STACK's Cross Country Training Guide was developed by Andrew Kastor, head coach of the Mammoth Track Club. Kastor and his wife, 2004 Olympic Marathon Bronze Medalist Deena Kastor, train Olympians, elite runners and high school athletes.
Here's what Kastor had to say about cross country training:
I fell in love with cross-country as a high school freshman. I tried out for the team thinking it'd be a good way to stay in shape for soccer, and I ran the 2-mile test run in VANS street shoes. I'd never run that long. I was so sore. But I thought I had a little bit of talent, so I kept at it.
I attacked. I trained with the varsity guys from day 1. Going against 18-year-olds when you're 14 is a challenge. It took about three weeks before the soreness faded.
Getting started early sets you up for good things later in life.
I had four or five coaches during my high school career, which exposed me to a hodgepodge of coaching philosophies. I got see a lot of what works—and what doesn't. Then I went to run for [Division II cross-country powerhouse] Adams State, under Coach Joe Vigil. He's the best in the business.
The number one thing high school runners can do during the summer is to get in the volume. It's not important to do intervals or repeats. You just want to get the mileage in.
The training plan is mostly easy aerobic runs—lots of miles at a conversational pace—with some hill-specific training peppered in. A freshman coming in should start with about 20 or 25 miles per week and build from that. Adding 5 miles per week/per year is about right, so your top-notch senior could be averaging 40 to 50 miles per week.
The most important run in the plan is that solid, aerobic long run on Saturdays. It's long, slow and steady, and will last one-and-a-half to two hours. The longest it should be is two hours or 15 miles, whichever comes first.
You'll also see grass strides early in the week. Strides in spikes are a great addition to any training plan, because the secondary muscle groups in your legs—the ones that keep you balanced and upright—have to fire. That requires more sugar and oxygen from your body. Your muscles have to work harder. Your grass runs will be slower. But they'll help strengthen the supportive tissue in your legs and hips.
Prioritize your life around your rest. Getting sufficient sleep—8 to 9 hours per night—is hugely important when you're running a lot of miles. It's even more important for high school athletes, who are still growing. Whatever else you get done during the day is great, but you need that recovery.
I'd rather have an athlete get to the starting line healthy and run off of guts than have him ride that fine line and almost break before he even gets there.
Be consistent. There are a lot of distractions in the summer, so have a dedicated time to train. Meet with your team or run with a friend to keep yourself accountable.
If you're reaching 50 or more miles per week, experiment with two-a-days. Try splitting up the distance. Run the morning workout hard, and use a shorter, easier evening run to clear out the legs.
Runners seem to train better during the morning hours.
One reason may be that after lying down horizontally for eight to nine hours, your vertebrae are relaxed and more spaced out. That extra space allows for better neuroconductivity so your muscles can work together better.
I actually have my athletes hang on to a bar in the evening after a long run to relax and get some spinal elongation. It's very important for athletes to undo some of that compression that happen during a run.
If hills aren't available where you live, find a freeway overpass for your hill work. Or try running up-and-down stadium steps. The goal is to work on your knee lift during the run.
You also may want to try Box Jumps, which simulate the muscle contraction you get when you run downhill. You incur a lot of impact forces running on declines, and plyos mimic those forces. It's not exact, but it's similar.
Stay hydrated during your runs. During a 45-minute run, you want to take on calories. They will help you recover faster for your next workout.
A few weeks before the start of the season, go out and race an 8K or a 10K. It will really help boost your confidence. It's also good to practice your race day routine, practice your warm-up, and test your pre-race nutrition.
Look at the pace you hit as a barometer of your lactate threshold level. When the season comes, you'll do shorter training intervals at a pace slightly faster than that.
Get a baseline of your resting heart rate early in the season. Doing it is simple: Just take your pulse early in the day, before working out, when you're at rest. Then monitor yourself throughout the season by occasionally taking your pulse at the same time of day. If your resting heart rate increases by five to 10 beats, you're overtraining and need a day off. Other signs of overtraining include not sleeping well, feeling irritable, loss of appetite.
Evening runs—or even walks—can help flush out metabolic waste and free radicals left over from a hard morning session. Cold baths are also a good idea, especially after a hard or long session. The water should be around 50 to 55 degrees—cool, but not hellaciously cold. Try that for 10 to 15 minutes. Another good idea is to prop up your legs, like you see in the "Legs Up the Wall" yoga pose, to help lactate and waste drain out.
Cross Country Training Week One
- Monday: 3-5 mile easy run with 8-10 x 80 meter strides
- Tuesday: Run on grass. 20-minute warm up, 8-10 x 45 seconds at goal XC race pace with 1:30 recovery jog and 20-minute cool down
- Wednesday: Off day or 3-5 miles easy
- Thursday: 20-minute warm up, 8-12 x 15-20-second uphill sprints, 20-minute cool down
- Friday: 3-4 mile easy run
- Saturday: Long aerobic run, 5-7 miles at easy pace
- Sunday: Rest
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