Cross Country Training PDF - 5 Weeks of Training for Varsity Runners
If you’re a high school coach, you know that excellent cross country races in October and November are directly related to runners putting in intelligent training in the summer.
I want to help you help your athletes with training that will a) keep them injury-free and b) have them fitter for the first important meet of the cross country season than they’ve ever been. Plus, I want to save you time in planning a progression of training days, which include both a thoughtful warm-up and the post-run strength and mobility you must do to be competitive in this era of high school running.
There is a detailed cross country training PDF at the end of this article with all the training you need for the first five weeks of the summer for an athlete that was running 70-ish minute long runs in track. There is also a plan for kids who join the cross country team having played no other sport, and there is a plan for middle school runners as well.
Read this article first, then you can learn about those plans in these articles – No Prior Training Plan and Middle School Training Plan – in the coming days.
Let’s take a few minutes to go over what we’re aiming to accomplish in the first five weeks of the summer.
The Car Analogy
The best training has its foundation in sound exercise science. While I have a master’s degree in Kinesiology and Applied Physiology, you don’t need one to help your runners race to their potential. But you do need to understand one key point about 5000m cross country races: they are fueled by the aerobic metabolism.
Let me explain...
Think of a high school runner’s body as a car. While the analogy isn’t perfect, it can help you understand some of the keys to consistent improvement.
Distance runners need to build their aerobic engines if they want to race faster. And the reason is simple: what’s known as the aerobic metabolism contributes the majority of the energy that a high school runner’s muscles need to power them around the cross country course.
Take a moment to consider the following table:
There’s a lot going on in this table, but you only need to take away two essential points.
First, every distance a high school runner races – from 5000m (5k) all the way down to 800m – is more aerobic than anaerobic – in other words, the energy system that requires oxygen is doing more of the work than the energy systems that don’t.
Second, the aerobic contributions to performance increase as the distance gets longer, with 5000m cross country races being 95 percent aerobic.
It’s these two points that shape effective training programs for distance runners: your runners need to focus on building their aerobic engines throughout the year because races ranging from 1600m to 5000m are primarily powered aerobically.
To use our car analogy, when you give athletes the right aerobic workouts, they’ll transform their four-cylinder engine into a V-6.
Strengthen the Chassis with Running Specific Strength Training
A car’s chassis is the frame that holds the engine, as well as the other machinery, that makes it move. Using a car analogy, the athlete’s bones are the body’s main structure, and the muscles and tendons, as well as the ligaments and fascia, also form part of the “chassis.” Strengthening each of these is crucial to staying injury-free.
If a coach can help an athlete stay injury-free, with the rare missed day or two here and there, the athlete will race fast, and have fun.
An injured athlete who misses practice and doesn’t get to race isn’t going to have fun.
This is why the best coaches keep the concept of “injury-free” training at the forefront of their minds, and make it the primary goal of a six-month training plan.
The next reason to focus on strengthening the chassis isn’t as obvious.
Young athletes will “build their engines” faster than they can strengthen their chassis. My friend Mike Smith, who coached at Kansas State University and now coaches at West Point, introduced me to this concept when I was coaching at the University of Colorado.
“Metabolic changes occur faster than structural changes,” he explained. And that’s why he had his college athletes do so much work to strengthen all the components of their chassis, work that I had never seen before.
For high school athletes, who are often coming into running with modest athletic backgrounds, their engines can improve dramatically in just a few months. That means they need to spend a significant amount of time strength training, so that both their engines and chassis improve at roughly the same rate. This does not mean they need to go to the weight room, rather they need to follow my progression of post-run strength and mobility routines that start with body weight exercises.
Here’s the deal...
High school runners need to do chassis strengthening work every day that they run.
We’ll do thoughtful post-run work each day immediately after the run or workout, which I’ll explain in a moment.
Let’s move on to the final part of the car analogy...
Rev the Engine Most Days by Running Strides
Staying with the car analogy, it’s important that your athletes “rev the engine” most days by doing strides. A stride is simply a quick, short sprint – anywhere between 70m and 150m – that’s faster than a 5k race pace. There are two simple reasons cross country runners must do strides.
1. Your runners must practice running faster than race pace to internalize that “challenging but doable” effort so it feels realistic when the gun goes off.
2. They must regularly rehearse speeding up – or “changing gears” – if you want them to do the same thing in a race.
One of the biggest mistakes I see coaches make is that they don’t have athletes doing strides on the first day of cross country practice.
We can easily fix that!
Just follow my Progression of Strides for Cross Country which will safely have your athletes running faster than 5k pace in the first weeks of practice. Consistency is key when it comes to strides. So long as athletes show up to most summer training sessions, they’ll be running 800m or even 400m PR pace for short strides when the cross country season starts.
It’s worth saying this once more: You’ve got to assign strides the first day you meet your athletes, and you must make sure you’re safely progressing the intensity of the strides over the course of the summer so that your runners are comfortable running 800m and even 400m PR pace when the season starts.
If you want a bit more detail about the car analogy, you can download three chapters for free and share them with your athletes. The chapters are from Consistency Is Key: 15 Ways to Unlock Your Potential as a High School Runner. Click here!
Now that we know what we’re doing with training, what will practices look like?
Four Elements of Training
The four elements of our training days are...
1. A dynamic warm-up that gets athletes moving in all three planes of motion. This helps prevent injuries, and it elevates their heart rate, which “extends the aerobic stimulus,” a crucial concept I explain below.
2. A run or a workout. I detail all of workouts I use in the summer in this article: 5 Must-Do Cross Country Workouts.
3. Strides. We do strides during every easy run, and every long run. Specifically in the last 20 minutes of a long run and the last 15 minutes or so of an easy run. You’ll need to follow the progression of strides document to ensure kids stay injury-free with this crucial part of training. Get the details in this article: A Progression of Strides for Cross Country.
4. Post-run strength and mobility. I have all the exercises and routines laid out clearly in the PDF below. What you’ll want to do is get access to the videos – click here to get access on your computer. To get the videos on your phone, click this link first, register, then get the app – Apple or Android.
Extending The Aerobic Stimulus
All four of these elements – Warm-up, Workouts, Strides, Post-run Work – need to be done back-to-back-to-back so we can “extend the aerobic stimulus.”
What I mean here is that we simply want to keep their heart rate up as long as possible. If there are no breaks between the warm-up, the workouts or easy run, and the post-run strength and mobility work, we’ll get a long aerobic stimulus, but with a moderate amount of running.
This is a key reason why my system keeps athletes injury-free and helps them run PRs: They get as much or more aerobic benefit from the training days as their competitors, but they do so with less running.
Now, to be clear, I think upperclassmen can run significant volume (mileage) if: (a) they are fired up to run more volume, and; (b) they’ve safely progressed over months and years to bigger volume. But younger runners can run fast with a moderate amount of running so long as they don’t take any breaks between the warm-up, the workout, and the post-run work.
Doing post-run strength and mobility work also helps athletes “build their attention span for hard work,” another concept in Consistency Is Key. Post-run work is hard, and it’s especially hard after workouts. Yet when an athlete can focus and get through this workout with a high level of energy, they’re going to be able to stay focused for both race pace workouts and in races.
Now you have a cross country training plan that will work in any environment.
The Free Cross Country Training Schedule PDF
Here are the first five weeks of the XC Training System training for an athlete that was running roughly 70-minute long runs in March and April in the prior track season. Specifically, we want to take their three longest long runs, average them, then subtract 10 minutes. So, if an athlete ran two 70-minute long runs, and one 72-minute long runs in the track season, we start them on the “LR-60” plan which means “long run 60.”
“But Jay, why are we going backwards with their volume/mileage? Shouldn’t we start with a 70-minute long run in week one?”
Here’s how long the workout day is when we reduce the long run from 70 minutes to 60 minutes...
Warm-up – 13 minutes
Long Run – 60 minutes (and with strides in the last 20 min of the run, which will make the run more challenging)
Post-run – 20 minutes
As long as the runner doesn’t take a break between these three elements, they get an 83-minute stimulus. While the last 5-10 minutes of the post-run work isn’t hard, the first 10 minutes is hard. Trust me, and trust all the coaches who have done the XC Training System: this approach is challenging! As I say in my book, we must “build their attention span for hard work” and this type of days, in the first week of summer training, sets them up to handle hard race pace workout in August.
And 8-10 weeks into the summer this athlete will have stayed injury-free and be running 80-minute long runs. And they’ll be doing longer post run work, which will take at least 25 minutes. Thus, they’ll be working hard for 118 minutes...essentially two hours. Most athletes have interruptions in their summer training, with either a full-blown injury, or a few niggles that cause them to take some days off. In my system athletes eventually get to bigger volumes than they’ve run the prior season with our patient progression of volume (mileage), workouts, strides, and post-run work.
Now, there will be times in the summer where heat and humidity are oppressive, and athletes need to take a quick water break after the run. But think about it: on those days their heart rate stays elevated long after the conclusion of the run. As long as their heart rate is elevated, we’re getting an aerobic stimulus, so this allows for a short water break between the run and the post-run work. Note: athletes don’t need a heart rate monitor, but rather can tell you when they feel decent and can knock out the post-run work.
Tuesday-Friday or Monday-Thursday
I’ve shared two schedules with you, both starting with 60-minute long runs, and both with the same weekly volume.
Most of the time we’re doing a Tuesday workout and a Friday long run. There are 12 training plans for kids ranging from those who come out for the team with “no prior training” to kids who can start with a 75-minute long run in the XC Training System. But there are also coaches who want to have a three-day weekend each week in the summer – which is so smart, given that everyone needs to be fired up when official practice starts in August – so there are several Monday-Thursday training plans (Monday workout and Thursday long run) in the XCTS.
Also in this PDF is the progression of strides document. Additionally, you have the post-run PDFs.
For the post-run work, I use a color progression with Red being the easiest, Orange being a bit harder, Yellow being much harder, and Green being the hardest. The assumption with this athlete is that you likely had them doing some decent core strength and general strength during track. But they’re new to doing post-run work immediately after the run, so that’s why they start with Red in week one. Then in week two they’ll do Orange. There is a chance they’ll be ready for Yellow by week five.
Click here to get the free cross country training schedule PDF.
One final point...
The XC Training System has 24-week plans for every level of athlete on your team. And there are hours and hours of video resources. This PDF is valuable and it’s useful. And...
“I have coached for 25 years, and have tried to stay current on training and coaching methodology throughout my career.
I can confidently say the XCTS is the best value and input I've received in my coaching career and was effective both as far as results and injury prevention.
My 25 runner freshman program was 100% on the "no prior training" XCTS plan and for the first time in my coaching career no athlete was injured during the entire season!!!
The top runner set the school record for the 3K and 5K and the team overall did well by historical standards.
The training system for my varsity was greatly influenced by the XCTS. The 16:09 team average at our Divisional meet was the fastest in school history and every member of our team had a PR at Divisional or States. Injuries were much less frequent.
Overall, the team was in the trainer's room less and was highly competitive in the most competitive division in the state of MA.” - Seth Kirby
"The XC Training System is a game-changer" - Liz Schaffer