Strength Training as a Primary Physical Component for Cross Country Runners

Posted by Scott Christensen

Strength is categorized as a primary physical component of the human body. The other primary physical components are speed, coordination, flexibility, and endurance. The aim of physical training is to improve the fitness of these five components in a balanced program to meet the specific demands of the sport. The role of a coach is to design and implement a program balance that improves the fitness of the individual primary physical components to the degree that is necessary for athletic success.

Of the five primary physical components the one that is most stressed in cross country running is endurance.  Make no mistake about it the cross country coach needs to spend the great majority of training time addressing endurance.  Development of the other four components does not substitute for endurance development, but rather adds to a much smaller degree to the endurance runners overall fitness.

Figure 1 indicates the relative emphasis of the five primary physical components to each other in a cross country specific training plan.  While endurance earns 10 out of 10 in emphases, strength is relegated to 4 out of 10 in training emphasis.  Much of even this 4 is gained strictly through the act of running.  Running alone is strength work.  To push back off the Earth requires strength.  To run faster requires a stronger toe-off and to run farther requires long bouts of uninterrupted toe-offs.  This is strength work. 

Related Article: Running Cadence 

By far the two most important strength factors in cross country running are the toe-off moment in the running gait cycle and body core stability in maintaining proper posture as the runner fatigues during the race.  Once the posture begins to change due to fatigue and weakening of the core muscles, the stride length and stride rate change enough that overall performance is impacted. 

Core stability is related to dynamic balance, coordination, and balance among core muscle groups.  By stabilizing the abdominal, back, and shoulder muscles, distance runners increase their training gains, improve performance, and reduce low back and other related injuries.  Core exercises are generally done with a body-weight resistance that allows for 15-30 repetitions per exercise.  Sets of core exercise must be done regularly in each microcycle with a minimum of every other day.  An exercise called the Gambetta leg circuit helps develop strength for a stronger toe-off needed for faster sub-maximal running. 

The routine consists of 20 body weight squats, rest 30 seconds, 20 split leg lunges (10 on each side), rest 30 seconds, and then 10 body weight squats ending each with a double leg jump.  Rest 3 minutes and repeat.  Do this at least every other day from the general preparation period through the pre-competition period.

Resistance work increases the size of muscle fibers and recruits additional fibers to help with the specific task at hand.  Therefore, strength training for cross country runners has performance benefits.

By adding muscle mass to the body, additional oxygen is required to complete cellular respiration.  Cross country running revolves around a race pace that is at VO2 max.  By adding muscle mass it strangles a process that is already the bottle-neck of physiological activity and is the primary performance inhibitor. 

Cross country running only involves moving the body at sub-maximal speeds.  There is no object to toss, people to sweep aside, or something to stop.  Strength training for cross country runners should reflect that specificity in sport profile.  Body weight resistance is enough to develop the strength needed to successfully complete a cross country race.  By adding artificial resistance, too much unnecessary muscle fiber enlargement and recruitment occurs at a very steep oxygen cost.  The concept of efficient running economy outweighs these unnecessary muscle mass gains. 

In the running motion, arms are strictly used to balance the torso.  If the right-side of the torso twists or becomes unbalanced the left arm reacts to stabilize it, and so on.  There is no strength component, only a balance component.  Unnecessary arm muscle mass gains and fiber recruitment due to artificial resistance stimulus does not help the arms balance the torso “better”, and again occurs at a tremendous loss of running economy.  Arms “learn” to balance the torso more effectively by doing miles and miles and miles of running, not by artificial strength training.  Running economy improves by race specific and sub-maximal training.

Related Article: Maintaining Fitness throughout the Championship Season

Improvement of all five of the primary physical components adds up to greater athletic fitness.  Cross country running is similar to few other physical activities.  It is heavily skewed to development of the endurance component.  There are obvious gains to be made in developing the other four components as well, but never, ever at the cost of oxygen consumption.  Aerobic power and running economy are the deciding factors in cross country running performance and these two variables are best addressed by running and body core resistance activities.         


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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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