Cross Country Training For Distance Runners

Distance Running Training

High School Cross Country Runners

What happens when the regular season begins varies tremendously among the top programs. Some have succeeded with high mileage programs (this term includes distances from 50 miles per week to well over 100). Others emphasize fast runs, and still others base their workouts on a very small amount of running with high emphasis on a series of drills.

Fortunately, there are a large variety of activities available to steer your athletes toward success. Physical fitness can be improved in more ways than simply running. Core strength can be increased through specific exercises, various drills can improve neuromotor skills, correct stretching exercises can increase stride length, and specific running drills can increase stride rate and efficiency.

During the cross country season a coach can use a variety of workouts to help improve anaerobic fitness and to prepare the runners for races. These workouts (examples listed below), such as mile repeats, kilometer repeats, Oregon drills and sharpening speed, give coaches plenty of different options for helping the athletes peak at the highest level at the right time. Athletes, typically, should start the season with longer repeats which add up to a bit more than the distance of the athlete’s race (5,000 meters for most states) and run each interval at date pace (level of the athlete at the current time) or just below goal pace. During the middle of the season as the team approaches conference championships, athletes are running intervals that add up to race distance and are at race pace or goal pace per repeat. During the peaking stage, the athletes will be running repeats faster than goal pace in a shorter overall length than the race itself.

Areas often overlooked in coaching high school distance runners have nothing to do with workouts, drills or exercises. The most important intangible for high level success is “expectations.” No matter what the sport, the coaches who produce championship teams every year are those who truly “expect” their athletes to succeed. While some are hoping to place high in their respective league championships, the kids in the top programs are certain that they have a chance to win the state or national championship. Former Mead High School (Spokane, WA) coach Pat Tyson always started out the cross country season with the statement, “We are going to be state champions this fall.” That actually happened 16 times during his 23 years at Mead. Expecting to win was the key.

Another non-running key to success is for the coach to ensure that all members of the team feel important. The best athletes in all sports gain the most recognition, but cross country is a unique sport where the slowest runner may never outrun anyone, yet that runner can work hard and at the least improve. A good coach will note kids with these improvements and create a team with all sorts of winners.

High School Distance Running Training

Examples of Running Workouts and Drills

Mile Repeats:  Mile repeats can be done on the track, at a golf course or on a maintained trail. Take 2-3 minutes rest in between each mile repeat. Start each season by doing 4 or 5 one mile repeats. Decrease to three repeats as the pace gets closer to race pace. End the season with a mile time trial. 

Oregon Drills: Using the perimeter of the football field, stride the length at an easy pace (let’s say 10,000 meter pace to half marathon pace). Then cross at the goal post, jogging to the other side. Run the length at a medium stride (5k pace or cross country pace). The athlete will again cross at the goal post and then run the length at mile race pace. The athlete will repeat (easy, medium, hard) for 30-40 minutes in the early season and down to 15-20 minutes during the late season. This drill is a good one two days before a hard invite or a championship meet. Athletes may run these barefoot (massages the feet and improves ankle strength) or in racing flats (good time to break in new racing shoes). Likewise, this workout works well when the athletes are tired.

1k / 200 meter repeats: The one kilometer / 200 meter workout is a great workout for alternating race pace with hard anaerobic running. The athlete runs a 1k at race or goal pace followed by an immediate 200 meter jog. Then the athlete goes straight into an all out 200. Take 2-3 minutes rest after each set. 6-8 sets are usually done at the start of each season and get as low as 2-3 sets at the end of the season when the kilometer is run at race pace or faster.

1600 meter drill: Place a cone at every 100 meters on a track. Run a hard 500 followed by an immediate 400 jog , a hard 400, jog 300, a hard 300, jog 200, a hard 200, jog 100, a hard 100, jog 100, hard 100. This system continues nonstop throughout the workout. All the hard work adds up to 1600 meters. This workout is best done the Tuesday before a major race. Complete each set (1600 meters) three times with no rest between each. Run at 5k date pace during the early season and gradually increase the tempo until it is faster than 5k goal pace at the end of the season.

Drills/Circuit Training:
            The main thing one should do in drills/circuit training is to build up and develop the central nervous system by doing a series of dynamic movements. We call this neural training. Neural training is designed to enhance running specific strength and coordination workout muscles that are controlled by the central nervous system. These drills may include the following: Skipping, Skipping backwards, skipping with crossing arms, lateral skips, high knees, butt kicks, horse kicks, hamstring skips, skipping for distance, ABC’s, walking high knees and more. Other drills are useful such as tempo quick skip, speed running (in place) and hip flexor swings. Calf rises, walking lunges, side to side lunges, and vertical hops are also used. These drills are used on a daily basis.

“4 sets of 3” 
The four sets of three drills are used to decrease the chances of runner’s knee, IT band problems, ankle issues, hip flexor problems and shin splints. The athletes set cones 75 meters apart before they begin the drills. They will then do four sets of movements [1. walking, 2. skipping, 3. running, and 4. hopping]. For each mode there will be 75 meters with the toes straight, 75 with the toes facing inward, and 75 with the toes facing outward. Do all three styles with walking and then proceed in the same order with skipping, running, and hopping. Athletes must make sure they are over exaggerating the movements in these drills. All the movements used in these drills work every muscle from the lower central nervous system to the athlete’s feet. This drill is done every day BEFORE practice and is performed seven days a week!

Examples of High School training weeks: (Athletes should, in addition, have a good warm up, drills, and stretching before each workout and a warm down and stretching after). W in the schedule stands for days to do weight training.

Sample High School XC training week:

  • Monday: Easy 60-70 minutes with drills and strides
  • Tuesday: 4-5 x 1600 at date pace or slightly slower than race pace
  • Wednesday: Easy 60 minutes with drills and strides
  • Thursday: Oregon Drills
  • Friday: Easy 50 minutes with drills and strides
  • Saturday: Race or Time Trial
  • Sunday: Long Run – up to 3 hours. Finish up the long run with 12 x 110 meter grass strides.

Sample High School XC Conference training week:

  • Monday: Easy 50-60 minutes with drills and strides
  • Tuesday: 5 x 1k/200. 1k at date or race pace with a 200 meter jog after followed by a 200 all out. Rest 2 minutes and repeat.
  • Wednesday: Easy 50 minutes with drills and strides
  • Thursday: Oregon Drills (30 minutes total) + 16 x 110 meters runs at mile race pace
  • Friday: Easy 40 minutes with drills and strides
  • Saturday: Race
  • Sunday: Long Run – up to 2 hours. Finish up the long run with 12 x 110 meter grass strides.

Sample High School XC State/Post Season training week:

  • Monday: Easy 40 minutes with drills and strides
  • Tuesday: Time Trial 1600 meters followed by team relays. Athletes break up into teams of two and run 300 meter trade off relays. Each athlete doing 5 to 8 each OR 3 sets of the 1600 meter drill.
  • Wednesday: Easy 40 minutes with drills and strides
  • Thursday: Oregon Drills – 15 minutes
  • Friday: Course Run with drills and 8 x 110 strides
  • Saturday: Championship Race
  • Sunday: Long, Easy Run

By Joel Pearson

USATF Level 3 Certified Coach