Cross-country is one of the oldest running disciplines and used to have a greater pre-eminence than it does today featuring on the Olympic program from 1912 to 1924 before being dropped for future editions. Today it only features as part of modern pentathlon.
I could write an article on how big a travesty this is especially considering the endless swimming disciplines that splash monotonously in front of my eyes, but instead I want to talk about what purpose cross-country should serve in your overall running career. As some readers may know I largely constrain my online forum activity to the Lydiard Foundation forum and recently I managed to sample a lot of useful advice from Nobby and other of the experienced coaches there on how to best deal with the conundrum of having to peak for a “season” (e.g. “hill” or “cross-country”) rather than one peak race.
These discussions lead into another on cross-country training specifically. Arthur Leslie Lydiard himself had a good deal to say about it chiefly in “Running with Lydiard” (last published in 2000) where he dedicates chapter 5 to the topic (you can read a preview here).
He highlights how the terrain can develop more relaxed and economical stride action as well as encouraging the development of hill strength and ankle flexibility (something Lydiard generally sought to cultivate through his hill circuits). The resistance to the leg muscles “will add speed, power and muscular endurance no matter what shape or weight you are…” according to the great man.
Lydiard goes on to list more benefits but in conclusion he states that times run during the cross-country season should not be treated with too much importance and Nobby confirmed on the LF forum that Lydiard mainly saw the cross-country season as a “pre-conditioning phase” for the next winter training, his main focus being always on next year’s track season.
I actually feel like, when he shifted his main focus to simplifying things in his newer books, there were some things that have been left out. One was XC running. I do really like the original "Run to the Top" idea of starting out with some cross country running, get some racings down without too much pressure, and then all along prepare your body to a full cycle of Lydiard pyramid for track. In other words, the whole XC season is just a preliminary preparation for track cycle. In other words, by the time his runners stepped off and start doing 100-miles a week, they were already semi-sharp; not a plodding state.
To read the full thread which has comments by both Nobby Hashizume and Kim Stevenson, go here.
I don’t like cross-training but I love cross-country. I’m not sure what it is but I just feel that as far as running is concerned it’s the real deal. When you line up you know that none of the gentlemen around you are just out for a stroll. It’s going to be a hard fight all the way with lots of battle-hardened hearts under the worn club-singlets. There are no splits to worry about but plenty of strategy. Its man against man and dog eats dog. In many ways it’s a purist running experience and I can’t believe I have already missed most of two cross-country seasons and look set to miss most of another. For the next many years I would find it hard to contemplate trying to make something serious of my running without earning my stripes through the rigours of cross-country. The Seniors in particular forms a brutal forge for the runner who doesn’t yet know if he’ll end up as a fine broadsword or a broken blade…
So for us here in Ireland the cross-country season can be looked at as a way to up your own pace and strength a bit again after the summer break and ensure you go into the next winter training on the back of a good performance level. I would add there’s a lot of value in training your race-mind during autumn so it doesn’t feel like too distant an experience when you emerge on the other side of the long winter training.
However, you don’t have to just look at Lydiard’s old schedules or try to improvise based on his principles to learn more about cross-country racing and training the Lydiard Way. Mark Wetmore, the legendary coach of the Colorado University “Buffaloes”, based his whole cross-country program around the Lydiard principles. In my next instalment on cross-country, we’ll look at Mark’s training philosophies before I’ll talk about some of my own techniques used in my Thursday cross-country session. Of course, I’m being ungracious claiming anything as “my own” as all I teach is stolen from giants such as Lydiard, Wetmore and Cerutty.