Frank Horwill



  • These articles were first published many year's ago and whilst some are as relevant today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Analysis of and training for top class cross country performance

by Frank Horwill

If we study the World Cross Country Championship results for the last decade we will note a depressing trend from the British view point:- a) No individual medals. b) No team medals. The exceptions being Tim Hutchings’ two silver medals (1984 and 1989), and Paula Radcliffe’s bronze in 1997. However, when it comes to cross country preparation the British often proclaim that they are experts at it! One school of "experts" look at the WCCC results achieved 25 years ago by a solitary Englishman who claimed his success was due to running 140 miles a week. That success must be put into perspective: no African countries participated other than North Africa. However, there are those who still maintain that big mileage is the panacea for success. A jolt to this reasoning was when the South African men’s team, out of international competition for 25 years, beat the Great Britain team in their return to the event. South Africans are not big mileage exponents but still produce world-class marathoners and half-marathoners.

For men, the key to success is a good 10K and 5K track or road time. For women, it is a good 3K and 5K time. If you doubt this, the winners of the senior men’s WCCC for the last decade have all had 10K times under 27 mins 15 secs! This sort of speed is not found by running 100 miles a week at 7 minutes per mile, it is found by getting used to running 65 seconds per 400 metres consecutively! We can’t all manage such speed, for many of us are vets and short middle-distance specialists, but we can make the best of our limited talent by training to our maximum potential. Here is a structured plan:-

  1. Find out your current fitness level. In other words – your predicted VO2 max (a measure of fitness). Simply run around a 400 metre track on a windless day for 15 minutes covering as much distance as possible in that time. If you run 10 laps (4,000m), you have a predicted VO2 max of and for every 400 metres further you run add 5 mls to that figure. If you cover 5K in distance, your figure will be It doesn’t matter what distance you run! What does matter is that distance when tried again 2 months later should be exceed by 800 metres (a 10 mls boost to your VO2 max).

  2. Calculate your speed per lap on the 15 minute run test. A distance of 4K = 90 secs for 400m, 4,400m = 82 secs, 4,800m = 75 secs, 5K = 72 secs. The time per lap on the test is a very important one for it will dominate all your training.

A 2 Months Training Plan Built Around the Test Result

Day 1 – Run three times the distance done on the test in 51 minutes. For example – 4K run on test = 12K in 51 mins.

Day 2 – Recovery run of 35 minutes (You run as you feel).

Day 3 – Run 3 x 2K at test run speed with 90 secs rest. For example – 5K run on test = 72 secs/400m = 2K in 6 mins x 3 with 90 secs rest. The aim is to reduce the 6 mins for each 2K to 5 mins. 50 secs within 2 months.

Day 4 – Recovery run – 35 minutes.

Day 5 – Run double the distance of the test run in 33 mins. For example, 5K run on test = 10K run in 33 mins. The target is to run this distance in 30 mins.

Day 6 – REST

Day 7 – RACE or run 200s 8 seconds faster than per 200m on test. For example, 4K run on test = 90 secs/400, when halved = 45 secs minus 8 seconds = 37 secs/200m. These 200s are run with decreasing recovery of 15 seconds after each 200m, for example, 37 secs – 90 secs rest, 37 secs – 75 secs, 37 secs – 60 secs, continue down to 37 secs – 15 secs, then start aain with 37-90. Continue until the exact time cannot be recorded.

After 2 months, retest and amend the calculations.

A 2 Months Training Plan Using Known 10K, 5K and 3K Times

Day 1 – Run for 10 miles at 16 seconds per mile slower than for your best 10K time, e.g. Best 10K = 30 mins = 72 secs/400m = 76 secs/400m on this run = 5 mins 4 secs/mile.

Day 2 – Recovery run for 35 minutes.

Day 3 – 4 x 1,600m at best 5K pace with 90 secs rest. e.g. best 5K = 18 mins 45 sec = 90 secs/400m = 6 mins/1,600m.

Day 4 – Recovery run for 35 minutes.

Day 5 – Run up and down a long hill steadily where the total ascents equal 5K e.g. A hill 800m long will be ascended 6-7 times.

Day 6 – REST

Day 7 – Race or run 16 x 400m at best 3K speed with 43 secs rest. e.g. Best 3K = 8 mins 30 sec = 68 secs/400.

The aim with all the severe days is to improve times while maintaining the same recovery pattern.

A 2 Months Training Plan Using Pulse Rates

This must revolve around knowing what the maximum pulse rate is. To establish this, run for 3 minutes at maximum effort or carry out the following estimates:-

a) Female – 209 minus .7 for every year of age. For example – 35 year old female = 35 x .7 = 24.5 deducted from 209 = Estimated maximum pulse of 184.5 bpm.
b) Male – 214 minus .8 for every year of age. For example – 40 year old male = 40 x .8 = 32 deducted from 214 = 182 bpm estimated maximum.

Day 1 – Run for 1 hour at 80 per cent of maximum heart rate (MHR).

Day 2 – Run for 35 minutes at 60 per cent of MHR.

Day 3 – Warm up 10 minutes, run at 95 per cent MHR for 3 minutes duration x 6 allowing the pulse to return to 120 bpm before starting the next rep.

Day 4 – Run for 35 minutes at 6 per cent MHR.

Day 5 – Warm up 10 minutes, run at 90 per cent MHR for 6 minutes duration x 6 allowing the pulse rate to return to 130 bpm before each rep.

Day 6 – REST

Day 7 – RACE or warm up 10 mins, run 200s reaching 88 per cent MHR allowing a pulse recovery of 140 BPM. This may be done in sets – e.g. 6 x 200, jog 400, repeat.

A 2 Months Training Plan Using Fartlek

Day 1 – Run for 1 hour at steady pace.

Day 2 – 35 minutes recovery run.

Day 3 – Jog 10 mins, run 5-4-3-2-1 minute fast strides in that order with 60 secs jog after each.

Day 4 – 35 minutes recovery run.

Day 5 – Jog 10 mins, run very fast efforts for 2 minutes duration x 8 with 60 secs jog recovery.

Day 6 – REST

Day 7 – RACE or select a 5K hilly cross country circuit. Work all hills at maximum speed, double back on each hill and repeat maximum effort. Take the time for completing the circuit and aim to improve this time by 15 seconds per outing.

Progression – He who trains the same all the time – remains the same. Providing all has gone well in the first 2 months, each training day load should be increased by 10 per cent for the next 2 months and so increased for the final 2 months. The big proviso is if all has gone well, if it hasn’t, stay put and consolidate before upping the load.

Nutrition – The estimated vitamin C intake for runners in the winter is 500 mg daily, that’s about 8 oranges a day or 4 large wine glasses full of pure orange juice. The estimated zinc intake is 30 mg daily. Food sources are: all types of nuts, oysters, ginger root, lamb chops, steak, pecans, split peas, egg yolk, carrots and beans. These two items (vitamin C and zinc) are the main infection deterrents. If in doubt, take them in supplement form. A deficiency symptom of zinc is white spots on the nails. For maximum physical energy and to combat extreme cold weather – eat every four hours.

Frank Horwill