Training Ecosystems in Cross Country Teams

Posted by Scott Christensen

Some of the best descriptors in lively conversations are analogies, and cross country coaches often make use of them when talking to or about their teams.  A good one for biology types is the analogy that relates a cross country team, and the training they do, to the hierarchy and organization of life on Earth. Today’s focus is training ecosystems and cross country athletes.

In biology, an ecosystem is a slice of the biosphere.  Specifically, an ecosystem may be freshwater aquatic, terrestrial, marine aquatic, etc.  It is an interweaving of different communities of plants and animals living within a particular set of non-living conditions.  How could this be analogous to a cross country team?  The answer lies in two important aspects shared by both ecosystems and cross country teams. 

First, healthy ecosystems and thriving cross country teams both chiefly exist due to a pyramid of population numbers.  A pyramid must have a nice broad base if there is to be a tall, stable, and sharp peak.  In an ecosystem the base consists of all the populations of carbohydrate producers, so if there is also to be numerous carnivore populations further up the pyramid, there better be many producers present for adequate energy transfer. 


* Training Resource: Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners


On the cross country team, a substantial population of young runners is needed to keep the team thriving and this is the team’s pyramid base.  Young runners with a training age of zero or one should make up a sizeable bulk of any cross country team.  These runners are developing at an unpredictable rate and nobody is sure exactly who the next star or leader will be so much tender care has to be made to nurture these people along.  Hopefully, they will stay with the team for future years and encourage younger brothers and sisters and friends to also join the base population. 

In general, the bottom populations of a biological pyramid lead a very general existence and that is true for the team as well.  These runners need nothing more than chronic miles of training to rapidly improve their time over 5k. 

Nothing really specific in the way of training is needed and if they are too young and have not yet been through puberty, then most specific forms of training like anaerobic lactate tolerance work does not have a training effect anyway.  Big groups of people can be trained all together at the bottom of the pyramid.

In contrast, at the top of the ecosystem pyramid are the big and nasty carnivores like sharks, lions and grizzly bears.  Populations of these animals are very small and their needs are incredibly specific in any ecosystem. 

On the cross country team there is a similar scenario, but instead of ferocious carnivores at the very peak, it is the best seven runners that make up the team’s scoring varsity.  These seven runners have risen through the levels at the bottom of the team pyramid through the years and now with a training age of three or four years the team is heavily dependent on them for success. 

They are no longer generalists in their needs and are considered specialists like the top-order carnivores.  Theirs needs however are not for specific food and cover like the big animals but in their training components and stimuli.  These people are not trained with the big group at the bottom very often. 

Just running more miles at this stage of their career will not help much.  Their needs are frequent, date-paced aerobic power sessions, tempo sessions at their individual lactate threshold, and anaerobic work based around their personal best 400 meter pace.  Much of the work stimulus will be where each of them specifically needs it. 

Without a large pyramid base, seven runners may not make it through the developmental levels of the pyramid to make it to the very peak.  The focus of the coach should always be in building a large base, and then when a few runners emerge with skills, the training becomes narrowly individualized.             

The second characteristic healthy ecosystems and successful cross country teams share is a diversity of roles within each system.  Going back to our biological analogy, an ecosystem has, for example: producers, carnivores and decomposers.  A healthy ecosystem needs all three groups to be present in the natural world.  On a cross country team, three diverse groups are also needed: runners, racers and kids there for social reasons.

On most cross country teams there is a sizeable population of people who are on the team just because they like to run.  These people are called the runners and they are the group that makes practice fun and interesting every day.  Most have no hope of ever running in a varsity race and they have come to terms with that.  They just like to run at practice every day and race once in a while.  They come smiling to practice, seldom complain, and tell interesting tales during cool down.  A good team needs lots of these people. 

Fewer people make up the group known as racers.  They could have been good at many sports but have chosen cross country running to be their competitive venue.  This population lives for race day and often gets bogged down in the daily grind of practice.  They just want to compete.  These people are more intense, so they smile less, and often stick to themselves.  This group does not necessarily make practice fun because their attitude is that it is never good enough.  This group however, makes race day very fun for the team. 

Racers co-exist with the runners on a thriving team because they have separate needs and desires, much like lions living amongst the elephants and giraffes of the Serengeti. 

There are many people that join athletic teams purely for social reasons.  They either have friends on the team or want to make new friends.  Usually this group will transform themselves to be additional people that just enjoy the run and are not wrapped up in being that competitive.  This group adds to the training ecosystem too.


* Coaching Resource: The Training Model for High School Cross Country


Cross country teams and their own runners always seem to be unique, but they share many characteristics beyond the same race distance and similar training.  They may not even be unique to the biosphere.  There are many examples of human “teams” that act very similarly to what is found in the natural world.  Keep this in mind when forming your own teams.        



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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