Cross-country running involves traversing difficult and varied terrain. Your training should be specific to the varying surfaces of cross-country, surfaces that can include grass, mud, dirt trails and paved roads. Occasionally, there are obstacles such as hay bales, low fences and even an occasional stream crossing to navigate. Because of the difficulty of keeping a steady pace over the changing landscape, it's better to focus instead on effort. Focusing on maintaining a steady effort will allow you to get through the cross-country course as fast as possible. Be sure you have a base of running for at least a few months before you begin to add cross-country specific exercises to your running regimen.
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Practice Form on Hill Runs
In most cross-country races, you will encounter some hills. In order to best prepare for these types of courses, practice running up hills. Repeat hill workouts will build your strength and stamina. After a warm up of at least 15 minutes, run up and down a hill that's no longer than 300 meters. Run by effort, keeping the pace strong and steady as you go up, but be sure to keep good form, pumping your arms and shortening your stride as needed to get to the top of the hill. It's OK to relax when you jog down, but don't lose your good running form on the downhill section either. Running up hills on the course requires that you also be able to run down them.
Incorporate Speed Work on a Track
Even though cross-country races are typically run on rolling hills, grass, dirt or other types of trails, going to the track for some speed work will help you run well, especially on the flatter sections of the race. You can also do speed work or interval repeats on a grass field, preferably with both a slight uphill section and a downhill section. Aim to run repeats that are 400 to 1,600 meters in length. Run no more than 10 400s or four 1,600s if you are training for a 5K race. Your speed should be close to what you would run for the mile for the shorter distances and 5K pace for the longer intervals. Your rest between the intervals should be approximately the time it took to run the interval.
Don't Neglect Full-Body Conditioning
The uneven terrain and unpredictable surfaces in cross-country running require strength and energy to traverse. You must be able to lift your knees up higher than on flat, even surfaces and have the power to get through any possible mud, soft dirt, sand or grass. Supplementary work such as lifting weights, core work and dynamic stretching will help your cross-country training and racing. Running drills, especially ones that focus on foot strike, such as ankling and ankle springs, will encourage foot and ankle strength that is needed in cross-country running.
Build Leg Strength for Barriers
Lower leg strength will help you get through tough cross-country courses. Hay bales and other obstacles are sometimes placed on courses to make them more challenging, so it's important to be able to get yourself over them safely. Focus on drills such as bounds, lunges and squats to improve overall leg strength. Even 10 minutes of these kinds of drills two or three times a week after a running workout will help improve your strength, so that you can jump over any barriers on the course.