How to Establish Cross Country Training Groups

Posted by Scott Christensen



The cross country season begins anew and the coaches face their first training challenges as the team gathers for the first day of practice.  Foremost in training group formation is the fact that half the team has done some summer training, while the other half has not run a mile all summer long.  To further complicate the situation, the group that has done some summer training has a wide diversity of mileage leading up to the start of practice. 

Some of the zero mileage crew are beginners just coming out for the team, while others simply had no interest in preparing for the season.  Then there is the social structure of the team; some of the summer runners are friends with those that did not prepare, and now that the season has started they do not understand why they cannot train together.  The coaches have a great training plan, but no consistent point to begin each of the training groups.

Cross Country Training Groups, Scott Christensen

Cross country coaches all have this very scenario to some extent or another.  The obvious way to prevent training chaos is for the team members to prepare with consistent summer mileage, especially in July and August. The bigger the summer training group, then the easier that training group can be formed on the first day of the season.

A sensible and efficient training scheme for the summer is to set up seven-day microcycles of training sessions. 

This model is easy to understand for the athlete because it matches the calendar, and easy for the coach because there is little variety needed in general preparation work.  Workouts can be cycled through rather quickly and then repeated. For specific progressions, refer to The Training Model for High School Cross Country, where I share and discuss daily workouts for this specific summer cross country training period.  

Once the season starts, the better and more prepared runners need to focus more on their particular race distance demand profile, and phase out of general preparation work.  Race distances of five kilometers require longer training microcycles, but not as long as middle distance microcycles.  Nine training sessions per microcycle works out well.  Then the various workout themes can be repeated in the next microcycle, a progression detailed more specifically here.

Coaches need to set up two different lengths of microcycles over the first month of the true cross country season to accommodate the diversity in running skill at that moment in time.  The two would consist of nine-day microcycles for the advanced runners and seven-day cycles for the beginners and non-prepared team veterans.  With some clever scheming and overlap, at least half of the workouts can be done as one complete team.  The long run, for example, can be figured into corresponding days in both microcycles so all runners do it together, but with a different volume and intensity. 

The two additional training sessions in the nine-day cycle would include a special endurance 1 and a special endurance 2 session.  A beginner could start work immediately in these areas but with a big team it just interferes with the better runners on those days because the rest and recovery between bouts of work would be so diverse.

After about a month of training, the whole team can move to nine-day microcycles.  However, the younger runners still will not be able to work at the volume and intensity of the more skilled runners on a team.  The rule of 2/3 always applies to these runners.  Generally, after the first month, a new-comer can work at about two-thirds that of a veteran in both volume and intensity. 

If your top training group is running about 65 miles per nine-day microcycle, then your less skilled or new-comers are at about 42 miles for each nine-day cycle.  Intensity follows the same rule of two-thirds.  The less skilled athletes have not developed a high lactate response yet, so high intensity work will fatigue them very quickly.  If they attempt to run with the prepared and skilled runners, the workout will deteriorate rapidly for them. 

If the training plan calls for a session of  8 x 400 meters on the track, then have them run 2/3 of it, or 6 x 400.  Achieve this session by having the new-comers sit out 400 meter repeat numbers three and six.  This will keep their intensity high for the six repeats they do, but their overall work session intensity will be about 2/3 of the top training group in time on task.

The aerobic work of the new-comers, like the long run, should also be about 2/3 of the skilled runner’s volume.  If the top group is on a 10 mile run, then the runners in the more inexperienced group should be about 7 miles.

A good rule of thumb is to always have three training groups going at once.  They are: the elite group, the emerging group, and the novice group.  The novice group will follow the rule of two-thirds the entire season, but the emerging group will match the elite group in total work load after about the seventh week of the season, or at about the time the team enters the pre-competitive period.  If a novice should move up a group part way into the season, then do it.

Training groups are stratified based on skill and preparation and not on social structure.  Friendships on a team are encouraged, but if they fall into diverse training groups it is a problem.  Aerobic work for the most part is based on individual date pace and anaerobic effort is based on individual goal pace.  There is no aspect of training based on social pace.  Keep the training groups always stratified on those physiological principles.

In the end, always stress summer running to your cross country team.  It makes for three training groups that are mostly elite or emerging athletes and leaves the novice group for the true new-comers to your team.  It is the only means by which an athlete can achieve their roughly 4-5% improvement from season to season that is expected.    

Don’t let your focus on training distract you from the importance of teaching your athletes an effective race plan. Download my free ‘swipe file’ now:

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Scott Christensen is the head track coach at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, MN.

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