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today as they were when new, many are now mostly of historical interest as modern research and coaching methods have superseded them.

Maximise Your Cross-Country Potential

By Frank Horwill

Find out the maximum distance of your national cross-country championship for your age and sex. Build up to running double or even treble the distance at a slow pace once a week. This is easily achieved by adding 10 minutes a week to your longest run of the week. What is a slow pace? It's not a jog. A good guide is to find out the average 400m time in your best 1,500m performance. If it's, for example, 5 minutes, that's 80 seconds per 400m, which is 5:20/mile. Add 2 seconds to the 80 seconds = 100 seconds = 6:40/mile. If your 1,500m time is 4 min, that's 64 seconds/400m + 20 seconds = 84 seconds/400 = 5:36/mile.

Cross-country courses are seldom flat. Running up hills burns four times the calories than running the same distance on the flat. Even if the same speed is maintained on a hill as for the preceding flat part of the race, the pulse rate may increase anywhere from 10 to 30 beats per minute. If this is not catered for in training, a severe oxygen debt will be incurred. While running up and down hills as a session in its own right may seem good preparation, there is often a tendency to walk or jog down after each ascent. In cross-country races, once a hill is scaled one must press on at good pace. Therefore, once a week, choose a very hilly route equal in distance to your championship distance. This will get one running up gradients and pressing on forwards. A very hilly loop of 2 miles completed two or three times without respite is an ideal way of conquering hills.

Speed-work for cross-country must be relevant. Not much point doing repetition 200ms with 200m jog. Cross-country racing is analogous to a 10k or 5k race on the track. Four to six miles fast without respite. Think in terms of repetition miles at 10k speed with 45 seconds recovery one week. The following week, repetition 1,200ms at 5k speed with 60 seconds recovery and for the third successive week, repetition 800ms at 3k speed with 90 seconds recovery. If you have never raced these distances and don't know what times to start the reps at, a good guide is to add 12 seconds to your best 400m time in a 1,500m race for 10k pace; add 8 seconds to your 400m time for 5k pace and 4 seconds for 3k pace. For example, if your best 1,500m is 4:40, that's 75 seconds/400m average, therefore your 3k pace will be 75 + 4 = 79 seconds/400m; your 5k pace will be 75 +8 = 83 seconds/400m; your 10k pace be 75 + 12 = 87 seconds/400m. If you don't like training on the track during the winter, you can do a fartlek equivalent on the road, grass or beach. For 10k pace, run hard for 6 minutes with 60 seconds jog x 6. For 5k pace, run hard for 5 minutes with 60 seconds jog x 5. For 3k pace, run hard for 4 minutes with 2 minutes jog x 4. The speed of the jog recovery will automatically dictate the speed of the fast work. If you're not used to this type of training, start with minimal quantity and add to the number of reps when the session can be handled comfortably.

The above are the big three for cross-country success. They are strenuous if done correctly and a recovery run should follow the next day. A recovery run can be calculated as follows: add 24 seconds to your average 400m time in your best 1,500m. For instance, if your best 1,500m is 4:30, that's 72 seconds/400m, therefore your recovery run will be 72 + 24 = 96 seconds = 6:24/mile. This should be for not less than 35 minutes duration.

If you have ambitions of taking cross-country racing into the realms of being in the Top Ten in the country in your age division you will have to consider training twice a day, the sessions being 10 hours apart. A cautious approach is advised. Train twice a day once for the first week. Train twice a day twice in the second week. Proceed like this for six consecutive weeks, i.e. adding one day at twice a day until you can handle 12 training sessions in six days. Attempts to go straight into twice-a-day training often result in total exhaustion and breakdown.

Note that 10k speed is 90 per cent VO2 max. 5k speed is 95 per cent VO2 max. 3k speed is 100 per cent VO2 max. All are considered the most efficient way of gaining maximum endurance. The long run is 80 per cent VO2 max and is also in the frame for boosting endurance. Hill running may be in excess of 100 per cent VO2 max depending on the length and gradient.