Cross Country is a sport that the winner is determined by the runner that decelerates the least. What I mean is, it's not just about who is the fastest, but who has the thresholds to control there aerobic capacity and maintain it the longest for the extent of the race. It is a sport that requires a mix of skills. Aerobic endurance to last for the amount of time required during the race, anaerobic endurance to be able to run at race pace speeds throughout the middle portion of races, the ability and strength to run over both short and long hills and also a fair amount of speed to hold off or out-sprint somebody during the final seconds of a race. It is because of these various abilities that there is a lot of different types of training that go into a cross country season. Depending on where you are in your training season, should dictate what type of training you are focusing on. It's not as simple either to just focus on one type of training and then another. It's more so a matter of knowing how much to focus on each type of training during specific parts of the season.
Here is my approach: First, I focus on when is the most important day. What is the goal of the individual/team. For a team, it's typically the championships, county/conference championships and/or regional/state championships. Once I figure what the ultimate goal of the season is, when the runners want to be racing at their best, I count backwards from that day 24 weeks. I then divide the 24-week period of time into 4 phases each consisting of 6-weeks. The first 6-week period (phase 1) is focused on base building. Easy runs that gradually increase in distance throughout the 6-weeks. During the 2nd phase, I introduce workouts and a day that is dedicated to a, long run which should be 20-25% of the weekly goal mileage (i.e. If the goal is to run 40 miles, the long run should be 8-10 miles; If the goal is to run 60-miles during the week, the long run should be 12-15 miles). I don't love the idea of a runner focusing on races that are 4,000 - 10,000-meters, running longer than 2-hours during a session. So if you are looking to run 70 or more miles during a week, I highly recommend incorporating a 2nd run during some days in order to reach that weekly goal. Instead of running 10-15 miles a day every day in order to hit your 70+ mile goal, consider running 2 runs at around 3-6 miles during some of those days to allow for more recovery for your body.
During phase 3 is when you should start racing, but these are developmental races. During this phase, the primary focus is your training. Race specific workouts that vary from aerobic, anaerobic, hills and speed (both short speed to work on acceleration and speed endurance). Phase 4, the final 6-week period of the training season is where the focus on racing comes in and the runner starts to cut back on training. Weekly mileage is decreased substantially, workouts are more intense however less and few between. More recovery days and less workouts. The workouts that you are running should still be fast, however there is more recovery during intervals or repetitions and the length of the interval/repetitions or less than in previous phases.
Every workout should first begin with a warm-up of 10-15 minutes of jogging, followed by dynamic stretches, drills and strides to prepare for the workout. Following the workout, you should go for a light mile or 2 of easy jogging, a cool-down, so to help drain out the lactic acid that was built up during the workout. Here are a few workouts to consider utilizing during your training season:
Tempo runs - These are runs that are at a steady pace of about 75-85% of effort. The goal is to maintain that effort for 20-25-minutes depending on the fitness of the athlete.
V02 Max workouts: There are quite a few different types of V02 max workouts, but to goal is to hit an effort that is focusing on running at speeds that will target your volume of oxygen intake. My rule of thumb here is to keep in mind the distance of the race that you are training for. High School runners typically race 4,000-5,000 meters, whereas collegiate runners race 5,000-6,000 meters for women and 8,000-10,000 meters for men. The total amount of mileage ran during your workout should not surpass your race distance for these types of workouts. The recovery in-between each interval/repetition should be close to the same amount of time spent running the interval/repetition. The goal pace should be your race pace.
Sample V02 max workouts:
3-5 x 1-mile repeats
5-8 x 1,000
3-4 x 1200-meter repeats
Typically, a goal should be to not surpass a total time of 5-minutes of running during the workout session which is why I typically use the above sample workouts during a cross country season.
A common mistake made by coaches is not utilizing speed early enough in the season. As I mentioned above, cross country requires various types of training to be truly successful. The following are different types of speed workouts that should be incorporated as early as during phase 2 of training:
Flying 30's: Flying 30's are exactly what they sound like - 30-meters of sprinting at your top speed. The way I set-up this workout is by pacing a cone at the starting line, another cone 10-meters later, another cone 30-meters after that, and a 4th cone 10-meters after that. I have my runners start from the first cone and jog until they reach the second cone. From there, they sprint as fast as they can until they get to the 3rd cone (30-meters later) and then they decrease speed into a jog for the remaining 10-meters. In one workout of these, I will have my runners run 8-10 repeats of flying 30's with 4-minutes of recovery in-between each. 4-minutes is an ideal amount of time so that the runner is recovered enough to give an honest all-out effort during each flying 30. This is a go-to workout to help develop acceleration in an athlete. Good acceleration is essential to making a last chance "kick" to the finish or to hold off a runner that is trying to out-kick you during the final moments of a race.
An alternate workout to utilize along side flying 30's that reap the same benefits are hill repeats. These can be ran up 6-10 times depending on the length of the hill. I recommend finding a hill that runners can ideally run up one side and walk down the other side. The focus should be sprinting up the hill, not so much with creating a loop for runners to run up and jog for recovery. I have found more success in creating a 10-day training cycle as opposed to 7-day weeks. With that set-up, I aim to hit flying 30's once during the first 10-day segment, and hill repeats during the second 10-day segment. I then alter back and forth between the two workouts between the 10-day training cycles.
Other workouts to incorporate that focus on anaerobic and speed during your training season:
Early-mid season: The following workouts should be ran at around 800-meter pace with 3-5 minutes of recovery depending on the fitness level of the runner.
7 x 200
2 sets of 3 x 300-meters (8:00 between sets)
6 x 40-seconds (barefoot on turf or grass would be an additional benefit w/this workout to further stregnthen calves)
5 x 400 at 5-seconds faster than mile race pace
2 sets of 5x200 at around 800-meter race pace (30-seconds of recovery during a set and 8-minutes of recovery between sets)
8 x 400 (3-minutes recovery time between each) at 4-seconds faster than mile race pace.
Late season: I save the following workouts for the final 3-6 weeks of the season. By this time the hardwork is done as the runners should be focusing on recovery and the races. The workouts during this final phase of the season serve as tune-ups for the championship races. These workouts are run at close to all-out effort with plenty of recovery in-between each.
3 x 500 (8-minutes of recovery after each)
2 x 600 (12-minutes of recovery after each)
2 x 300 (10-12 minutes of recovery after each) - This workout I would save for during the last 2 weeks or so where I want the runners to feel recovered with the least amount of fatigue afterwards. During the last couple of weeks (the peaking phase) it is paramount to keep an eye of fatigue levels and keeping them minimal, however, it is still important to give runners workout days to keep their competitive edge and you don't want the final weeks to just be easy running.
There are many other workouts that are beneficial and can be utilized, these are just the ones that I tend to utilize. The important thing to consider is the goal of the runner or the team, the fitness level of the runners and the resources/facilities that you have to use. Another thing that I stress is that when it comes down to it, you are not coaching a machine. You are coaching a person and the most important aspect to consider is that person's self-esteem. The real trick is to coach the individual's confidence. Once an athlete believes in themselves, that is when they will be successful. You have to be cautious when developing a training plan to the fact that not every athlete will be able to accomplish the goal of the workout right away and that what works for some, will not work for others. In that right, coaches must be a little creative in their workouts.
An example: Mile repeats tend to be a favorite for coaches...however, if you ask an athlete what their favorite workout is, I'm confident that many will not say that mile repeats are their favorite. A very typical workout for collegiate men is 5 x 1-mile. As a four year member of the St. John's track team, I don't recall Coach Hurt ever giving us 5 x mile repeats. However, we have done 20 x 400 meters or 3 sets of 5 x 500. 3 different workouts that have 1 thing in common, they all equal 5-miles of running. My point is, there are different ways of getting the same goal accomplished in a workout and for the sake of your athletes' mentality, switch up your workouts, don't be too repetitive. Find a creative way to accomplish the same goal and make the training fun for the athlete. When they are having fun and believe in themselves, they will be successful.