Two Peaking Workouts You Must Do with Your Cross Country Athletes

Posted by Scott Christensen

A cross country runner that has a training age of two or more, and who had a pretty good summer of running, can expect about a five percent improvement over the 14 week fall season in their 5k time from start to finish.  Those with a training age of less than two years, or who had a sketchy summer of running, may improve more than 5%, but of course they are starting with a much softer time.  The 5% in-season time improvement in the experienced runner’s performance is commonly seen broken down this way: general prep (4 weeks) 1% improvement, specific prep (3 weeks) 2% improvement, pre-comp (3 weeks) 1% improvement, and the competition period (3 weeks) 1% improvement.  Today we will discuss two peaking workouts valuable especially for the competition period.

The competition period is called the tapering or peaking period by many coaches, because descriptively, that is what is occurring.  Because it occurs at the end of the season, after 80% of that season’s improvement has already been made, coaches often find this last part to be stubborn improvement.

Coaches try to get around the stubbornness by setting up a three-week period that is characterized by both a training volume reduction and a training intensity increase.  Even then it is not a 100% foolproof plan.  This sort of tapering to a peak performance has been shown to be very effective is sports like swimming and cycling.  These are non-weight bearing sports and the effectiveness of such a strategy does not often transfer to distance runners.

Regardless, most cross country coaches engage in some sort of linear or exponential-decay taper where there is about a 30% decrease in volume accompanied by a 10-15% increase in anaerobic work intensity.

Dropping volume during the comp period is easily set up in a training program.  Instead of a ten mile long run do a seven mile long run, or instead of a 30 minute tempo run do a 20 minute tempo run, and so on.


* Training Resource: Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners


Intensity changes are a different story, as most anaerobic work is already done between 92-97% of maximum effort.  In order to keep the intensity very high anaerobically, two adjustments must be made from work that was done earlier in the season.  First, cut the number of repetitions (amount of work) to be done.  Instead of doing 8 x 400 meters; do 4 x 400 meters.  Or, instead of 5 x 500 meters; do 3 x 300 meters instead.  To make the smaller number of repetitions to be done more intense, increase the recovery interval.  Instead of the standard 2-4 minutes of time that was prescribed earlier in the season to address recovery between bouts of work, increase it to 8-20 minutes.  The large variation in recovery interval time during comp will be dependent on the length of the anaerobic repeat and how close to the big race the work session is occurring.

Physiologists are pretty explicit in their findings that both the aerobic portion and anaerobic portion of the energy system requires a stinging stimulus about every 96 hours during the comp period so that enzymes in both areas stay high and the neuro-muscular transmitters are functioning at high capacity.  This is how fitness stays very high, despite the volume and overall work reduction.  For this reason, cross country coaches should do capacity work loads during the comp period; to present the proper dosages of both aerobic and anaerobic stimuli to the energy system.  So, twice every four days there should be a major training stimulus, one is anaerobic and the other is aerobic.  The other days in the comp period are either very easy running or racing.

There are many different aerobic workouts that can be done to stimulate high quality work during the comp period.  Every coach has a favorite session and many are anecdotal.  There are some scientific can’t miss aerobic workouts of the proper load that can be done because they are individualized to each person’s unique vVO2 max value.

By the time a cross country runner moves into the comp period, VO2 max development has reached an end for this particular moment in time.  It has taken 10-12 (or longer) weeks to be stimulated and to adapt to all of the work designed for developing the central and peripheral aspects of aerobic power needed for the 5k.  The engine has been built to its fullest capacity for this moment in time and we will have to wait until next season to make it even bigger and more robust.  During the comp period the idea is to just maintain and finely tune the engine power capability of the moment.  A vVO2 max maintenance workout is in order about four days out from the next big meet in order to achieve this.


The following workout has been shown to check all of the aerobic maintenance boxes:

After a sufficient warmup of about 15-20 minutes, the endurance unit of the session is a six mile step-up continuous run.  Mile #1 83% vVO2 max, Mile #2 86% vVO2 max, Mile #3

89% vVO2 max, Mile #4 92% vVO2 max, Mile #5 95% vVO2 max, and Mile #6 98% vVO2 max

A two mile easy cool down run wraps up the session. 

This training unit provides just enough stimulus to reach the vVO2 max zone for the last mile, thus satisfying the requirement of a stinging aerobic stimulus.  The run also builds up through the lactate threshold zone, the critical velocity zone, and the 5k pace zone in route.  The time on task and intensity is perfect.  A fit cross country runner will be tired after this workout, and that is the point.  There are four days to recover from it.


Like the aerobic portion, the anaerobic portion of the energy system also needs a strong stimulus about every 96 hours during the comp period.  If a coach is looking for a workout idea to properly stimulate the glycolytic analytic side of the energy system 4-5 days out from the big meet, this session fits the bill:

After a sufficient, very active warmup of 20 minutes, the special endurance 2 unit of the session is 2 x 600 meters at as close to 100% effort as is possible.

A two mile easy cool down run wraps up the session. 

This first 600 meter run should reach the lactate/hydrogen ion production ceiling for the runner and may be as high as 18 mmol/L lactate in accomplished runners.  In all runners it will be over 12 mmol/L lactate if done at 100% effort.  There will have to be considerable recovery time to be able to come close to replicating that effort for a second 600 meters that day.  The prescribed recovery is 20 minutes of active movement.  This interval length will not be sufficient for all aspects of recovery, but for blood lactate recovery it will be sufficient.  When the second 600 meter is done, the runner should work very hard to replicate the time of the first 600 meters.  It will be a difficult task, but skilled runners can come very close.  In the end, this roughly 3-4 minutes total of hard anaerobic running is perfect for maintaining anaerobic fitness at this time of year.


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


Tapering and peaking strategies can be hit or miss in cross country runners.  However, all runners will benefit from a drop in volume, as testosterone secretion will increase and the athletes will get stronger with a little more rest.  Workout session timing of key units is crucial to the peaking process and in preventing fitness reversibility.  Doing these two workouts should prevent any chance of these two things from happening.



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.

Related Posts

A Workout Ingredient List for the Cross Country Coach

Quantifying Training Effort of Middle Distance Runners

Training Aerobic Capacity and Middle Distance Athletes

Middle School Training for Cross Country Runners

General Adaptation Syndrome and Cross Country Training