Five Basic Workout Themes the Cross Country Coach Should Use

Posted by Scott Christensen

Cross country training can be rather complicated and confusing for a coach just getting started in the profession.  Many times, a new coach will start by merely constructing a training program that looks pretty similar to what they ran in high school.  Pretty soon it becomes apparent that circumstances and location are different, so adjustments in the training scheme are made to fit the new scenario and this becomes mostly a trial and error experience.  Evolution of the program may consist of simply copying and adding new and different workouts and session sequences learned from a successful neighboring coach or at a clinic.  Without understanding of basic workout themes, after a few seasons a rookie coach becomes a veteran coach and the training program many times is stubbornly locked for life.

What if a new cross country coach started with a blank slate, with absolutely no prior running or coaching experience, no friends who also run or coach, and in a school in the middle of nowhere?  Where to begin?  Well, organizing the team and setting up proper coach/athlete relationships are important but are not the scope of this paper, instead let’s focus on the training and workout selection first.


* Training Resource: Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners


Ignoring that the internet is full of cross country training ideas (good to very bad) and with no recognition of either coach-scientists Joe Vigil PhD or Jack Daniels PhD existence, let’s start with just five workout themes.  Understanding and implementing these five simple workouts would be enough to develop the anaerobic and aerobic energy systems enough to show some pretty rapid performance improvements over a five-kilometer cross country course for most runners.

  1. The 10 mile continuous run. This is a workout the runner slowly grows into.  A novice should start with four mile runs, progress to six miles after a month, and then move on to a distance of 10 miles.  This workout develops the runners aerobic capacity.  Training effects include stimulating the growth in size of the heart’s left pumping ventricle, increases in blood volume especially red blood cell mass, growth of additional capillaries along the muscles fibers, increases in size and number of mitochondria in the muscle cells, increases in aerobic enzyme volume, and an enlargement of the slow twitch (Type 1) cross-sectional size of the muscle fibers.  The key to the workout is the distance run and not the speed of the run.  Running faster will not further develop the desired training effects and will only ruin recovery for later days of training.  Runners should be at conversational pace to ensure everybody is capable of going the full distance.
  2. vVO2 max interval runs of 800 meters. This is a themed run that matches the runners date pace two-mile time trial velocity to the work load of the day.  Although it is done at each runner’s individual two-mile pace, the extent of the runs for the day will total about four miles.  This is accomplished with well-timed breaks between bouts of work.  This workout develops the runners aerobic power.  Training effects include increases in the volume of myoglobin in each muscle cell, increases in aerobic enzymes, increases in leg force production, and increases in nitrous oxide secretion from the endothelium of the blood vessels that increase vessel dilation.  Recovery time should always be equal to work time for each bout of effort.  Runners should start with sets of repeated 800 meters (at individual two-mile pace) totaling close to four miles with the recovery time closely matching their work time (ex. run 2:45 = recovery 2:45).  If running in a big group each runner should hit their individual two-mile pace but the recovery should be an average for the group.  Later in the season work up to one-mile repeats.
  3. Five-mile tempo run. This is not a slow run like the 10 mile workout, nor is it as fast as the two-mile pace of vVO2 max   It is considered medium pace and necessitates a two day recovery for novices, but only one day recovery for experienced runners.  This workout develops the runners running economy.  It is done at only 85% of two-mile pace velocity, but that small reduction allows extension of the run out to greater distances than the vVO2 max interval repeats.  Training effects include the shifting of the lactate threshold to a faster running pace over time, thus sparing the effect of acidosis on the system as a source of fatigue.  Other positive training effects are a re-direction of muscle glycogen storage closer to the working muscles of the runner and a genetic signaling to upregulate how the muscle cell drains out lactate and hydrogen ions.  The pace of the tempo run is such that the athletes can manage a sentence but cannot hold a conversation while running.
  4. 500 meter repeat intervals. There is some fast and hard running with this workout.  It leans toward the anaerobic glycolytic energy system and necessitates a 48 hour recovery if done properly.  This workout develops the runners anaerobic capacity-lactate tolerance  This is crucial development because the 5k has almost a 10% reliance on the anaerobic energy system at race pace.  The pace should be around 90% of their best 400 meter effort pace (ex. 60 sec best 400 divided by .9 (90%) equals 66.66 sec 400 workout pace or 16.6 sec per 100 meters, multiply by 5 and goal should be 83 secs for 500 meters).  Do a set of six with enough rest to replicate each 500 meter effort at 83 seconds.  Start with four minutes rest and adjust if needed.  Training effects include increased muscle cell buffering ability of hydrogen ions, increased cross-sectional size of fast twitch muscle fibers (Type 2), increased thickness of the left ventricle wall of the heart, increased volume of anaerobic enzymes, improved synchronization of fast twitch muscle fibers, and improved muscle glycogen storage sites.
  5. 250 meter hill repeat intervals. This is a high heart rate/high force application workout session that also prepares cross country runners for the rigor of the cross country race course.  This workout develops race specific strength  Gravity and friction are the factors that separate running from most of the other endurance sports.  Strive to do 6-7 repeated efforts with enough recovery interval to replicate the efforts effectively.  Usually a slow jog back down the hill is enough recovery for most runners.  Training effects include increased cross-sectional size of the fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibers, increased thickness of left ventricle heart wall, increased volume of anaerobic enzymes, promotion of testosterone secretion, and improved eccentric biomechanical movement.


Diligent use of just these five workout themes and doing them each once every couple of weeks mixed in with races, general light recovery runs, and some overall slow base running volume will be enough to get a cross country runner in fantastic shape for a 5k championship race at the end of the season.


* Coaching Resource: The Training Model for High School Cross Country


There are known scientifically valid reasons for sequencing these five themes in certain ways, and for emphasizing each of them in various parts of the season; this is known as periodization which can be learned later.  For right now, just take these five themes, use them, and get cross country runners in the shape of their lives.




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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