The Cross Country Program to Transform Your Team

Scope and Purpose

Cross country runners will improve their performance, and coaches can experience the empowerment of their vocation when pinpointed physiological methods and competitive focusing techniques are bonded together in periodically based training schedules. This seasonal training guide contains a definitive coaching approach to the sport of cross-country and includes a mental awareness component that compliments the physical training. In many instances an unforgettable season can occur not because the coach wins every contest he enters but because the sport of cross-country itself is transformed into a new form of interaction—one in which the composite of the season’s experience is as important as the final team scores.

Our purpose is to promote the cross-country coach to be the teacher, motivator, and central figure for a group of young people attempting to glean the satisfactions and rewards from a challenging sport. This article asks the coach to make a commitment to a new perspective–to focus on the “whole runner’ whether addressing a star performer or any other team member. Both high school and college cross country coaches can benefit from this program that has embedded in its drills and techniques the embodiment of a mind/body training system which delivers measures of success mentally, physically, and even spiritually.

Mapping Out the Season

Cross-country training is a process that starts in the warm summer months and ends in the chill of late autumn. It is above all else an activity of cycles. It is a 13-16 week season during which time the coach and team are beginning with a new base of conditioning and a year ahead full of promise and ambition. This article provides instruction in the workouts, drills, and methods used for each segment of the cross-country season. The suggestions outline an ideal season of training although we will also speak about how to handle injury and setback, so you can learn how to regroup and peak during the championship part of the season. At the end of this article, a means for reviewing how to evaluate the most important elements of the training process is explained.

Planning the Pre-Season

The season’s initial set-up for the high school, college, university, and post-collegiate coach has some dissimilarity. It is recommended that the first pre-season workouts begin on a flat grass field. We hope this minimizes a workout we call “the long sad gray line” which refers to the practice of mostly high school coaches to have their team run for an indiscriminate time along the streets with the lead runner striding smoothly in front and everyone else straggling behind. Rather from the beginning, our method emphasizes selective group training. The coach’s objective is to figure out whom to train with whom, and what workouts, and what sequence of workouts will get the entire team at full throttle when it counts most- during the championship part of the season. The genius of all groupers was Hungarian born Mihlay Igloi who was coach to many star runners who used his method for vast improvement. His mastery could be observed in watching 30 to 40 runners in six or seven groups doing all manner of workouts in different directions and various speeds and finishing the workout together. The successful cross country coach does not have to be this precise, however, understanding the nuances of applying workouts that are physiologically accurate and diverse is at the heart of this program

Segments of the Year Long Program

The flat grass surface should be at least as large as the inside of a football field and if possible accessible to locations for long continuous running. As in all successful periodization training, each segment has a goal, methods, and techniques to achieve a particular result that naturally plateaus before it blends into the next phase of training. The coach teaches new techniques and terms in each phase of the training and the methods are broken down into the physical and mental aspects of the workout. Each new phase of the season will have the group return to the grass field to learn additional techniques that are then integrated into the whole program. The goal is for all aspects of the training and for each runner in the group to reach the zenith of peak performance during the championship phase of the season

Pre-Season Workouts

The initial phase of training is the pre-season that in the U.S. season lasts from July to the end of August. In the pre-season,the goal is to learn the initial techniques that are applied in the interval part of the training plan. Our aim in all phases is to keep all team members injury free as an aerobic base of conditioning is established. The unique training techniques are physical and mental as the team is training physically but also learning how to utilize lung and mental capacities to their maximum potential.

Gaits and Tempos of Running- Initial Drills for Teaching Gaits and Tempos

The pre-season begins with instruction in the application of gaits and tempos methodology. To accomplish this the coach can face the team directly on the grass field and lead or have a team member demonstrate the forms and speeds of running used in our interval training. We all know that effective training takes a sensibility of pace and an understanding of the best forms of running movement to achieve physiological efficiency. Using perhaps a straightaway of 100 meters, the coach explains that a gait is the form of movement during the run and that the tempo is the velocity at which you move. As the coach gives these gaits and tempos names, he is developing a language to communicate his training instructions and a means to carry out his training instructions. Igloi’s terminology works well in this regard as fresh swing tempo is assuming a gait and velocity to go up to about 60% effort. Good swing tempo approaches speeds from 60 to 80%, and hard swing tempo is between 80-95% effort.

During the entire season each training phase has at least one and usually two days of training on this grass field. The terminology however can be used on all surfaces and workouts during the entire season. One of the main reasons for using the gait and tempo with the whole group initially is to make sure each runner has time to “regroup,” so the workout retains group unity. The stopwatch should be used sparingly at the beginning of the season. When used properly, the stopwatch should determine the level of conditioning rather than be a means of setting up workouts to get in shape. In the pre-season, the team learns mid pace running, so as to maximally utilize the Exercise Heart Range (220-age and 60-85% of the target numbers) and avoid sprinting that places the runners’ physiology over the Anaerobic Threshold where it is shutting down its capacities because of the presence of lactic acid.

The three weeks of pre-season will contain two kinds of workouts- intervals and long continuous runs. Interval workouts have a particular sequence of warm-up, stretching, the body of the workout, and a recovery method.

For the warm-up during pre-season, the coach can instruct with the following information.

  • Warm-Up During Pre-Season- After the team jogs together for about 5 minutes; finish the warm-up with a few easy stretches and a technique called the shake-up.

The following stretches are good for starters.

  • Fully Body Swing: Feet shoulder width apart, raise your arms and extend to the sides swinging your entire body from right to left.
  • Grape Picker: Slowly stretch both hands overhead, then stretch your right hand as high as possible, and repeat on the left side as if your were picking grapes
  • Lateral Stretch: Raise right arm straight overhead, palms up as you place your left hand on your left hip. Bend as far as possible to the left while reaching over and down to the left with your right arm. Repeat on the other side.
  • Wall Stretch: Leaning on a wall or tree moves your right foot back about two feet and place your heel down, toes straight, lean into the wall bending the left foot forward and allow your right leg to stretch. Do on the other side.
  • Skip and Shake-Up: On the grass field take a distance of maybe 60 meters begin by skipping as a child skips, only raising your knees a bit higher. Shake up by letting your muscles hand like a rag doll, and every so often throw your hands over your head and to the sides but stay mainly on your toes to loosen up our body and elevate your heartbeat to get ready for the workout. Up and down the 60 meters about 4 times is usually good to complete the warm-up.

Begin the first workout by teaching the difference between fresh, good and hard swing. Have your team run at the various tempos and they will naturally assume the gait that accomplishes the objective. The coach will do perhaps three or four 100-meter intervals with a rest period between each so the group can regather together after each segment.

Introduction of the breathing drills

Breathing Drills- Our Breath is our Awareness

The breathing techniques are taught on the grass field using the concept of the acceleration point. Usually accomplished just once at the point of acceleration, the technique known as tidal breathing propels the runner into a faster tempo half way into the interval. The coach can explain the following breathing principles to his team while standing in front of them on the grass field.

The coach can tell the team to remember that:

  • the exhale is the starting point of all breathing techniques. The sound of the exhale should reverberate like the sound of a hollow log.
  • when you use the full capacity of your lungs, your breathing begins in the diaphragm and rises to the top of your chest filling up like a balloon.
  • stored breath released properly can help accelerate you forward.
  • relaxing your lungs when stationary in between parts of the workout accelerates physical recovery.

The technique of tidal breathing teaches the runner to fill his lungs to capacity, store it for a moment, and then spring forward into a faster gait thereby increasing speed and achieving a higher heart rate without greater exertion. On the grass field, the coach can stand in front of his team and give the following instructions. “Exhale all the air out of your lungs somewhat forcefully, and then bring your arms up the sides of your body to your chest. Store the oxygen for a split moment as you imagine the fullness to the top of your throat, then turn your palms over, exhale and drive your body forward.”

Teach tidal breathing by having the group begins running at a fresh swing and at the acceleration point doing a tidal breath, which accelerates them into a good swing tempo. Tidal breathing drills have the extra capacity to allow the runners to become more aware of their lung capacity and training aid potential

The Surge Technique

Using the same location of the grass field, another technique used in the training and applied in racing to accelerate is the surge. Again on the grass field the surge allows the runners to propel forward by pressing your thumb and first finger together like a gas pedal on a car making the sound of ‘ping’ in your throat and flying forward. This technique always gets a laugh, as the coach can explain it is like pouncing forward like a tiger. Of course physiologically, your heartbeat goes to the top of the exercise heart range when you surge.

Workout Recovery

How the runners finish a workout is as or more important than how one starts. This recovery sets the day for the next workout and is part of the entire sequence of a training segment. The technique called the Full Body Recovery lets the runners “check out” their physicality, and because they are relaxed at the end of the session, it provides the coach an opportunity to begin introducing ‘positive suggestions’ that can be built later in the season into a mental exercise that prepares the team for the championships. By tightening and relaxing each part of the runner’s body beginning in the feet and rising all the way up to the runners head, a physical awareness of each section of the body becomes apparent. For instance, while the group is mingling after the training, have them stand in a semi circle and close their eyes and begin by saying, “imagine a color. A cool refreshing color. It might be gold, green, or soft blue or any color that you identify with becoming refreshed. As you are thinking of this color, press your toes, then your heels to the ground, and squinch up your feet. Imagine the color leaving from your toes when you relax.”

At the end of the recovery, as their eyes are closed, you might have the runners begin to imagine themselves “running with perfect form, and feeling strong, fluid, and in control.”

Typical Pre-Season Workout

Following the day of instruction in which you introduced the gaits, tempos, and other techniques, the pre-season conditioning for 3-4 weeks can include variations of the following:

  • Long continuous distance from 30 to 50 minutes (usually in fresh swing)
  • One longer run that will be 1½ times as far as the regular continuous run
  • On the grass field measure out distances from 60 meters to 400 meters in combinations such as 110, 150, 220, 260, 300, and 400 meters. The short intervals in sets program can have the following elements:

    10 minutes of jogging.
    Stretches.
    Skip/Shake-ups.
    Interval Segment from 80 to 400 meters using the interval language with sections that express workouts like:

    6 times 100 (50 fresh/50 good swing with tidal breath at junction).
    Finish with full body recovery.

Typical Pre-Season Week

  • Three days of continuous running from 30-one hour a day (a collegiate runner may run twice a day, etc)
  • One day of 1 ½ times longest run (For top runner this can be as long as two hours)
  • Two days of short intervals in sets (high school workout should be about 30 minutes, top runners can have interval workouts as long in duration as 1 hour and twenty minutes
  • One day of active rest or a very short easy run.

Techniques for the pre-season include: gaits and tempos, acceleration point, tidal breathing, stretches, skips shake-ups, surging, full body recovery. Optimum use of the exercise heart range and avoiding the anaerobic threshold.

Early Competition phase- Late August to the End of September

Proper running locations are necessary for maximizing results. For the early competition phase, the coach should add:

  • A loop of a mile or so of grass if possible that is relatively flat.
  • A trail that is about 30 minutes of undulating surfaces that contain some but not many hills.
  • Keep the grass field.
  • Have your continuous run trail that leaves from your front door.

The grass field introductory methods of this phase introduce the mental aspects of the training program. The thing to remember when tapping into the imagination of your team’s mental capacities to make practice more fun and enjoyable and transfers to all kinds of situations. Using your mental capacities is like training your body. It takes time and persistence, and your runners improve in increments.

The Mental Training Workout

The coach has introduced mental training techniques during the full body recovery. The team has closed their eyes and placed their mind’s eye inside their body to review their condition after the workout. On the grass field, the group has had at least six workouts of using short intervals in sets, and now we will add a few new mental awareness applications to the workouts.

The technique used in mental training on the grass field is called active visualization, and it uses the methods of soft eyes and the principles of push and pull imagery to attain the desired results. To teach the soft eyes technique, have the team stand still with their eyes closed and in their mind’s eye visualize a bird flying over a mountain- notice the smoothness of his feathers, every detail of his flight movement. Next, have the team open their eyes slightly, so they can see out and at the same time keep the image of the bird in their mind. When the team applies this to an interval run,remember this technique should only be done in a safe environment and never on a street where there are cars present or you can trip over a curb.

  • The Hand Push Drill. Have your team stand in front of you on the grass field, and after placing them in soft eyes mode, have them visualize a hand coming out of the sky. Tell them that the hand is round them and supports your whole body. Tell the runners to lean back into the hand and feel its support. Feel it all the way up your body with the top of your hand supporting your neck. Lean back into the hand for support, so that when you begin running at fresh or good swing, the hand is doing most of the work, and you are just being carried along. Feel the hand guide you up the field. This active visualization can help you when you are struggling during a race or hard practice. Moreover, you will find that the techniques effectiveness is increased using a cue to signify the end of a particular segment. To do this uses the wipe away technique by brushing your fingertips across your eyes to return to normal viewing.
  • Rope Pull Forward. On the same grass field, the coach will have the team close their eyes and face up the field towards a goal or soccer goal, tree, or any non-movable object. Face the post with soft eyes and imagine there is a harness around your body from your waist up to your chest. Actually go through the motion of throwing a harness around the post while you are in soft eyes mode and have it be connected directly to your body. Actually feel the tug of the rope as it wants to pull you towards it. Have the runners raise their hands, and when they drop it, have it signify that they are being pulled towards the post. Run towards the post at fresh or good swing, and when the run is complete, use the wipe away technique to condense and finish the segment of the workout.

Speed Play Drills

One the one-mile grass loop or the undulating trail the following two techniques can add camaraderie and structure to the workouts. The manner of speed play, going at various tempos at your own discretion, is an excellent way to reach diverse physiological goals. The following are two-speed play drills. They are called energy transfer and the 24-step formula. The first utilizes the concept of natural body heat or energy into a partner games, and the second has a duo or individual increase the heart beat into higher aspects of the exercise heart range.

  • Energy Transfer Drill. Have your team learn the energy transfer drill going up and down the flat grass field, and then they can transfer it to the one-mile grass oval or undulating trail. Begin the game of ‘energy transfer’ by facing each other, possibly with soft eyes. Rub your hands together and then place them over each other, noticing how far apart each hand must be from the other while still maintaining contact signified by the heat generated between your hands. Speed play is put into effect when one partner drops his/her hands and faces up the field while the other takes the energy into his/her own hands and places it into the other person’s. As the runner goes behind the partner to a designated spot or distance, one partner stops and faces the other maintaining the “heat” by the rubbing together of two hands and when “recharged” runs back to the starting point or next spot on the trail. This is a fun way to get your heartbeat into the top of your exercise heart range. Sometimes if you have a boys and girls team you can let them match up, and it is a little like going to the dance.
  • The 24 Step Formula is another speed play workout in prescribed “mix” of segments of 24 steps in cadence of light, moderate, and brisk tempos of walking, jogging, or running. The term 24 steps refer to the number of steps taken in each cycle of the workout. The method has nine perambulations:

    Walk: light, moderate, brisk
    Jog: light, moderate, brisk
    Run: light, moderate, brisk

If one were to move through a complete sequence, there would be eight changes of pace within 216 strides. The 24 steps refer to the cadence when the 24 Step formulas come into play. Count from one to twelve on each strike of the left or right foot. At twelve, announce the cycle such as light, moderate, or brisk to yourself. There may be a few steps of adjustment when going from a brisk back to a light cycle.

You can have your team utilize the 24 step formula method as a speed play workout or with a partner. It can be the second part of a continuous workout or as a speed play through the wooded trails.

Workouts in the Early Season

  • Continuous runs from the house from 30-50 minutes.
  • One or two days on the grass field utilizing gaits, tempos, breathing techniques, surging, and active visualization.
  • On the one-mile grass loop, you can do energy transfers with a partner or 24 steps. Also another good speed play is a few minutes of fresh or good swing with a break like 3 minutes fresh swing, one-minute jog or walk.
  • Sunday run should be 1½ times farthest run.
  • Continuous runs on the trails.

Your team will have run probably two or three tune-up races, and you may have a person or two hurt or at least somewhat injured at this juncture in the season.

What To Do With Your Injured

There are many forms of therapy from chiropractic care, massage, physical therapy, orthotics, and acupuncture. All and any can be helpful to your hurt or injured athlete. However, the best advise for the coach trying to keep his cross country team in tact without a big gap in the score is to separate out your injured and put them on their own program. It may sound simplistic, but the best advise to give a coach being driven mad with injury is to have your runner do the same workout every day while injured and at a location where he can stop whenever the pain is getting worse rather than better. Whether it is jogging on the one mile grass or doing fresh swing tempos back and forth, the runner knows how the injury is progressing in its healing process if his body knows exactly what to do each day and can gauge to go further or less. When the runner is improving, slowly integrate him or her back into the group but not too quickly or in a competitive situation.

THE MID RACING SEASON—4 weeks

During the racing season you can continue to meet on the grass field once a week for the short interval in sets workouts using all the gaits, tempos, and other techniques at your disposal. You can add two new workouts.

  • Continuous workouts remain the same, and you can lighten up to fresh swing on any to recover for the more difficult or precise.
  • On the grass or dirt one mile loop, measure out about 2/3 of the way around and have your team run at about 80% good swing anywhere from 3 to 6 times. You might want to break the team into two or three smaller groups. Time the run but also pay attention to the rest period and keep it to a jog if you can.
  • Let your long run remain 1½ times the continuous and let it be bit slower than before.
  • Two or three times during the 4 week period, have your team run up a gradual hill and find a flat space at the top or on an adjacent field and do about 4 times 100 meters at good swing.
  • Rest easy for meets and try to do them only every two weeks, so that you can alternative a 14-day cycle with two days of rest on either side of a 10-day period.

Tips: Continue to keep the full body recovery after at least 50% of the workouts and begin expanding the suggestions in the end phase by saying statements such as: you are feeling better and better with each race, or notice how you are rounding into shape so nicely.

The Championship Part of the Season

In the championship part of the season, you can return to the grass field and go back into a training pattern resembling the pre-season. Over the last 10 days, we will introduce a mental training for the event.

Add the following workouts

  1. On the grass field, add a set of fast 60 to 80 meter hard swings with long rest walk back runs.
  2. For one of the continuous workouts, have the whole group run together in a “pack” to gain team spirit
  3. Cease hill climbing and do one workout of only 2 or 3 times the 1000 meter run with a long rest and no pressure on the group for time (but they will run fast anyway)

Event Rehearsal

10 days before the championship, bring the team together and talk about the championship course. Ask them to write down the flowing or challenging parts of the course or have the coach write down the responses. Have the coach strategize how to break the course down into three parts- the start, mid, and finish of the race. Write down a script that covers all the aspects of the race. Some tips are to have the runners “feel strong and fluid”, “get into a bubble at the beginning of the start to get a perfect run out,” “notice the time they would like to achieve and see it on the scoreboard, finishing strong and under control.” Do the event rehearsal at least three times in the last ten days and the night before the race. It is best to do it the last time before you go to the course. If you go to stay over night before the big race, that is the perfect time for the last event rehearsal

Summary and final review

In my fifteen years of coaching, I have found various approaches and methods that insure success, both from a personal as well as professional perspective. These approaches can be separated into two distinct and wholly dissimilar philosophies that represent the likelihood of success or failure. These two cycles are the cornerstones for success or failure. They are: The Cycle of Imminent Defeat and the Cycles of Impending Success. The coach is responsible for which of these cycles he chooses.

The coach will invite a greater likelihood of failure if the:

  • team does not participate in pre-season conditioning.
  • practice does not start on time and tardiness by the team is acceptable
  • coach does not address emotional and psychological distractions.
  • coach fails to plan workouts and to provide training schedules to all participants.
  • coach loses sight of the overall purpose of the season.
  • coach does not keep the overall health and well being of his team paramount.

Conclusion

By studying the above cornerstones of success in review, it does well to look at the elements of the program and realize how paying attention to each segment almost guarantees success. If you start the season with an overall well conditioned team and create a program that leaves room for them to grow personally and psychologically within the context of the planned schedule, you are on the right track. When you provide every avenue for making good decisions with the welfare of each runner in mind, success will surely come your way. Watch the athletes as they mature in the program and listen closely to how they are responding and what they are saying and being successful at team cross country is one of the most rewarding experiences in all sport.