How to Increase Speed in Cross-Country Running

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Building a solid running foundation and doing speed workouts and can help you increase speed in cross-country running.
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Some would argue that the number one goal of running is to be faster. Get that new personal record (PR). Break the tape at the finish line. Smash a course record.

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While running has so many natural benefits, including improving heart health, mental health, and even making new friends, when it comes to racing a cross-country race — especially in high school or college — speed does play a factor in success.

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So, how ‌do‌ you get faster at cross-country running? Is there a specific technique? Should you try different training routines? Are there high-performance shoes that can give you that edge?

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Once you get to an upcoming cross-country season, every coach has their own philosophy for training and getting faster, but we've tapped a few who gave some quality tips for how to run cross-country faster.

6 Ways to Get Faster in Cross-Country Running

1. Build Up Your Running Foundation

As with any running plan, there's a period of foundation. The difference with building a cross-country foundation is that it's normally a little longer and can fluctuate. While cross-country races can happen at any time of the year, most high school and collegiate cross-country seasons happen in the fall, making the summer a hard-hitting time for gains.

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Summer is huge for base training, according to Cole Hester, assistant cross-country and distance track coach at Columbia University in New York City.

"It's like priming the pump to get the lawnmower going," he tells LIVESTRONG.com.

The main focus for these building-block months is to just run consistently and occasionally add in some different types of workouts or strides (more on those below), which will eventually help you run faster in cross-country.

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Gaining aerobic fitness happens in the foundational phase, but also right near the beginning of the season, when the real training begins.

Aerobic means your muscles are receiving an adequate amount of oxygen and energy to continue a long run, notes a February 2017 article in the ‌World Journal of Cardiology‌. That oxygen and energy output, when developed and matured, can set you up for higher physical conditioning and in a good place to run even faster in cross-country.

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Cross-country in general is a heavily aerobic event, according to Hester.

"You're talking about trying to hit an energy system that's predominantly aerobic. And when you hit the other end, after the training, that's where you find yourself getting faster," Hester says.

Building your aerobic engine helps with the terrain of cross-country training as well, Hester says, because running on grass takes a lot of grit and toughness, which you'll have a lot of when you're aerobically strong.

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Working on your aerobic capacity also offers the opportunity to build on miles without worrying too much about pace. The journey to pace actually ‌shouldn't‌ focus so much on the pace. In fact, Dave Ringwood, head coach for cross-country and track and field at Cabrini University, recommends that his athletes don't even run with watches or trackers.

2. Do Strides for an Anaerobic Push

Strides are short bursts (10 to 30 seconds) of a faster pace during a run. They offer a very neuromuscular component to training, according to Hester.

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"They can sharpen the legs without doing a lot of work. You can do something a little bit quick for a short period of time, so when you do go faster, it's not a shock to the body," he says.

Strides are anaerobic exercise, which is intense activity for a short period of time, fueled by the energy sources within your working muscles (not by oxygen, like aerobic exercise). Training anaerobically comes in handy for that end-of-the-race kick, Ringwood says.

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3. Include Tempos, Intervals and Fartleks in Your Training

Cross-country training is very effort based, so to get faster, you also need to factor in specific workouts, including tempo runs, intervals and fartleks.

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Tempos

Tempo runs are consistent efforts performed at about 15 to 30 seconds faster than your average race pace. Hester recommends doing tempo workouts between 5 and 8 miles long to train for cross-country racing.

Tempo runs are the "bread and butter that help you work towards that goal race pace," Hester says.

While tempos are definitely increased effort runs, they are by no means all-out, according to Ringwood.

"You're working more and improving aerobic capacity by developing your engine without overly stressing your body," Ringwood says. "You don't get a lot of rest, but that's how you develop — where you're never actually comfortable."

A Sample Tempo Run, According to Ringwood

  • 5 to 10 minutes per interval in duration
  • Interval distances can range from 1K (0.62 miles) to 1 mile to 1.5 miles
  • 60 to 90 seconds rest between each interval

Intervals

Interval training is a method that structures your running into multiple and mimicking sections, with periods of either relative or complete rest. Intervals can vary in distance and intensity.

Running intervals improves your aerobic and anaerobic fitness and can help lessen your time to exhaustion, according to the American College of Sports Medicine's ‌ Health & Fitness Journal.‌ This, in turn, improves your cross-country times.

A Sample Interval Run, According to the American College of Sports Medicine

  • Long intervals of 3 to 15 minutes (about 1K to 1.5 miles)
  • Moderate intervals of 1 to 3 minutes (about 600 meters to 1K)
  • Short intervals of 10 seconds to 1 minute. (about 80m to 600m)

Fartleks

This type of run — which means "speed play" in Swedish — is a great tool to increase speed over longer distances.

Fartleks are slightly different from intervals in that you're playing around with different distances and speeds for the bulk of your workout versus sticking to one repetitive distance or pace.

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This helps you build fitness, get quicker and prepares you for the uneven paces of a race, where you might be faster at some points and slower at others, Hester. says. Adding fartleks will help train your body for any added pushes for speed come race day.

A Sample Fartlek Run, According to the International Journal of Physical Education

  • 10- to 15-minute warm-up
  • 2 minutes hard
  • 2:30 easy
  • 3 minutes hard
  • 2:30 easy
  • 3 minutes hard
  • 2:30 easy
  • 2 minutes hard
  • 10- to 15-minute cooldown

4. Get Cross-Country-Specific Shoes

Regular road-running shoes would just sink entirely if you were running in mud or might slip on grass, which will slow you down, according to Ringwood.

So, you'll need cross-country spikes to rip into grass and feel like you're getting something out of the steps, Hester says.

Our Favorite Cross-Country Shoes

  • Saucony Kilkenny XC9 Men's and Women's ($65, Saucony)
  • Hoka EVO XC Spike Men's and Women's ($110, Hoka)
  • New Balance XC Seven v4 Unisex ($74.99, New Balance)

5. Familiarize Yourself With the Terrain

There's no doubt that the terrain for cross-country runners is drastically differently than road racing. Windy trails, steep hills, sharp right and left turns, mud, grainy grass. This is the kind of terrain that might seem impossible to gain speed on, but according Hester and Ringwood, you can.

Ringwood recommends familiarizing yourself with the types of environments you'll be racing on, such as grass, trails and parks, so that you know how to engage your muscles in a different way come race day if needed.

Try to find a variety of workout locations as well.

"It's a good mental stimuli to approach from a different perspective, because during a cross-country race, every minute is going to be different," Ringwood says.

6. Focus on Racing, Not Time

At the end of the day, one key factor to getting faster is to actually not focus on time, but on the race itself instead. Cross-country is unique compared to road or track and field races in that it identifies more as a team sport, according to Ringwood.

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"Be aware of your surroundings and who is around you, because you can work off of someone," he says. "Use them as a reference point and find that moment in the race to accelerate."

Results are also hard to speak to, because it's hard to put a time to any one course. When courses range from flat golf courses to hilly, muddy trails, it's more about the competition, and not the time, Hester says.

There's no real scale of where you're at in the course of a cross-country race, according to Hester.

"A track is flat and controlled, and at most 15 to 20 people [in a race]. But in cross-country, you can have up to 200 people on the starting line and see all of them, and it's a mad herd of people you're trying to go up against," he says.

So just focus on the race at hand, and don't compare your performance from one race to another, because each is so different.

FAQ

Common Questions

What is cross-country?

Cross-country running is "a sport in which teams and individuals run races on outdoor courses over natural terrain," like grass, trails or open fields, according to USA Track and Field.

When is cross-country season?

While cross-country races can happen at any time of the year, most high school and collegiate cross-country seasons happen in early fall around September or October.

How many miles do you run in a cross-country race?

A cross-country race differs in mileage depending on the age of the runners. Races for elementary school and middle school runners can range from 1.2 to 1.9 miles, according to Hershey Blaze Track Club. A standard high school race is 3.1 miles (a 5K), but high school freshmen can race anywhere from 2 to 2.5 miles as well. For National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) runners, women's cross-country races are 3.7 miles long (a 6K) while men's races are 4.9 miles long (an 8K), according to Equaldistance.org, an organization that wants to make collegiate races for all genders an equal length of 8K.

How do you train for a cross-country race?

While every organization's training program may differ, runners should aim to do speed work three days a week, a long run once a week, easy runs two days a week and rest one day a week, according to Hal Higdon's Cross-Country Training Program. This combination helps runners boost their speed and aerobic capacity and cut down on injury risk.

How many miles a week should you run for cross-country?

This answer depends on factors like runner's age, fitness and experience level and the specific program a runner is following. However, most high school cross-country runners average 35 to 45 miles a week, according to Hal Higdon's Cross-Country Training Program. Collegiate cross-country runners can average 70 to 90 miles per week or more, according to Charleston Southern University's men's cross-country team. For individual recommendations, chat with your cross-country coach to see what's right for you.

What is the difference between track and cross-country?

The biggest difference is the type of terrain each is run on. Cross-country races are typically run on off-road courses while track races are run on a running track. Other differences include the lengths of the races, competition structure and scoring.

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