Cross Country Assessment of the Primary Physical Components

Posted by Scott Christensen

Cross Country Assessment of the Primary Physical Components

To improve athletic performance in any sport requires ongoing development of the five primary physical components: speed, endurance, strength, flexibility, and coordination.  Balanced development in these five bio-motor skills is sport specific with the training emphasis on each of the five determined by the demands of the sport and the profile of the athlete.  In cross country running there is a heavy emphasis on endurance training, with the other four components used to a lesser degree to maximize performance.

Overall, cross country running performance is easy to assess as it is the elapsed time on the watch for the distance raced.  This final time however does not tell the whole story of the five primary physical components and their development.  The cross country coach should set up a means by which to comparatively measure the norms for the athletes on the team and a plan for assessing progress in all the bio-motor skills.

Rather than set up tests to measure skill levels and compare norms for each of the five primary physical components separately, it can be done in four distinctive and demanding tests.  The administered tests would be done for each of the three main components: endurance, speed, and strength, with a single test then used to assess flexibility and coordination.  The value in taking precious practice time to administer the four tests on each athlete is that it first establishes a baseline value for each test on each runner, and then subsequent tests will show changes to the baseline.  Besides, these tests are fun for the athletes and help establish good team atmosphere.

Coaching Resource: Advanced Topics in Cross Country Training Symposium 

Let’s start with the most important test for cross country runners: date pace aerobic power.  The values derived from this experiment are the single most important indicator of endurance capability in an athlete.  The test is a ten minute run to exhaustion on the track.  The coach will need to first set out forty cones or tape-marks on the inside of the track, or one cone every ten meters.  All of the cross country runners’ start at the same starting point and the runners proceed for exactly ten minutes.  Splits can be read to keep the runners on task.  After ten minutes the runners are stopped with a whistle and they stand where they each stopped.  The coach walks around the track and records the distance completed for each runner.  This data becomes part of the runners’ permanent profile.

Table 1 indicates the high school aged male endurance runner norms on this test.

Speed as a primary physical component is usually measured with a distance of thirty meters on the fly.  This means that the acceleration distance is removed from the elapsed time.  Runners are timed for thirty meters only during the absolute speed portion of the run.  The speed test is also done on the track with an emphasis on fast.  The coach should separate two large cones with exactly thirty meters distance on the straight portion of the track.  This is the fly distance.  Using a smaller cone add another ten meters to the start of the fly zone.  This is the non-timed acceleration zone and is used as the starting line of the run.  Using an electronic speed-trap device or just by hand holding a stopwatch, the coach yells go and starts the watch as the runner passes the first big cone and stops it at the end of the fly zone as the runner passes by the second big cone.  This data becomes part of their athlete profile.

Table 2 indicates norms for high school aged endurance runners on this test.


Most cross country coaches do some methods of core strength work with their runners these days.  And well they should, maintaining proper body position during the race as fatigue sets in is crucial to saving performance.  Proper body posture is also what sets up a runner’s optimum stride length, both when they are tired and fresh.  Proper stride length then leads to proper stride frequency which then leads to the amount of elapsed time in the race.  So core strength is the most important form of strength to cross country runners, but how to test for it?  The backward overhead shot throw may be the single best test for core strength because of the dynamic nature of the exercise.  For this test, move to the safe area of the shot put ring and landing area.  Facing away from the landing area with heels against the toe-board is the proper way to initiate the test.  Using a 12 pound ball, the athlete grabs the shot with both hands cupped slightly on the underside of the ball.  After lowering the shot between the legs, and loading the hips, knees, and back, the athlete drives upward and backward to catapult the implement out into the landing area.  The athlete should try to land upright, but count anything that gets the ball out a distance.  Measure the distance thrown.  This data becomes part of their athlete profile.

Table 3 indicates norms for high school aged endurance runners on this test.


The fourth test in assessing the primary physical component skill and development in an athlete is the coordination and flexibility assessment.  The running stride requires flexibility of the joints and body balance upon impact if fatigue is to be delayed.  Balance is a key form of coordination.  Momentum must be controlled effectively in each stride cycle.  The best means for assessing dynamic flexibility and in situ coordination is the three double-legged jumps test for total distance.  On the track the coach should set out the tape measure so it is visible and from an initial starting point stretch it to about 24 feet.  Athletes should try to land heel to toe to put them in good position for jumps two and three.  Ultimately, their fate will be determined by how coordinated they are able to land, recover, and tie together three consecutive jumps and the flexibility help they get for total distance.  They can practice a few times to feel how to best work the arms.  Record the total distance and this becomes part of their athlete profile.

Table 4 indicates norms for high school aged endurance runners on this test.


All forms of training for cross country runners have become quantitative.  What used to be race times and a few key times from special workouts has morphed into individualized training with lots of records and data.  When prescription and assessment becomes quantitative one must have a means to accurately test and build data bases, not only for individualized training but for historical reference as well.  The assessment of the five primary physical components must be a part of a cross country runners training portfolio on an ongoing basis.



Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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