October Training for Cross Country Athletes

Posted by Scott Christensen

For cross country runners, October is the time of racing in big Invitationals and preparing for the championship meets to follow.  For a cross country coach, October is especially stressful because it is the month of capacity training schemes and sequences which are the hardest to master because the training effects are so individualized.  Already past in the macrocycle is all of the general conditioning work and the big repetition/short recovery sessions of the specific preparation period.  In October training the focus now is putting all of the pieces of the 5k race together so that the comfort zone and critical zone are what they are supposed to be for each runner in the important races.



October begins with the transition to a new training period called the pre-competitive period.  This is the third of the four training periods of a cross country macrocycle.

The first half of October usually has more races than the second half and these must be squeezed around important training sessions.  The month should be sub-divided into three unique nine-day microcycles that show a slightly different theme as time moves on.  There will be many commonalities in all three microcycles because they are all within the pre-competitive period, but there should be several tweaks as well.

The most important training characteristics they share are in the anaerobic work.  The recovery period between bouts of running within the sessions are much longer than during general prep or specific prep.  The focus in those earlier periods was in building a sufficient anaerobic training volume, now the focus is on the intensity of each run in a session.  In other words, running fast and then replicating it.  In order to do that, enough recovery has to be implemented within a training session to provide an adequate rest interval so the effort can be fast and replicable.  However, this can only go on for a short number of repetitions before fatigue begins to degrade speed.  That is why the pre-competitive period is always quality over quantity in training.


* Training Resource: Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners


Anaerobic work is designed to change the bio-chemistry characteristics of the body: turning on and off certain genes that are unrelated to the presence of oxygen, spurring the production of certain enzymes also unrelated to the presence of oxygen, increases buffering capacity of inter-cellular fluids and the blood, and makes both fast-twitch and some slow-twitch muscle fibers more efficient under duress and extreme loading.  In other words, a big increase in specific fitness.  The more intense the work, the greater the stimuli, the greater the training effect.  The work has to be done fast.

October is a month when most of the aerobic fitness is in place from the running done in the summer and in September.  It is in the domain of aerobic development where most of the training tweaks are found between the three October microcycles.  Unlike anaerobic development, aerobic development actually modifies structures in the body:  increased mitochondria in muscle cells, increased blood volume, increase left-ventricle size, and increased capillarization.

It takes many months to change structures and theoretically it should take several months to lose them as well.  Unfortunately, the rate these structures degrade is unpredictable and varies widely from runner to runner.  It would seem logical that aerobic volume should decrease slightly through the three microcycles of October.  After all, the big work is nearly done.  The glass is pretty full so do not spill it.

This does work in many cases, however not in all instances, and the individual runners need to watched closely for a loss of aerobic edge.  Why drop aerobic volume at all?  The answer lies in the body’s endocrine system and the hormones that are a part of it.  It is known that a fit person that decreases aerobic volume slightly will increase the secretion of testosterone, the strength hormone.  It is the natural response to recovery from chronic training.

Racing in the most important cross country races at the end of the year will be most effective if the body’s testosterone level is high.  It is quite a balancing act for the coach to begin a slight recovery of the aerobic system while maintaining its edge, while also heavily impacting the anaerobic system with very stressful work.

Practically, keeping the long run in place through all three pre-competitive microcycles is a sound aerobic plan for everybody.  The tempo run should be eliminated after the first microcycle for most runners and the vVO2 max session should be eliminated after the second microcycle.  Replace these training sessions with more anaerobic work, more gentle base runs, or add a rest day to the microcycle depending on the individual.  There will still be enough aerobic work left to keep the aerobic edge in place and get the testosterone flowing as aerobic fatigue begins to diminish.

During October many coaches prescribe too much aerobic work (they may have to if their runners did not run in July and August), and too little anaerobic work with requisite long recovery intervals.  They struggle with visualizing a comfort zone of about 4000 meters and a critical zone of about 1000 meters and the need to specifically, but not concurrently, stress training stimuli for both.


* Coaching Resource: Advanced Topics Symposium in Cross Country


Spending June, July, August, and September in quality aerobic training is more than enough time to prepare the comfort zone for championship racing demands.  Spend October just maintaining that part of the race while strategically preparing runners for the critical zone.  There should be at least three cross country workouts in October that look a whole lot like a miler training in May.


Sample Nine-Day Training Cycle for Mid-October:

Monday:        vVO2 max day, 6 x 1000, @date pace 3200 meter, work time=rest time
Tuesday:       9 mile long run
Wednesday:  6 x 500 (grass), 5 min recovery, 2 mile warmup, 3 mile cool down
Thursday:      6-7 mile base run
Friday:          4 mi pre-race day
Saturday:      Race Day
Sunday:        5 mile recovery run
Monday:        5 x 300 meters (track), 4:00 recovery, 2 mi warm up, 3 mi cool down




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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