 3: LATE/CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON
If you’d like help with your team, we’re happy to consult with you to help you have the best cross country season possible. Contact us to get started. Also, check out McMillan’s Guide to High School Cross Country three-part video series that walks you through Greg McMillan’s key principles of training for high school runners along with a 20-week training plan.
Visit the McMillan High School Cross Country Resources page to sign up for our weekly newsletter and find articles and tools to help you make the season great.
More High School Running Resources:
McMillan Running Calculator – Use this to optimize the training of your athletes and predict race times so you can better pace races.
High School Cross Country Summer Training – Some ideas on what to do in the summer to get ready for the fall.
The Four Types of High School Cross Country Runners – Coaching high school can be challenging. Use these ideas to tailor your training to match the needs of various types of high school cross country runners.
McMillan’s Six Step Training System – Understand one of the most successful training systems on the planet. This article simplifies the often confusing world of run training.
YOU (Only Faster) – Greg’s best-selling book shows you how he teases out the unique traits of runners so their training can be optimized.