September Training for Cross Country Athletes

Posted by Scott Christensen

There is no better time in the cross country season then September.  Fun invitational meets, hard-core training, an already well-formed team, pretty good weather, and still eager runners all make for a very enjoyable month.  For a cross country coach, September training is especially interesting because it is the month of training creativity.  Already past is most of the general conditioning work, and the team is far from any sort of tapering activities, so workouts can be put together that are taxing, creative and full of variety.

September begins with the last fragments of the general preparation period.  The focus there is still on building a strong mileage base, strength work in the form of hill repeats, vVO2 max work done in moderation, and an introduction to some lactate building activities.  If the runners have had a good summer of general prep work then it need only extend through the first week of September before transitioning to the specific preparation period.  As one moves to a different stage in the season, so do the activities, physiological stimuli, recovery periods, and training focus.  This is the idea behind periodization of training.

The specific preparation period covers most of September for serious runners.  If you are using nine-day training microcycles, then it is basically the last 25-27 days of the month or almost three full nine-day cycles.  For most programs there will be a race in each of these nine-day cycles, but many modern programs only race once every couple of weeks these days, so not every cycle may contain a competition. 

There are still a few programs remaining that will have two races in each nine-day microcycle and the adjustments to training in these situations are unfortunately quite drastic.  Whatever the case, these are certainly not the most important races of the year so it is fine to temper it down the day before a competition, but do not set up much rest for any race in September unless it is an extraordinary situation.


* Training Resource: Speed Development for Distance Runners


What training changes occur in moving from the general preparation period to the specific preparation period?  The answer lies in the name itself.  Training activities are added that address the specific demands of the 5k race, replacing general activities like base mileage days that focus on building a generic distance runner.  For example, a previously done general six mile run is replaced by a four mile tempo run.  The former may have been done at 7:20/mile pace and the latter is done at 6:00/mile pace.  Hill runs previously done on a 45 second hill are now done on a 4:00 minute hill.  vVO2 max work previously done as 5 x 800 on a grass course with 4:00 minute recovery for everybody now become 4 x 1600 meters on a road/tar trail at individual 3200 meter date pace with recovery time equal in length to work time for each repeat.  The previously done ten mile long run done at continuous pace now has a series of pickups over the last three miles of the same ten mile run.

Other stimuli need to be introduced as well during the specific preparation period such as high blood-lactate training loads.  Working blood-lactate values that would be found more in a one mile race than a longer cross country race should be prescribed.  Workouts such as these are not stressed during specific preparation, only introduced once or twice.  They do not become stressed for a 5k runner until the following block of training time called the pre-competitive period which is most of October.  But, by introducing workouts with a higher lactate load in specific preparation they prepare the body for what is to come, plus they are great strength workouts because the work must be repeated as well as possible despite the dramatic increase in fatigue caused by the inability to buffer the lactate accumulating in the blood. 

Start with Special Endurance 2 length workouts but shorten the recovery interval.  Shortening the recovery during specific prep workouts is not intuitive, but it keeps the intensity low despite the very high heart rates.  This will prevent the athlete from sustaining a muscular injury because it is a lower velocity then near-maximum effort.  If the recovery interval is increased rather than decreased (which may make more sense), then the athlete can run faster and this is when “speed causes injury”.  Do the workout on a safe, fast, surface and prescribe something like 6 x 400 meters with 2:30 recovery between repeats.

During the specific preparation period many different workouts are added, generally replacing longer and slower work.  One of the concerns in doing this is that training mileage may drop too much.  The key to the puzzle is to keep the mileage in the specific prep period within 90%, or better yet, equal to the mileage values found at the end of general prep. 

When the runners do a four mile tempo run, or a set of 400’s, or any other work that does not keep them in the seven or eight mile per day range consistently they will need to tack on miles at the end of the workout.  That is fine!  Any work demand done at the end of a workout is considered endurance effort and is useful in building fitness in a 5k runner.


* Coaching Resource: Advanced Topics Symposium in Cross Country


September is fun!  But, it is also a very hard-working month.  Stress the appropriate aerobic and longer anaerobic work and introduce the shorter anaerobic work that is yet to come, so that when they get to the competition period (tapering and peaking) those workouts are effective too.  If the training stimuli is not appropriately periodized throughout the season, then adaptation will not occur effectively, and no method of tapering is going to fix that situation.                 


Sample Nine-Day Training Cycle for Late September:

Monday:           vVO2 max day, 4 x 1600, @date pace 3200 meter pace/2, work time=rest time,
Tuesday:          10 mile long run,
Wednesday:     6 x 400, 2 min recovery, 2 mile warmup, 4 mile cool down,
Thursday:         4 mile tempo run, 2 mile warm up, 1 mile cool down,
Friday:              6-7 mile base run,
Saturday:          Race Day,
Sunday:            5 mile recovery run,
Monday:           4 x 4:00 hills, 2 miles warm up, 3 miles cool down,
Tuesday:          8 x 200 meters on grass, 2:30 recovery, 2 mi warm up, 4 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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