Cross Country Speed Workouts

Woman running along coastline,  California,  USA

High school cross country races typically cover 3 miles, going up and down hills and over various terrain including dirt, gravel, grass, asphalt and even sand. Cross country running success depends on your ability to run quickly on uneven ground without wasting energy. Speed training workouts for cross country should involve pace-level running on bumpy terrain, striders and track interval work. Workouts should begin and end with at least 10 minutes of slow jogging to warm up and cool down, respectively.

Trail Loops

Doing speed training on the terrain you will be racing on helps you work on maintaining your pace on grass, roots, rocks, hills and other obstacles that can throw your stride off. Find a loop that takes 4 to 7 minutes to run and try to maintain a consistent pace for the whole workout. Take time to recover for 3 to 5 minutes between each run. Start with 4-minute loops and gradually increase the size of the loop until it takes 7 minutes. Keep the duration of fast running under 25 minutes; longer workouts will compromise your ability to maintain race pace.

Hill Repeats

Because many cross country race courses have hills, it is important to practice running up and down them. Running uphill targets the quads and calves, in particular, whereas downhill running promotes quick leg turnover. For uphill repeats, find a hill that takes at least 1 to 2 minutes to climb. Run hard to the top, focusing on a shorter stride and a slight lean into the hill. Jog down the hill to recover. Start with six repeats at the beginning of the season, progressing to 12 by the peak of training. Since downhill repeats focus more on speed form you should do 30- to 45-second downhill repeats on a gradual grass or dirt slope to minimize impact on your legs and make sure you are under control.

Track Intervals

Even though cross country races are on undulating hills and rocky terrain, doing some speed training on the track will help you focus on proper pacing and how that pace feels. For 3-mile cross country races, interval distances should typically range from 400 to 1,600 m at a 1-mile race to 3-mile race pace, depending on the distance. Recovery intervals should be approximately the same length of time it took to run the repeat and can be slow walking or, to increase workout difficulty, a moderately paced jog.

Grass Striders

Striders are 15- to 30-second accelerations that focus on a smooth, relaxed stride and arm carriage. This exercise is a good way to practice running fast and relaxed, which helps your efficiency during races. Do these before a longer speed workout or at the end of an easy run. Find a smooth, grassy surface and run approximately 100 to 150 m at a hard but controlled pace, focusing on quick steps and a relaxed upper body motion.

Frequency and Progression

Do two pace trail loops, hill repeats and track intervals per week, with adequate recovery days in between. Do striders three or four times per week, either in conjunction with another speed workout or after an easy run. After building a solid aerobic base over the summer, with the emphasis on long, easy distance runs and striders, focus speed workouts at the beginning of the season on building strength with moderate-distance trail loop intervals, hill repeats and track intervals. As the season progresses, focus on increasing the distance of the interval runs while maintaining the same pace and adding short intervals at a fast pace. During the taper toward championship meets, reduce your interval distances and overall mileage, but make sure your pace is the same or faster.