Cross-country running – the concerns and possibilities

Track athletes should regard cross-country season as a chance to build-up general condition, to race as often as advisable, always concentrating on a relaxed running action and getting to enjoy the environment in which they are exercising. Whether it is woods, parkland or rough pasture, it will make a surprising contribution to you development, physically, mentally and technically’ – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard

The year moves into cross-country season and speaking to the runners preparing for the battles ahead I sometimes get the feeling that no one truly likes the discipline. This is not the first time I have encountered this sentiment – I struggle to keep track of the people who curse cross-country or who find it intimidating, painful and just plain no fun at all. There are a few reasons for this and I want to touch on them in this article because I do not think they are unresolvable problems and neither do I believe cross-country quite deserves the poor reputation it has. Mainly we can ‘solve the problem of cross-country’ by becoming aware of the original context of this part of the racing season and what it is intended to achieve. We can learn to use cross-country rather than let cross-country use and abuse us.

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A young author learning about ‘back of the pack’ in early cross-country days

Why is it intimidating?

In the last years I have seen people coming into cross-country for the first time the way I did in 2007. Some took to it with relish but more were pensive about repeating the experience. When brought to my attention I got curious because I knew this was not simply a matter of the events being quite competitive and thus perhaps dispiriting to slower runners whose position at the back of the field becomes much more exposed and visible in a small cross-country field run over several laps.

Exactly this element came up a good bit – a cross-country race makes you feel like you’re in an arena. Shouting and roaring from the side-lines (whether abuse or encouragement – often hard to distinguish) is part and parcel and if you are one of the people still able to take in what happens around you (I am usually not!) you can feel all eyes on you.

Because cross-country introduces a team element people can feel more pressure and more guilt about under-performing than they would running ‘just for themselves’ and thoughts such as ‘I’d feel terrible if I had a bad run costing my team-mates a medal’ are common and understandable. As some of us know from relay racing it is a double-edged sword: this same pressure can stir us on to greater performances than we believe ourselves capable of. Confidence, experience and your exact psychology dictates whether this is a negative or positive.

Pressure – only for tyres?

And the feeling of pressure seems to be the red dot connecting a lot of runners troubled relationship to cross-country. Pressure from coaches, pressure from team mates and pressure from on-lookers – all of this, of course, comes from within ourselves at the end of the day. Today’s ‘fun running culture’ does not prepare most runners very well for this challenge. Since the 1980ies a culture of ‘everyone is a winner’ was implemented likely to get more feet on the street as a means to improve the overall health and fitness of the population. The downside of this trend is that it can fail to inoculate us sufficiently on how to deal with failure – which is after all part of life and something children need to pick up early if they are to grow up as effective adults.

A different type of pressure also makes itself very known in the course of the race itself; the competitive is more incessant and the competitive level fiercer than in almost any road and mountain race most newcomers will have encountered before. Gerry Brady, then High Performance Officer at IMRA, told me in 2007 to ‘run cross-country if I wanted to improve my placings in the hills’. I understood from the very first race why he was right: I was in fact a very poor cross-country runner. It is the discipline that happens to be worst suited to my particular strengths as a runner. Like most I certainly disliked the experience ‘during’ the race (let’s face it: it’s very painful competition!) but I always enjoyed the thought of doing the race and savoured the achievement afterwards even on the many occasions where the result itself was a bit disappointing.

Turning negatives to positives

It did not bring me down or intimidate me for two reasons I hope everyone who has a negative relationship to cross-country can use:

  1. Cross-country is not an end onto itself – it is a tool to improve strength ahead of winter training and the mental and tactical abilities needed to race competitively.
  2. The standard in cross-country is very high. I always felt it was an honour and a privilege to simply be at the starting line even when finishing last as I did in the Dublin Senior Cross-Country in 2008.

A few may pause me here and say ‘what do you mean cross-country is not an end unto itself’. Here I talk about the history of the discipline: traditionally there are very few specialised cross-country runners and instead the discipline serves to prepare for next years track and road events.

The history: cross-country is a tool not an end unto itself

Cross-country serves as a form of neutral ground where road, track and mountain specialists can all meet and test their mettle against each other. Two of history’s greatest coaches – Arthur Lydiard and Percy Cerutty – were both adamant that cross-country should not be treated to seriously and merely was a tool to better winter training before the real target races on road and track in the coming year as the two quotes below demonstrate:

‘Cross-country running is of great benefit to track runners and other athletes as a general conditioner…Cross-country is a good disciplinarian. You will subconsciously control your effort to be more economical and this is probably its greatest asset as an initial general conditioning exercise…The times to run during cross-country racing and training should not be treated with too much importance. Courses and weather and ground condition vary so much from day to day and have such an effect on performance that to try and chart progressive times can only be confusing and misleading. …It is the tough rugged ground with everything underfoot from hard ground to swamps that gives you the benefits you need. * – Arthur Lydiard, Running with Lydiard

* Courses today have often become too fast under the mistaken impression that we are doing athlete’s a favour in making the courses easier. We are in fact allowing faster more sustained running which is detrimental to the type of training that should happen during this type of year not to speak of the softening effect this has on today’s runners.

‘During this period we may race occasionally across country for the sake of interest only, never as a sport in itself. Therefore, I insist that conditioning goes on on the morning of the race almost as normally, and it was the custom, after the cross country race and a short spell, to run over the course a second time for added effort, training or conditioning! We consider a whole day, as we have in Australia, too much time to be wasted on merely one race, and that of no real importance, and providing, more often than not, only thirty minutes’ hard effort, or five miles’ running.

Cross-country can never be more than a part of conditioning, since no true records are possible.’ – Percy Cerutty, Athletics: how to become a champion

After a discussion at our club I decided to reiterate that I could not agree more. Medals and titles in cross-country are purely a bonus. The main thing is that athletes use the fitness and challenges of the races to improve their training and racing for the next year. We are not an American University squad and no one is under any obligation to structure their training around being super-fit for cross-country. They are welcome to do this but can just train through it as Percy Cerutty suggested and let the dice fall where they may.

Where it goes wrong

Coaches have a big responsibility here in remembering that 1) running is in individual sport and the long-term development of the individual athlete must always take precedence over the short-term ambitions of the club and 2) a lot of the perceived pressure comes from the coach, so as a coach you have the power to set the right level of anxiety for the events.

I would prefer people see cross-country as light-hearted* fun. I do believe it is good for the mental development of runners – and even of personalities – to learn to ‘give it their all’ and to experience this pressure which makes the pressure in most other races seem negligible. It is also a great opportunity for people who consider themselves specialists to step out of their comfort zone. The best thing that any runner can do is to thoroughly break down their running ego which is often protected by sentiments such as ‘I am a long distance runner’, ‘I only run for fun’ and so on. Whether these are true or not, they hinder personal growth and they can provide a false sense of self – a fragile confidence that doesn’t bear being challenged.

* A note as this caused a comment: light-hearted means ‘amusing and fun’ not necessarily ‘not taken at all seriously’ or ‘done half-heartedly’.

Reality check?

Cross-country can be a rude wake-up call this way. I have seen runners who did extremely well in smaller road races or hill runs being completely demoralised when they realised just what standard of running is actually available to compete against. It can be a rude wake-up call if these races have made you think you’re probably one of your country’s better runners only to find out you cannot break into the top-200 at a major meet!

On the other hand, I have seen great competitors such as my partner in ChampionsEverywhere – Jason Kehoe – who finished third last in his first cross-country race, yet he’ll be the first man to sign up for the colours every Autumn. It would be easy for Jason to celebrate his wins and top-3 finishes in the hills and to rest on the laurels of having been ‘Irish Champion’ or ‘King of the Mountain’ not exposing himself to the scrutiny of regional, provincial and national quality fields in cross-country. I know he is a competitor who will continue to grow and improve when I see him win a hill race in summer and then unblinkingly accepting finishing half-way down a 400-man strong field at the National Novice cross-country. This means he understands that cross-country is a process and that the high level of competition can be used to become a better runner rather than an intimidating horde to be crushed by.

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Jason Kehoe in action in a cross-country race

Thus I said earlier that I felt privileged to be at the starting line of any cross-country race because I know any athlete who has made it that far has already done a lot more in terms of physical and mental commitment than all the people who are not there.

We grow through some level of discomfort and being challenged where we are not strongest. If we remind ourselves that cross-country is simply a tool to such an end: making each individual tougher for their own personal running goals and ambitions and as individuals and to ensure a better winter training, then we can lift a lot of the pressure. About the expectations of others: I think cross-country offers a perfect opportunity to learn to detach yourself from them. Let others have their expectations: you know what you want to achieve for yourself and you go race so you learn those things.

The collective effort and social aspect of running

Runners can also emphasize the positives: this truly is a unique time to achieve something together rather than only on an individual level and to subordinate personal ambitions temporarily for collective ones. You get the buzz of representing your club as part of a team where you can make the difference between winning and losing even if you have no chance of winning the race yourself. The difference between 44th and 45th could be a medal – any effort is meaningful in this context. I even think cross-country can tell us something about our values as a society. When running is taking to its most negative extreme it becomes a personal obsession purely about satisfying the ego needs of an individual at the expense of the needs of others. This is an extreme but obvious behaviour that, while useful in an individual sport, is not the type of behaviour, we  generally value as a society and in our communities.

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The bright side of cross-country

Cross-country can reflect our more social values as a species: giving up your time, energy and effort to assist a group in achieving a goal even when it is not particularly your goal. I hesitate to use the word ‘sacrifice’ because it too is over-used these days but there is an element of that here. It’s a way to say ‘we’re part of this group and today we give something of ourselves for the group without necessarily receiving a personal return’. A running club is not a nation state and I don’t want to sound like I’m encouraging flag waving and banner rallying. But cross-country races have the potential to strengthen the common identify and the bonds of a club exactly because it is something we do together. It’s very likely that in a team of 4 runners every single one of those 4 runners would rather be doing some other kind of race. But they are there because it’s a chance to show what the group can achieve as a unit rather than individuals.

Side-note: should everyone do it?

Are there people who should not run cross-country? Of course. None of us do athletes a favour by introducing them too early. Fit4Lifers or rank novices need not be thrown to the lions. Little positive will result from a novice athlete trailing in more than half a lap behind the second-last runner or facing the ignominy of being lapped.

The role of each club coach is to ensure people are introduced to it when they are physically and mentally ready. They need not win or even finish top half of the field (not everyone can) but they should not be completely out of their depth.

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The author in action at the Dublin Novice

Next: cross-country in practice

This article is a bit philosophical in nature because I feel the issues people perceive with cross-country have mainly mental and cultural roots and are not so much necessarily intrinsic to the race itself. In my next article I’d like to step back to something a bit more practical: how can you prepare for cross-country in a way that makes you more confident and more likely to succeed. Being confident and well-prepared has a tendency to over-ride almost any other concerns and negative sentiments. It is the uncertainty about whether we will fail or not that plays as a demon in our minds most of the time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Cross-country running – the concerns and possibilities

  1. I see you have included a couple of quotes by Arthur Lydiard. Many (many, many) years ago when I was still living in New Zealand I was fortunate enough to be in a training group coached by Arthur Lydiard, and he had us running cross country all year round. The hillier and muddier the course, the better he always said. I still do it now. One tip from me when training on XC: It is advisable not to wear a HR-Monitor when training on cross country, or if you are, not to look at it until after the session, as it is impossible to train at a controlled HR. I notice when I run with people with HR monitors on XC terrain that they are constantly watching their pulse and holding back because the fluctuations are very extreme. It also takes away from the enjoyment of XC running in my opinion.

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