Cross Country Training 101: A Training Log Excerpt

Today I want to give you a glimpse into the training I did before my best season of cross country in college. Buckle up!

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I graduated in 2006 after running cross country, indoor, and outdoor track for all four years at Connecticut College.

It was the time of my life and the most instructive experience of my life, teaching me:

  • The value of hard work (over a long period of time – an often overlooked aspect of “hard work”)
  • The types of training you do for the 800m vs. the 5k vs. 8k cross country
  • Shaving your legs makes you feel fast. And if you feel fast, you’ll run fast!
  • How to get outside your comfort zone and do things you previously thought were impossible

For a large chunk of my life, my singular goal was to run fast. I dedicated nearly all of my energy to the specific task of improving my speed over every race distance.

And in doing that, I trained as hard as I could manage given my own personal constraints.

Those constraints stemmed from a seemingly positive attribute: I can run 10-12 miles every day without feeling “tired.”

But that led me to consistently run too much, too soon, too fast before I was ready. I learned the hard way that injury prevention should always be a priority.

Nevertheless, that training helped me improve dramatically over my four years at Conn College.

And particularly during my senior year, when I won the Most Improved award:

Today I want to show you that training. Not so you can emulate it, but so you can learn from it.

Cross Country Training: Fall 2005

This sample week is from October 3rd, 2005 – October 9th, 2005 (or about the midway point of my senior-year cross country season).

I’ll go through every day and then we’ll wrap up with some lessons learned.

Monday

AM: 36-minute easy run. Mostly trails.

PM: 11 miles total. 8min at Tempo + 3 x 75″ Hill Reps + 8min at Tempo

Note: morning runs were usually scheduled before a workout. This helps “prime” the body for harder work later on, plus it also polarizes your training to make your hard days quite hard.

Tuesday

70 minutes easy – mostly trails. Did two sets of barefoot running drills pre-run (low-knees, butt-kicks, A Skip, Carioca, B Skip) and 4 barefoot strides after the run.

Wednesday

AM: 29′ easy on trails

PM: 10 miles total. Track workout: 2x800m + 2x1600m + 2x800m with 400m recovery after the 800’s and 800m recovery after the 1600’s.

Splits: 2:20, 2:19, 4:52, 4:49, 2:18, 2:18

Note: this might be the best workout I’ve ever run in my life!

Thursday

63 minutes easy on trails. Ended with 4 barefoot strides

Note: we usually ran strides every day that wasn’t a long run (including before every fast workout). This means that we did strides 6 days per week!

Friday

36′ easy with 4 barefoot strides

Saturday

Race Day! All-New England Championships at historic Franklin Park in Boston, Massachusetts. Got in 10 miles total with about 2.5 miles to warm-up and cool-down.

Ran 28:04 for 8k and had a very poor race. Too fast through the mile (5:07), my chest was tight, and lost a shoe going up Bear Cage Hill (stopped to put it back on).

Unfortunately, I don’t have any other mile splits.

Sunday

1:55 at a mostly easy effort. About half trails, half road. Probably about 16 miles total for the long run.

Note: long runs on Sundays were on your own. Skipping them was taboo and frowned upon by not just our coach, but the team as well.

We knew the value of the long run and always made a point to run, even when we over-indulged in fun the night before 😉 

Summary

I ran about 80 miles this week and a lot of quality. As you can see, the race did not go well.

For context, a month before I ran 26:33…

This usually happened at this point in the season as the volume and intensity start to intersect before focusing more on speed later in the season.

I was clearly tired from that workout the previous Wednesday, too.

But this wasn’t the high point of mileage for the season, which reached 86 miles for three weeks in late August and late September.

It’s also worth noting that in July and August, I did about 2-4 hours of cross-training every week. My aerobic base was the biggest it had ever been going into this season.

Lessons Learned from XC Training

There are quite a few principles at work here that we can pull to benefit your training – no matter what type of race you’re training to run.

1. Mileage matters!

There’s no substitute for high-volume training. It’s a universal principle that will help every runner race faster and better achieve their potential.

You don’t need to run 80 miles per week. You don’t need to run 60, or even 50, miles per week either. Instead, just run more than what you’re currently doing.

Increasing mileage will almost always lead to faster race times.

2. Intensity is Strategic

Including the race, I ran about 12-13 miles of speed work through the week.

In terms of a percentage, that’s 15% of my total volume – which fits very well with Matt Fitzgerald’s 80/20 concept.

But I believe that 20% is fairly aggressive. Even as a relatively competitive college athlete, I was only ever running about 15% of my total mileage as quality miles.

Doing more than that – or 16 miles total for an 80-mile week – would be staggering.

In most instances, casual or recreational runners should aim to run 10-15% of their weekly mileage as quality mileage.

3. Run Barefoot (just a little)

I love barefoot strides. Always have, always will. But besides feeling good, they:

  • Build strength in the small, intrinsic foot muscles (here’s more on your “foot core”)
  • Reinforce proper running form
  • Build resilience in the lower leg for racing in flats and spikes

They’re a fantastic way to increase your injury prevention efforts – without a lot of risk.

Too many runners want to run barefoot for miles and miles. That’s not necessary. Just do some barefoot strides instead for the same benefits without the higher risk of getting hurt.

That’s a win-win in my book.

4. Run for Time on Easy Runs

My college coach assigned easy runs as follows: “Run 80 minutes easy today.”

That’s it.

If we asked “how fast” we were supposed to run, he told us “easy.”

Because after all, the effort on an easy day is far more important than the pace. Once you’ve gotten into good shape and can differentiate between several different paces, your body knows what’s easy (and what’s not).

If you love your GPS watch, then by all means keep using it. But use it in such a way that helps accomplish the goals of the run rather than being a distraction.

For example, put your watch on time of day so you can’t see the mile splits and average pace. Run by feel and you can look at the splits later.

5. Trails Are Your Friend

The majority of our mileage in college was on trails. And we didn’t discriminate; we loved all types of trail running:

  • The winding, gravel paths in the college’s Arboretum (sshhh we weren’t supposed to run in there!)
  • The technical, hilly trails in the woods behind the college
  • The grassy loops near the Athletic Center
  • The flat, crushed cinder airline trail for long runs
  • The packed dirt paths near Bluff Point for tempo runs

There were only a few loops that we ran that were primarily on the roads. We saved those mostly for winter when the trails were covered in snow (but often, even that didn’t stop us).

Wondering why trails are so beneficial? Besides increasing your athleticism, they prevent injuries!

Just don’t trip over a rock and fall into a tree…

Wait! Let’s put this context…

This post is not to highlight my big workout or high weekly mileage. There are runners who put any of my performances to great shame.

But it does highlight the training that was necessary to run at the Varsity level at a competitive DIII school.

And it certainly wasn’t just one week, month, season, or year that prepared me for this workload. It was 7+ years of diligent training:

  • Year 1: 25 miles per week, 5k PR about 20 minutes
  • Year 2: 30 miles per week, 5k PR about 19 minutes
  • Year 3: 30-40 miles per week, 5k PR about 18:30
  • Year 4: 30-40 miles per week (peak being 60), 5k PR 16:56
  • Year 5: 50-60 miles per week (peak being 80), 5k PR equivalent 16:45
  • Year 6: 60-70 miles per week (peak being 90), 5k PR 16:09
  • Year 7: 60-70 miles per week (peak being 80), 5k PR 16:06
  • Year 8: 65-75 miles per week (peak being 85), 5k PR 16:02

It was a long road to running my PR of 16:02 at the end of my 8th year of running. The longest I ever took off from running was two weeks. I missed vacations, didn’t study abroad, and came back to school early for practice.

In other words – a lot of sacrifices were made to get close to my genetic potential!

If you’re hoping to see just how fast you can run, you’ll need to progressively increase your workload over the months and years.

You’ll need to reimagine what you think is possible.

You’ll need to dedicate yourself to the goal of improvement – requiring consistency (even when you don’t want to train).

And you’ll need to remember that the destination is not nearly as much fun as the journey.

If you’re serious about getting faster, please let me know how I can help.

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