Speed as a Primary Physical Component in Cross Country Training

Posted by Scott Christensen

Updated July 15, 2024


Despite what it is intuitive to the training of cross country runners, absolute speed is a critical primary physical component to five kilometer (k) racing success.  Many studies have linked the 40 meter maximum velocity performance in a runner to success in events all the way out to the 10k.

Speed generally involves three components: acceleration, maximum speed and speed endurance.  It is generally thought that acceleration may be important to endurance events like the 800 meters, but it is not critical to the 5k.  Where the real speed emphasis should be in a cross country training plan is in the modalities of maximum speed and speed endurance.

Maximum speed, (also known as absolute speed), is the greatest locomotive velocity attainable in an athlete.  Most coaches are concerned with the rate of movement of the body as a system, but the speed of individual body parts is an important component of maximum speed.  Maximum speed training activities involve attaining and maintaining great velocities for short periods of times.


Speed endurance is the ability of an athlete to maintain maximum speed and resist the inherent degradation of maximum speed that occurs in performance.  Once runners reach their maximum velocity, deceleration inevitably occurs within a few seconds.  Even in world record performances by the best sprinters in history there is a degradation of performance.

Table 1 illustrates this performance deterioration by showing the ten meter segments of the 100 meter race with velocity recorded in meters per second.  Usain Bolt not only achieved the highest maximum speed of the four athletes at 12.20 meters per second, he also maintained it the longest segment into the race.


CTF-Speed as Primary Physical Component in CC Training


Speed endurance refers to the ability to resist speed deceleration.  The act of slowing is associated most closely with the buildup of certain byproducts of muscle contraction, but of equal concern is a loss of coordination in the athlete.

The inability to coordinate high speed movements for extended periods of time is essentially a form of nervous system fatigue, so speed endurance should be considered as a specific type of coordination training.  Speed endurance training activities involve maintaining near maximal velocities for extended periods of time.

Optimal Speed is the hoped for anaerobic end-result of maximum speed and speed endurance training.  This term refers to the speed which best optimizes the performance of the motor task of racing at 5k over a cross country course for each individual runner.


Coaching Resource: The Training Model for High School Cross Country


Increasing speed in performance gives the potential for greater success, but only if coordination and technical execution do not suffer.  Optimal speed can be regarded as a combination of all five of the primary physical components along with an athlete’s genome, training age and desire.

Training for maximum speed should not be periodized.  It should be a component in all four training periods of the cross country and track macrocycles.

Never get far from maximum speed development.  The training sessions are simple to set up and can easily be done in the off-season without a coach present as well.  The energy system stimulated in the training session is the alactic anaerobic energy system so rest between each bout of work should be adequate or fatigue can easily move into the anaerobic lactate system.

An example of maximum speed work would be: after a strong active warm-up have the cross country athletes complete a 40 meter coned zone as fast as they can.  Do it “on the fly”, which means include a track marking for the start of both an acceleration zone and deceleration zone outside of the 40 meter work distance.  Emphasize a long deceleration.  Then rest for four minutes by jogging or walking before doing the activity again.  Repeat the work distance and rest cycle ten times.

It is important this training session is done on the track with the runners in spikes.  Additional distance can be added after the 10 x 40 meters with a nice four-five mile base run.

Do not confuse maximum speed work with repeat “strides” done at the end of some workouts.  Strides are endurance work, as is any activity done at the end of a training session.

Speed endurance work should be periodized.  An example of speed endurance work would be: after a strong active warm-up, have the runners complete a Speed Endurance unit of several repeats of 60-150 meters distance, Special Endurance 1 which is repeats of 150-300 meters, or Special Endurance 2 which is repeats of 300-600 meters.

Usually Speed Endurance is done on the track.   Special Endurance 1 work is done on the grass during the General Preparation and Specific Preparation Periods and on the track during the Pre-Competitive and Competitive Periods.  Special Endurance 2 work is usually done on the grass and barefoot if possible up to the Competition Period.


Additional Resource: Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners


There is not just one training method for speed development in cross country runners.  Like many areas of training there are many different means of creating stimuli for the anticipated training effect.  Speed in cross country training is a primary physical component.  All runners benefit from a multi-faceted approach that concentrates on improving maximum speed and speed endurance.





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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