What’s In and What’s Out in Cross Country Training Theory

Posted by Scott Christensen

It is the end of the year, and with the change in calendars it is always fun to take a look at what’s in and what’s out – or more specifically – what is scientifically in and what is scientifically being pushed out in regard to cross country training theory for the new year.  Keep in mind that science does not “prove” seemingly logical ideas.  The role of science, using the scientific method, is to disprove flawed ideas.  This is why scientific knowledge moves along at a snail’s pace, with the route to answers being a web of paths that twist and turn along the way. 

Scientific studies are presented to the public, along with an invitation to disprove the stated results by other scientists who chose to design an experiment for such a purpose.  It is a rigorous process that does indeed lead to a loss of some semi-accepted theories; while at other times, as it becomes apparent that a theory or result cannot be disproved, it leads to full acceptance. 

Theories are refined often in human performance activities such as cross country running because the science is historically young.  Replicable scientific experimentation on modern athletes is less than 50 years old, so there are many more changes occurring in the theories of human performance than in other sciences such as geology, which has been studied for centuries and few new things are ever found in experimentation. 


* Training Resource: Peaking Workouts for Cross Country Runners


With all of this in mind let’s look at seven concepts related to cross country training theory that have changed slightly over the last year.  In other words, what’s in, and what’s out!

  1. In lactate and hydrogen ion removal from working muscle cells. Out tolerance of lactate and hydrogen ions. To have tolerance to something is to build up a resistance or create a higher threshold.  The cells of the body will always be affected in exactly the same way by hydrogen ions which are acidic in nature, despite the runner’s fitness.  Anything that is acidic will be corrosive (depending on the concentration), and in the instance of H+ ions occurring as waste material from anaerobic exercise; cell membranes, red blood cells, and enzymes are all damaged.  There is no adaptive response of tolerance to the acid.  For years coaches have talked as if there were workouts that strengthened the tolerance to waste hydrogen ions.  This would allow a runner to carry near maximum speed longer in running races.  It has now been shown that drainage or removal of the acidic ions is what really occurs.  The best removal agent in the body of acidic ions is hemoglobin.  Runners higher hemoglobin levels by having more red blood cells, which is the result of aerobic training.
  2. In static muscle stretching before exercise. Out pointless active warm-up drills such as any form of butt-kicks.  For the last five years static stretching as part of the warm-up of a distance runner has been dismissed.  Reasons for this was diminished force production following the stretch and a need to be more active and connected in the routine.  New studies have shown that static stretching as part of an active warm-up actually diminishes lower leg injuries in distance runners.  If static stretches are held to only about 30 seconds in duration, there is no subsequent loss of force production.  Range of motion has also been shown to improve, but that would result as well if static stretching was left as a cool-down exercise only.  Butt kicks do not mimic the proper stride pattern and the neural impact of doing the drill is useless to improvement of running mechanics. Make sure all of the active and static warm-up exercises done serve an important purpose of either: proper posture or ground impact preparation.
  3. In lateral movement in warm-up. Out jogging in warm-up.  Distance running is primarily a straight-ahead movement pattern and that is where the adaptation stimuli occur.  However, strengthening the connective tissue of the triple extender joints is important in both performance and injury prevention.  The straight-ahead movement strengthens connective tissue in one plane only.  By adding side slide, side carioca, side stepover and the like, strengthen the connective tissue of the ankle, knee, and hip joints simultaneously, thus stimulating adaptation in all the planes.  For a seasoned distance runner, jogging to start the warm-up is a waste of time.  It tires the central nervous system, not stimulates it.  Reasons for doing it have been to increase body temperate and raise heart rate.  Any activity will do those things, so start with lateral movement patterns, not jogging. 
  4. In emphasis on critical velocity pace (Crv). Out emphasis on lactate threshold pace (LT).  Some LT pace work is still needed such as a 25-minute tempo run by every distance runner.  The challenge with LT pace is it varies so widely from person to person and it’s relative fractionization to vVO2 max.  Some people find their LT pace at 70% of vVO2 max and others at 90% of vVO2 max.  The reason for this is true lactate threshold has a range of 2.0-3.5 mmol/L lactate in people.  Critical velocity is more tightly structure at 4.0 mmol/L lactate concentration for most people.  This is about date pace for an exhaustive 10k effort.  Moderate to tough aerobic workouts need to be designed more around Crv than LT paces to maximize their benefit in seasoned distance runners.
  5. In upright body core strength routines. Out horizontal body core strength routines.  The benefit of core work for proper running posture and efficient ground preparation mechanics is well documented.  Core routine “2.0” now brings the body to an upright position for most of the exercises to be most effective.  A runner would get more from a set of one-legged body squats that anything that could be done in the sitting or lying position.
  6. In plyometric hopping. Out plyometric bounding.  Hopping teaches the body a great deal about stabilization and coordination.  If one of the expected outcomes for a distance runner doing plyometrics is reduced ground contact time then hopping more than bounding is the emphasized exercise.  Bounding is an elongated stride in most distance runners-basically an aggressive over-stride.  There is some elastic response value found, but like butt-kicks, it just teaches bad neural engrams.  
  7. In emphasis on the soleus. Out emphasis on the quadricep.  Many exercises a distance runner does emphasizes the action of the quadricep muscle group such as uphill running, stadium stairs running, and squat work.  These exercises are important but have received too much emphasis.  Current research points to the soleus and its development as a key to improved distance running performance and injury prevention.  The soleus actually performs at 6.5-8.0 bw force production while running, which is the most of any area of the leg.  A good weight room activity to start with would be seated calf raises holding a 10 lb barbell on each knee.  After a few sessions increase to 20 pounds and so on.


* Coaching Resource: Advanced Topics Symposium in Cross Country


Each year-end brings in a list of new ideas, fads, and routines.  Hopefully, this list will help you in your training of cross country runners in the years to come.  Science does not change, only our understanding of it does.               




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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