Published on September 29th, 2014 | by Start Fitness Website0
The Importance of Cross Country Running
“Cross Country: No half times, no time outs, no substitutions. It must be the only true sport”.
You may be surprised to hear that those who spend the winter months charging through knee-high mud, in torrential rain and howling wind, would agree with the above quote. Indeed many would wholeheartedly agree. Those of you who think running around a muddy field in mid-December in nothing more than a thin vest and short-shorts is certifiably insane, may well ask why this form of running is so popular. The popularity is due to a number of factors but mostly it boils down to the benefits runners gain from cross country. In fact, alongside practice and protein, Mo Farah also sites cross country as an important part of his success, “I usually take part in cross-country races during the winter to help my preparations for the major championships…it makes you strong and it’s a great way to progress your training.”
The benefits of cross country have been known since the 19th century, with the first National Cross Country Championship held in 1876. The National Champions of the early 1900s, such as Alfred Shrubb (forgive the name drop), were big advocates of running of countryside in training and racing over the hills and mud. Shrubb claimed, ‘of all the forms of…athletics, there can be nothing superior to cross country running for pleasure or health.’ Such benefits are still claimed today, with many coaches taking their athletes for grass-based and hill-based sessions and encouraging them to compete in local cross country races. The undulating terrain and hills means you are using more muscles than in any other type of running, in turn strengthening the legs. The uneven ground stabilises lower leg muscles and develops them into great ‘shock absorbers’, whilst the changes of pace help improve the cardiovascular capacity of runners. Furthermore, contrary to some suggestions which state cross-country running increases the chance of injury, if done properly it’s arguably less stressful on the leg joints as the impact from the earth tends to be much less than on other surfaces.
Clearly then the payoff of running cross country in the winter is considerable physical benefits, which will ultimately make you stronger and faster for the road and track come the spring and summer. Certainly it has formed part of the training of many of our best distance runners, particularly as young athletes. Mo, Paula, Jo Pavey, Andy Vernon and if a nod to the North East is permitted, Laura Weightman, Kate Avery and Ross Murray (right) all found success in cross country events such as the English Schools Cross Country Championships. All place great importance on the role cross country had in preparing them for their track exploits.
However, the benefits are not just physical. Cross country is also a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life and people often comment that running out in the open allows them time to clear their minds and think. As Bud Baldaro, endurance coach at the very successful University of Birmingham, says “…you get a sense of exhilaration and freedom from racing through the countryside”. Training or racing over the trails and fields of Britain’s numerous areas of outstanding natural beauty also enables runners to experience nature and break from the occasional monotony of pounding pavement or circling the track. What’s more, the focus is often on the simple act of running as imprecise distances and changeable terrain mean times are less pertinent compared to track running. This means runners commonly improve the important skill of pace judgement, as well as experience the liberation of not having their runs dictated by their watch. The aim in each race is the competition against other runners, which hones competitive instincts transferable to all other running environments. Being able to race across uneven terrain whilst being numbed by the wind, rain and occasional snow, will almost certainly toughen up the mental aptitude of athletes, something which is also very key for successful road and track seasons.
On top of this cross country offers camaraderie in that “the emphasis can often be on conquering the course as much as beating other runners, and this helps to engender a real sense of community,” as argued by Baldaro. This sense of community is also apparent in the team spirit encouraged by cross country. At a school level, team racing is still very common and the emphasis on team work is obviously a life-skill schools are keen to imbue in their students. James Sewry, 2013/14 Head Boy and Captain of Cross Country at Sherborne School, Dorset, claims ‘School cross country is a great way of incorporating the benefits of both an individual and team sport. Racing as a team means the slowest runner is just as important as the fastest runner…success depends on the whole team so a strong sense of team spirit develops’. This is then continued at University and beyond and is a key factor in why so many runners enjoy this form of running.
Certainly it would seem team work is vital for success in cross country in the American university system. 2014 BUCS Indoor and Outdoor 1500m bronze medallist, Verity Ockenden, currently running for Lamar University in Texas, explains “There is nothing like the feeling of contributing to a team result in a race. Knowing that other people are counting on you to make their effort worthwhile is one of the most motivating things for me. In America, every college cross country team huddles with their coach before the start of a race, giving a united roar at the end of the pep talk. For me, this is exhilarating and brings out the ‘fight’ in me.” Though the latter is unlikely to be seen at British races, clearly running in a team is a very enjoyable aspect of cross-country.
Therefore, clearly cross country has a number of benefits, both physical and mental. The icing on the cake is that it’s very easy to get involved. At most schools young athletes will take part in cross-country as part of the PE curriculum. If they are lucky enough there may even be a school cross country club, but failing that they can inquire about the English Schools cross-country races (click here for more details). For non-club runners, the very popular Saturday morning (free!) Parkruns are often mixed terrain and held in scenic areas and are a great way of experiencing running in the countryside. For the regular club runners among you, most clubs will belong to a winter cross country league which cater for runners of all abilities. A fantastic example being one of the most well-attended leagues in the UK, the North East Harrier league which handicaps the races according to ability (click here for more details).
The only other thing to consider is investing in appropriate shoes for this kind of running. Lightweight, protective and waterproof off-road trainers and cross-country spikes are recommended and of course we will point you in the direction of our sponsors Start Fitness (www.startfitness.co.uk). These will aid safety but equally important they will aid enjoyment! Gloves, hats and even leggings can also be bought but after a few races you’ll be wanting to prove yourself a true, hardy cross-country runner, braving the elements in traditional vests and shorts. So what’s stopping you? With winter approaching ever faster now is the perfect time to try your hand (or should that be feet?) at cross country running.
We also asked for your opinion on cross country running via Facebook and Twitter. Here are some of your views:
@GosforthHarriers: Where else can you have so much fun being cold, wet and muddy, surrounded by similarly minded individuals than in cross country?
@GaryHouseRuns: its essential and very underrated 🙂
Catherine Charlton: It’s great fun. Most of the time. Not when it’s hailing and thundering like the Midlands Champs last year.
Terry Brown: My first year at it this year! Everyone assures me it’s the best training I’ll ever do – some have even promised post-race cake! Fingers crossed the strength building is as they say.
Gavin Dowd: Sorts the men out from the boys!
Chris Craig: Necessary evil, even for sprinters.Cross country running during the winter sets you up nicely for the summer season, gives you lots of stamina.
Neil Barrigan: I love it. trails over roads any day. best thing ever is to be on them trails.
William Smith: Can be brutal, but very rewarding! Parliament Hill fields in January! Madness.
About the Author
Nathan is a 27 year old Morpeth Harrier and has been running since the age of 12. As well as being a UK Athletics Level 2 coach, he is a qualified History teacher and was Head of cross country and Assistant Head of athletics at Bryanston School in Dorset. On top of his experience, Nathan is not a bad runner either and boasts PBs of 31.08 for 10k and 72.23 for half marathon.