Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners

Posted by Scott Christensen

The championship week is the culminating microcycle of training for a long macrocycle of aerobic and anaerobic development. Unlike team sports, the “championship week” in cross country varies from athlete to athlete and from team to team.

For some members of the team it may be the week of the Conference Meet and for others the week of the Section Championships. For the elite teams it may be the week of the State Championships, or it may go as far as Nike Regionals or Nationals. Whatever the meet, championship week is the crucial lead-up to the biggest and most important competition of the year for the athlete or team.


cross country boys legs

Training theorists categorize the block of preparation time around the championship meets as the competitive period of the season. Training is not the focus, the races are. A cross country runner is perhaps the most fit that they have ever been in their life at this time. Training stimuli has led to adaptations that are now fully complete. Physiologists examining the fitness of the runner would probably note the following trends as the competitive period progresses:

  1.   Cortisol production decreases.
  2.   Testosterone secretion increases.
  3.   Testosterone/cortisol ratio increases.
  4.   Erythrocyte volume increases.
  5.   Hemoglobin concentration increases.
  6.   Hematocrit percentage increases.

All of these bio-chemical indicators would be very positive signs for a cross country runner at the brink of high-level fitness. The final steps for the coach is to have the athlete well-rested for the championship meets while maintaining the hormone, protein signalers, and enzymes that must remain present for the maintenance of top-level fitness.

The competitive period can be 3-4 weeks in length and may include up to three races. The older and more experienced the runner, the longer the competitive period may be. The championship week is one week in length and is a subset of the competitive period. This important week is seven days long where fitness and strength in the athlete will only improve due to specific rest and recovery of the body’s systems. The pitfalls in this scenario are that rest and recovery may be too great and lead to a loss in the runner’s physiological fitness, or the work level may remain too high so that rest and recovery is never really complete.


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Physiologists have provided coaches with three important principles to guide training through the competitive period, and importantly, the championship week. They are:

  1. During the competitive period, a run of less than 20 minutes in duration provides an inadequate physiological stimulus to the body’s systems if done at aerobic threshold pace.
  2. The anaerobic energy system requires a strong stimulus every three days during the competitive period to retain high-level fitness.
  3. The aerobic energy system requires a strong stimulus every four days during the competitive period to retain high-level fitness.

This all leads to the Goldilocks Principle. Do not prescribe too much or too little work during championship week. Design a workout scheme that is “just right”.

Imagine that the state cross country championships are in seven days. Let’s work through a solid training scheme that provides adequate rest and recovery for strength gains, but stresses the aerobic and anaerobic systems enough to retain the high-level fitness that the athletes have gained over the season. The training scheme must also be designed to provide the psychological stimulus that is so important for the runners’ confidence and self-esteem at this time of the year.


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Be careful not to over-coach the team during championship week and try to maintain the same coaches personality type that the team members usually see. Continue to stress the strong active warm-ups and the gentle cool-downs that are important at all times of the year.

A seven day plan leading up to the state cross country meet:

  1. Sunday: This day (done on there own) will focus on a five-six mile recovery day, but done more quickly than aerobic threshold pace. It should take about 40-45 minutes to accomplish the run.
  2. Monday: Special endurance 1 is the focus. Done barefoot or shod on the grass. Place three or four cones in a grassy field or park and have the athletes run hard for 40 seconds. Do four repetitions of this with six minutes of active recovery between.
  3. Tuesday: This day will focus on a four-five mile recovery day at aerobic threshold pace. It should take about 35-40 minutes to accomplish the run.
  4. Wednesday: Special endurance 2 is the focus. This is the last anaerobic stimulus before the state meet. The extent of the workout is two repetitions of 600 meters done on the track with 16 minutes active recovery between the two efforts. The time goal is to replicate the time on the second attempt.
  5. Thursday: This day will focus on about a four mile recovery day at aerobic threshold pace. It should take about 30-35 minutes to accomplish the run.
  6. Friday: A two mile easy run and that is it. This is for psychological reasons only, so do not over coach the day.
  7. Saturday: State Cross Country Meet.


The championship week is a very fun time of the training year. It will be the most memorable week of the season for the coach and athletes for years to come. Everybody should just enjoy the experience and get the proper rest and recovery to compete strongly in the race and do not worry about what cannot be under the control of the team.



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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