Winter Development in Cross Country Training

Posted by Scott Christensen

Exercise physiologist like to reduce athletic performance ability to five physical skills that are a product of the athlete’s genome, age and cross country training development.  Coaches have accepted this reductionism viewpoint and have described these five skills as “bio-motor” skills.  While the word bio-motor has no true scientific definition, both coaches and physiologists understand the jargon term when it is used in conversation.  Whether or not the word is real is not the important point.  The real importance lies in the fact that to achieve further development in all types of athletes, including distance runners, than the five individual bio-motor skills need to be improved.

The five human bio-motor skills are: speed, strength, endurance, flexibility, and coordination.  Athletics is a very diverse domain.  The skills needed to be a great baseball player are much different than those skills need to be a great 5K runner.  Yet, development must occur in all five skills if one is to achieve the level of success dictated by age, motivation and genome structure.  For instance, in baseball, coordination and speed are vital components, while flexibility, endurance, and strength are important but less emphasized.  For athletes racing a 5k, endurance and strength are vital, while flexibility, coordination, and speed seem less so.

The truth in training is that all five bio-motor skills need to be developed and not neglected in all forms of athletics.  The problem with training schemes that attempt to foster complete bio-motor skill development lies in the fact that there is only so much time in season to dedicate to each skill.  Naturally, during cross country training season, endurance skills will be heavily emphasized by all coaches.  The time dedicated to the four remaining skills is at the whim of the coach at any particular school.  Anybody who talks regularly with other cross country coaches understands the variability of training programs and it seldom deals with the endurance component.

If dedicating in-season time to these remaining skills is problematic, then how about off-season activities that the athlete can do themselves to further their bio-motor skill development.

For many high cross country runners in the United States, the off-season occurs during the winter.  The high schools in the northeastern part of the United States, with indoor track as a sport, are an exception to this, but an emphasis on skills other than endurance may be helpful to the athlete’s total development there as well.  Weather will limit some training skills from being done, and no bio-motor skill can be developed in isolation, yet an emphasis on skills other than endurance can be made.  As you visit with your athletes about implementing new skill development it is important to stress trying to practice perfectly, and not just go through the motions.  As with any physical activity, doing them improperly is worse than not doing new skill development at all.

Let’s begin with basic cross country endurance development during the winter months and move on from there.

Learn more from Coach Christensen with: Preparing the Elite Junior Cross Country Runner

Endurance Skills:  After a three to five week break following the cross country season it is time to restart aerobic cross country training and develop a bigger aerobic base.  The training emphasis begins with 5-7 mile runs done continuously at a steady pave near the aerobic threshold.  These workouts will be the major portion of the winter training program because it takes so long to structurally remodel the aerobic system of humans.  Physiologically, the athlete is looking for greater development of the heart, increases in blood volume, angiogenesis, and greater quantities of cardiovascular enzymes.  All of these are accomplished with work done near the aerobic threshold for a somewhat lengthy amount of training time.  Later in the off-season, the speed of some of the aerobic based runs can be increased to closer to the lactate threshold.  This will not only help the cardiovascular system development, but will stimulate more efficient catabolization of carbohydrate molecules at the sites of the working muscles.

Strength Skills:  Strength skill development is doing much more than weight room activities, but certainly includes it.  For example, a sleek distance runner does not need to do big sets of hang squat snatches, especially if they are unfamiliar with such activities.  Weight room activities centered closer to body weight are much more appropriate.  Force production at 5k pace is not great enough to have to add huge amounts of weights to the bars.  Military presses, bench presses, and body cleans which are done near the athletes body weight are more than enough to develop the strength needed to carry the body over 5K  However, similar to endurance skills, strength skills require a lot of time to develop a stronger base.  Beyond the weight room, hill running, running through the snow, running into a strong wind, and barefoot running are good examples of strength runs.  Strength type of activities should be emphasized 2-3 times per week during the winter.

Speed Skills:  Yes, speed work can and should be done in the off-season by distance runners.  Emphasize pure speed over speed endurance for sill development.  Run 30-40 meter repeats at 100% effort with three minutes rest between each bit of work.  Decelerate very slowly after each flying 30 meter repeat.  Do 8-10 repeats at the beginning of practice after a good warm-up.  The rest period must be lengthy.  Speed should be emphasized one day per week in the winter.  A similar training effect can be accomplished by a controlled fartlek workout, but this style is a more difficult type of speed workout to self administer   

Flexibility Skills:  If an athlete can lengthen their stride by one inch due to an improved range of motion in their skeletal joints and soft tissue they will take 48 less strides in a one mile race.  Imagine what that would do to their performance!  Improving range of motion has not been linked to over-striding so it can be nothing but beneficial to the athlete.  Recent studies show us too much static stretching leads to a temporary loss of force production by the muscle.  For this reason it is hard to find time for flexibility work during the season.  However, during the winter is a great time to develop a new normal range of motion for each athlete.  Develop a static and dynamic stretching routine that is done consistently.

Coordination Skills:  Many scientific studies link high coordination skills with elite athletes.  It is a skill that separates the champions from the others.  In cross country training it is largely an overlooked bio-motor skill although speed development does lead to greater coordination development.  Developing greater coordination skills through drills are not activities that raise the heart rate of the athlete.  The basic premise is to improve the balance of the athlete.  Running is an activity where one lands on one foot, establishing a balanced platform, and then transfers body mass across to the other foot.  Drills include: standing on one foot as long as the athlete can while the heel is lifted, repeating this drill with a ten pound plate from the weight room, now add a lateral hop back and forth on one foot holding the plate.  Other drills include: craning on one leg and trying to pick up a quarter off of the floor, craning while a partner shifts ones center of mass.  These coordination skills can be worked on every day during the off-season when there is more time at hand.

Athletes and coaches should enjoy the off-season.  There are many activities that can be done during this time that cannot be done at other times.  Think about complete “bio-motor” development at this time, even though it is not a real word.


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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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