It’s not pretty, you will feel like your lungs are going to explode at certain points throughout the race and you can’t listen to music but that’s about the only negatives I can think of when it comes to cross country running. When it comes to training over the winter months, cross country is my favourite way to increase stamina and build up speed. Here’s why:
1. The short, sharp distances shake up my routine
I’ve completed my major races for this year and feel confident that I can comfortably run around 20 miles. In fact, my usual long run can be anything up to 20 miles and above on the weekend. While it’s good to run the distance, I know that if I want to improve, I need to work on my speed. Cross country is the ultimate test for speed and endurance. You have to find your pace pretty quickly when you only have between 5 to 8K worth of terrain to cover and you have to be ready to run up and down hills, deal with uneven terrain, mud and competitors coming up close behind you, as some of the trails can be pretty narrow. Yes, it may be over in half an hour but that’s 30 minutes of running hard and sometimes you need that to improve on your overall fitness.
2. It’s awesome terrain and hill training
It’s not that I don’t like a challenge, hell, I’ve run the South Downs and Kielder Marathon but hills are tough. I wish I could fly up ’em with the elegance of a gazelle or Kilian Jornet Burgada. What I lack in aptitude for hills, I know the different technique used is great for my glutes. In fact, cross country is brilliant agility training too, as the ground is never even, you have to jump, dodge or go straight through puddles and you really do learn how to control your body. Getting to grips with wearing those spikes and learning how you can use them to your advantage when you strike the ground is a complete switch from road running. It really is a dirty running revelation.
3. Cross country teaches you core control
I raced my first cross country of the season on Saturday. When I woke up on Sunday, I felt it. Yes, I do pilates to work on my core but nothing prepared me this time for that dull ache in my abs . Even if you’re not completely aware of it, you naturally engage those core muscles when you run cross country. If you didn’t do this, well, let’s put it this way. You’d end up face down in mud. You dig deep, really deep to keep your body upright and striding forward. Posture is important, especially when charging down hills or holding yourself vertical on uneven ground. Cross country allows me to try out what I learnt from my pogo ball days of my childhood. The constant need to balance while moving forward.
As I said before, the races are relatively short but it’s all about the competition. Whoever said women are not competitive has never been to a cross country race. You can’t listen to music, you don’t have the time to zone out, all you are thinking about, when sloshing about in the mud in your relatively light spikes ,is passing the person in front of you and breaking away from the person you can hear breathing behind you. I can tell you that just hearing a runner’s breath behind me, puts the wind right up me.
5. You become aware of your entire body
The competitive nature of cross country pushes you to work hard and you can feel it in every heart beat and every breath that you take. You become so aware of how your body reacts to the different challenges your faced with across the course. Sometimes it’s tough, as in, I’m going to puke tough but by reaching this level, you get to understand what your body is capable of. Would I say it’s empowering? You betcha.
6. It’s muddy
Childish, I know, but I absolutely love running through the mud in my spikes. Feeling is squelching underneath, jumping through puddles, and getting covered in it. Me. Wild. Fun. All I can say is, before you judge me, why not give it a go?
7. We’re a community
I run cross country for Medway & Maidstone (the local running club of my hometown). I enjoy meeting the other runners, who are all really supportive of each other (and VERY fast). I personally don’t see a problem with club running. You get to take part in amazing races, the training is aimed at runners of mixed ability and there are always guys at hand running around the course shouting “go on Medway” at me while they warm up. From my experience, club running is a great thing. And I love channelling Minnie The Minx in my club vest.