The Best High School Cross Country Workouts
Cross country is a simple sport, and so it makes sense that cross country runners need fun cross country workouts that they can do in any environment.
I’m going to share the best high school cross country workouts that every cross country runner should run in the summer. Several of these workouts should also be done during the cross country season as well.
This article is primarily for coaches, but any serious high school cross country runner, or parent of a serious runner, will get a lot out of this article (though runners need to consult with their coach before doing these workouts – follow your coach’s plan).
All five workouts “build the aerobic engine,” which is crucial for success in cross country. Ninety-five percent of the energy needed for an athlete to run a 5k cross country race comes from the aerobic metabolism. I explain this in detail in A Comprehensive Cross Country Training Plan – check out that article if you haven’t read it.
I’ve included the table below as a reminder that 5k training differs from 1600m training and 800m training, and that the workouts your athletes need to do to run fast in cross country are different than what your 800m runners need to do in the track season.
Before we start, it’s probably worth mentioning that I’ve had some success coaching cross country...
I’ve coached two different professional US athletes who made the United States national team and ran at the IAAF World XC Championships (both ran for Nike). One of them, Brent Vaughn, won the US championships. I was also an assistant coach for three NCAA Division I National Championship cross country teams – two men’s and one women’s – while coaching at the University of Colorado.
And I was fortunate to be the sixth runner on the team featured in the cult classic Running with the Buffaloes.
This is a comprehensive article, and I’d argue your athletes deserve you taking the time to read it, even if you decide this approach to training isn’t for you...which is fine! I’m not for everyone, though this training works in any environment, for girls and boys, in schools big and small.
The read time is about 25 minutes, which is shorter than virtually every workout you'll assign your varsity runners this season. It’s concise, but we’ll need to go step by step through each workout so you know how to assign them.
Ready to dive in?
Workouts For Cross Country
We’re doing these workouts, which I call "challenging aerobic workouts," to build the aerobic engine. Period. Some of the workouts cross country coaches use are effective, while other workouts - such as "speed work" and "intervals" are less useful when we're trying to build the aerobic engine.
One of the best things about the aerobic metabolism is that a serious runner can build it year after year. We want the new cross country runner to embrace these five workouts as fundamental to their success in cross country over the coming years.
These workouts also “build their attention span for hard work,” a concept from Consistency Is Key: 15 Ways to Unlock Your Potential as a High School Runner. We’ll be careful not to make these workout days too long for the younger athletes. Yet for older athletes, these workouts are essential for building the mental skills needed for the singular task of a cross country race: running fast while being uncomfortable. It takes a great deal of focus to do that, and these five workouts start that process.
Running by Feel Is Crucial for High School XC Runners
All five of these workouts will teach your athletes the skill of “running by feel.”
Every runner needs to hone this skill if they want to stay injury-free, and gain fitness season after season, yet this skill is crucial in cross country.
Unlike a 3200m race where athletes can get accurate splits every 200m and 400m, cross country runners must learn to groove a pace in the first two miles of the race that’s fast, but doable. In the last mile, or the last 800m, athletes need to be able to accelerate. Let’s teach athletes to run by feel in the summer with these challenging aerobic workouts so when the race pace workouts begin, they’re able to execute those workouts well, and then translate that into a well-run race.
Farther or Faster (or both)
Here’s a key concept from Consistency Is Key that you’ll need to teach your athletes for the five workouts to work. Feel free to share this excerpt with your athletes, as it’s phrased for them.
“The consistent runner wants to run hard in workouts, while also holding back a bit. How do you make sure you’re running hard enough to build your engine without running race effort in practice?
You need to finish workouts being able to say one of the following:
“I could have gone farther at the final pace if I had to.”
“I could have gone faster at the end if I needed to.”
You should be able to say something along these lines at the end of almost every workout (the only exception being a time trial, where your coach instructs you to go “all out”).
It’s even better if you can say both – that you could have gone farther and gone faster.
If you can finish a long run, for instance, knowing you could have gone another mile or two at a faster pace than you were running at the end, you have successfully completed a controlled run.
But if you’re unable to go farther or faster after most of your race workouts, you won’t be able to properly practice race effort.
On occasion, you’ll end a workout completely spent, especially if you’re getting serious about training and are motivated to work hard. A dedicated athlete will almost certainly finish a calendar year with one or two workouts that accidentally became race efforts. But don’t let that become your normal.
If your Saturday long run turns into a long race, that’s a more serious problem: your body isn’t mature enough to handle the hard long runs that a collegiate or professional athlete might incorporate. If that happens, it’s not the end of the world; you’ll simply need more time to recover from the intense “stimulus.”
To be clear, if your athletes are going to: (a) stay injury-free, and; (b) keep from overtraining, they need to finish their summer workouts and long runs being able to say either: “I could have run farther” or “I could have run faster.” This terminology needs to be part of your program’s vernacular.
Now let’s talk about the workouts.
How Can I Race Faster in Cross Country? Use a Progression of Workouts.
These five workouts are in the following order/progression for a reason.
Long runs are easier to execute than fartlek runs, fartlek runs are easier to execute than progression runs, etc. When your athletes learn to run by feel in long runs and fartlek runs, the chance that their progression runs go well increases. While we don’t expect a new runner to have these workouts dialed in during the first 2-3-4 weeks of the season, we do expect veteran athletes to be able to run by feel at the end of the summer (assuming they are consistent with their training and follow the progression of workouts you lay out for them).
Rotating through these workouts for a couple of months, coupled with “revving the engine” with strides, will put your athletes in a position to have the best cross country season of their life.
For each workout below I’ll explain the Frequency, Distance or Time, and Intensity. I’ll explain if athletes need to be able to say Farther or Faster (or both). I’ll finish by explaining the most Common Mistakes for each workout, and I’ll share how I use the workout in the XC Training System.
Ready to learn these five workouts?
Long Runs For High School Runners
The long run is one of the best ways to develop your athletes’ aerobic engines. It can be the cornerstone of your training program, or it can be something you assign primarily in the summer and then mostly remove when the cross country season starts.
Most programs have a long run scheduled every seven to 10 days throughout the year. It’s hard to argue why you wouldn’t want a weekly long run most weeks in the summer. The flip side is that coaches can sometimes become dogmatic about the long run and assign it too often during the competitive cross country season (i.e., September through the last meet of the year). A progression run or a 30-90 fartlek, both of which I’ll teach you below, are often better workouts than a long run when athletes need fresh legs to race fast.
Distance or Time
For decades, the common rule of thumb was that a long run should be 20 percent of an athlete’s total weekly volume. The idea was that a runner who ran 40 miles a week would do an 8-mile run, while the 50-mile-a-week runner would do a 10-mile run. Today, however, most successful programs target a long run that’s a bit over 20 percent of the weekly mileage total, with many athletes logging a 9- or 10-mile run as part of their 40-mile weeks (so up to 25 percent).
Some programs will assign target minutes instead of target miles. In a minutes-based program, the rationale is that if an athlete happens to have a tough day, they can still feel good about logging a challenging run as long as they complete the assigned time. On a hot and humid day, running by minutes also makes a lot more sense than running a mileage assignment.
I like to start the season with minutes, and then, if it’s important to the athletes or the coach, use mileage for the assignment.
If you have “historic” courses that athletes from your school have run for years, you can use miles. For instance, if there’s an 8-mile loop and an 11-mile loop, it would make sense for athletes to run minutes until they can run the 8-mile loop. They can run that loop and progressively add minutes to the run over a couple of months until they are ready to run the 11-mile loop.
But, when in doubt, and especially when the weather is hot, assign the long run based on minutes.
The intensity of the long run is going to increase as the run goes on.
The long run will start at an easy pace – a “conversational pace,” where athletes can talk in full sentences. But at the end of the run, they’ll do strides at 5k rhythm during the run. Specifically, your runners will run strides in the last 20 minutes of the long run. Between strides, the athletes need to run the same long run pace they’ve been running (rather than slow down). This means that the intensity of the last 20 minutes of the long run is fairly high. This is not an easy day.
If the assignment was a 70-minute long run, we know that they need to start their strides at the 50-minute mark of the run. I like to see athletes at the 35-40 minute mark of the long run go from running at a conversational pace to running a bit faster. They should still be talking in sentences, but when the strides start, they will only be able to speak in phrases between the strides. Why? They’re running at a much higher heart rate because of the strides, and while their heart rate comes down a bit, it’s still higher than it was at the 30-minute mark of the run.
Now let’s take a quick moment to think about what’s going on mentally for the athlete...
For the runner who’s assigned 70 minutes, they get to the 35-minute mark and they’re only halfway finished and they still must do strides in the last 20 minutes of the run. Then they go immediately into 20 minutes (or more) of challenging post-run work that will “extend the aerobic stimulus.” Our 70-minute-long run is really 90 minutes of intense exercise, with the last 40 minutes being a significant mental challenge.
Here’s another way to look at it: when they’re 35 minutes into the run they still have 55 minutes – essentially an hour – of challenging work ahead of them. This makes the long run the most challenging mental task of the week – it really does “build their attention span for hard work.”
I’m making this point to highlight that if your athletes aren’t jogging in the first half of the long run, they’re going to get a fantastic aerobic stimulus. Should the 70-minute long run athlete speed up a bit at the 35-minute mark? Sure – that'd be ideal. But so long as they aren’t jogging, they get in the strides in the last 20 minutes, then they go immediately into their post-run strength and mobility work, they’re going to get in a great workout physically and mentally.
Farther or Faster (or both)
Every long run should end with the athlete saying, “I could have run 10 more minutes, not a problem.” And the athlete should also be able to say: “I could have run 10 more minutes and sped up. It would have been hard, but I could have done it.”
With the long run the athlete needs to be able to say they could have gone both farther and faster.
When an athlete can say this, then we know they’ve run a controlled workout. To be clear, this long run will not have been easy, but it also wasn’t a race effort.
Something that’s common in the first couple of long runs of the summer that may seem like a mistake, but it’s not, is not running the second half of the long run a touch slower than the first half (a positive split).
This typically happens when an athlete must slow to a jog between the strides in the last 20 minutes of the run. That’s fine! Remember that the athlete is learning to “run by feel” and part of that learning process is misjudging the pace they can run the first two-thirds of the run.
The good news is that athletes will quickly learn what rhythm/pace they need to run in the first two-thirds of the run so that they can execute this workout. So, make sure you give new athletes/young athletes plenty of grace with their pacing in the first few long runs of the year. And if this means having them run much slower for the first half of the run, which then allows them to run the last 20 minutes faster (and running their strides with good posture), let them do that. My experience is that after just a couple long runs, most athletes will be able to negative split their long runs.
The biggest mistake with the long run is that the coach or athlete doesn’t look at it as one of the most challenging workouts of the week.
We’re doing a long run because it’s one of the most effective ways to develop the aerobic metabolism, and we’re doing it because it “builds their attention span for hard work,” which translates into being able to handle the challenges of racing.
The other mistake is – when the weather allows – not going immediately into the post-run work following the long run.
When an athlete does this, they “extend the aerobic stimulus” and, in just one training session, gain fitness. You can learn more about the “extending the aerobic stimulus” concept in the Comprehensive Cross Country Training Plan.
XC Training System
We do a weekly long run in the XCTS during the summer. When the season starts, depending on how many races an athlete is running, we’ll pick our spots for a weekly long run. Then we will often cut it out of the training earlier in the year than most coaches do.
The reason is that we need athletes to have fresh legs to race fast, and the one issue with the long run is the number of days it may take an athlete to have “fresh legs.” We’re still committed to building the aerobic engine during the cross country season, but we’ll use progression runs and 30-90 fartlek’s (which I’ll explain in a moment) to do that.
That was a lot of information about one workout! We’ll spend a bit less time on the other workouts.
Fartlek Workouts for High School XC
Fartlek is a Swedish term that means “speed play” and there is little doubt that fartlek training is a simple and effective way to gain fitness.
A “true” fartlek is a workout where the athlete is oscillating between multiple paces. We’ll simplify things and go back and forth between just two efforts. We’ll have an “on” portion and a “steady” portion. The crux of our fartlek workout is that the “steady” portion is faster than your athlete’s easy run pace.
To simplify things, we’ll use 5-minute segments. The workouts will be at least 15 minutes and could be as long as 40 minutes.
We’ll start doing 2 minutes on/3 minutes steady. A couple of weeks later you can have kids do 3 minutes on/2 minutes steady. This change is significant and is much more challenging than the first fartlek workout. We won’t do 4 minutes on/1 minute as this is a killer workout and by the time an athlete can handle this, we’re better off doing some 5k race pace workouts.
This is our first workout where the skill of running by feel is crucial. In fact, many runners won’t be able to execute a fartlek workout the right way in their first (or second) attempt. The reason is that learning how fast they should run during the on portion and then running a solid steady portion (and not slowing to easy running pace) is challenging.
You are not going to assign paces, but rather you’ll give these two guidelines. Tell them...
Steady is a pace that is faster than your easy run pace. But just a touch faster.
Let’s dial in the steady pace first, and keep the on portion very controlled. Today, the on portion should be just slightly faster than the steady portion. I’m looking for a very subtle increase in pace.
After a couple of sets, you can gently speed up the on portion. You’ll probably be running closer to the pace you could run today for a 5k cross country race.
Please don’t look at your watch to see what pace you’re running. Just use your watch to time the segments.
This workout is simple conceptually, but it’ll take a few attempts to learn how to dial it in.
Again, the key today is to keep the on portion “controlled.”
Fartlek workouts are so effective that doing them weekly all summer would be sound. We won’t do one weekly in the XCTS, but the workout is extremely effective, and is underutilized by coaches (because it’s so simple?).
In the first and third week of practice in the XC Training System I assign a fartlek workout, then we sprinkle them in the training throughout the rest of the summer. I tend not to use them during the season, as we’re racing, we’re doing race pace workouts, and when we can we’ll get in a progression run or a 30-90 fartlek. But in the summer, a fartlek is a staple workout.
Distance or Time
Fartleks are always run by time in my system. A new athlete might do 1 minute on, 2 minutes steady, and do that for just 12 minutes. An upperclassman can get a fantastic workout from 30-40 minutes of 3 minutes on, 2 minutes steady.
We covered what “steady” and “on” feel like above. What your athletes need to understand is that this workout is hard. They should finish saying...
Farther or Faster (or both)
“I had one more 5-minute set in me, but I don’t know if I had two.”
A fartlek workout should be so challenging that they could have run a bit farther, but not much farther. We don’t need them to say they could have gone faster. We’d rather them finish saying they could have done 1 more set, no problem, and kept the steady portion truly steady.
This one is simple: running easy or slow on the steady portion. The crux of this workout is running steady between the on portions. A motivated athlete is going to want to run faster during the on portion; the key is that they need to run steady and not easy when the on portion ends.
When an athlete can execute 25 minutes or more of fartlek running, they are internalizing what it means to run by feel. And that’s why it’s such a powerful workout: the athlete gains fitness while learning a crucial skill.
XC Training System
As I said above, we’ll do this workout the first week of training, then do it throughout the summer. A coach in the XCTS can replace any challenging aerobic workout with a fartlek if their team decides they really like them.
Use Progression Runs In Cross Country (rather than Threshold Runs)
I love progression runs for three reasons...
1. They’re a great way to build the aerobic engine.
2. They’re fun for your athletes because they’ll be running fast at the end of the workout.
3. To properly execute these workouts and run progressively faster as the workout goes on, your athletes will need to be running by feel.
And it's my experience that progression runs are easier to teach athletes than threshold runs.
Threshold runs for cross country runners are fine, but as John Sipple, the boys coach at Downers Grove North (IL), a coach who has had a team finish fourth at NXN, told me, "It's hard to get high school kids to learn how to run threshold runs properly." Trust me on this: lots of progression runs during the year, where athletes finish saying, "I could have run a few more minutes" will build the aerobic engine just as well as a weekly threshold run will.
These workouts can be done every other week in the first month or two of the summer. In the past years I’ve replaced some long runs during the competitive season (September-December) with progression runs for the simple reason that kids get a great aerobic stimulus, they have fun, and their legs are fresher 48 hours after the run.
Distance or Time
Progression runs can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as 60 minutes, but for the majority of your runners, they’ll be between 20 and 30 minutes. We’ll always run for time and not distance.
The instructions will be to start at a steady pace, and then speed up. For a 20-minute progression run you’ll write...
10 min steady, 5 min a touch faster, 5 min faster but controlled.
A 15-minute progression run might be the assignment for a new runner, yet an upperclassman might have a 30-minute progression run.
Here’s five different progression run assignments:
- 15 min: 5 min steady, 5 min a touch faster, 5 min fast but controlled
- 20 min: 10 min steady, 5 min a touch faster, 5 min faster but controlled
- 25 min: 10 min steady, 5 min a touch faster, 5 min a touch faster, 5 min faster but controlled
- 30 min: 10 min steady, 10 min a touch faster, 5 min a touch faster, 5 min faster but controlled
- 35 min: 10 min steady, 10 min a touch faster, 5 min a touch faster, 5 min a touch faster, 5 min faster but controlled
Farther or Faster (or both)
All the athlete needs to say when they finish the workout is that they could have run a little farther at the final pace. The young athlete needs to be able to say they had 2-3 minutes, while older athletes should have had 5 minutes more in them when they finish. Why is this important? Because the most common mistake athletes make with progression runs are...
The most common mistake is that athletes let the progression run turn into a race. That’s a problem because a young athlete, whose longest race distance is 5k, should not be running a 3-5 mile race in practice. But if they pay attention to how this workout is worded, with the last segment being “5 min faster but controlled” they’ll be fine. So long as they’re finishing the workout at a controlled pace, you can both be sure that it wasn’t a race effort.
If an athlete accidentally runs too hard in a progression run and it becomes a race, simply make sure to give them one more day of recovery. That should allow them enough time to fully recover and be ready for the next workout.
XC Training System
We alternate between progression runs and fartlek runs in the first four weeks of training (along with a weekly long run) with the hope that by week five the athlete has a good understanding of running by feel. As I’ve said above, there will be times in the XCTS where we do a progression run rather than a long run. These adjustments matter. When coaches say that the XCTS is a “game changer,” it’s these adjustments – which ensure that athletes are ready to race fast mid-season and late-season – that are helping coaches in the XCTS beat their rivals.
Even if you don’t join me in the XCTS, know that a progression run is a powerful tool you can employ throughout the year.
Aerobic Repeats A Great Summer Cross Country Workout
The goal with these repeats is to run longer repetitions, while keeping the repetition fueled almost exclusively by the aerobic metabolism. We want athletes to run the fastest pace possible, for several minutes, without producing lactate. If they feel the telltale signs of lactate production – burning lungs, burning legs, a metallic taste in their mouths – then they’re running these too fast.
This workout requires a “date pace” effort. “Date pace” effort is the speed an athlete could run a 5k cross country race on the day of the workout, not their goal 5K pace (i.e. what they’ll be able to run in October or November).
The workout will be 4 minutes at 5k date pace effort, followed by 3 minutes easy (not steady). Athletes will do between 3 and 5 repetitions, before moving on to 5-minute and 6-minute repetitions later on. If this looks like a hard workout, it is, yet the athletes get to run easy, or even slow to a jog, between the repetitions.
This is all run by feel and the reality is that most kids are going to run a little slower than 5k date pace. That’s fine – we just want them to run longer reps and get them ready for the race pace workouts that will be coming later in the summer.
This is a workout we’ll do after having done fartlek workouts and progression runs a few times. But, we don’t need to wait too long into summer cross country training to do these, for the simple reason that kids really like them.
Distance or Time
We always do these based on time, but if we looked at the math here, an athlete who runs 20 minutes for 5k and is doing aerobic repeats that are 4 minutes in duration, is essentially running repeat 1ks. But don’t try to translate this workout into distances, just assign the workout based on time.
We’re aiming for 5k date pace effort, and we’re not letting them look at their GPS to see what pace they’re running during these segments.
Farther or Faster (or both)
Athletes need to be able to say they could have done one more 4- or 5-minute repetition, but that they might have needed more rest. They could say they would have needed as much as 5-6 minutes of rest. They do not need to be able to say they could have run faster, just that they could have run farther.
To be clear, this is a hard workout, and a well-run aerobic repeats workout will have your athletes finishing saying, “I’m glad I’m done!”
The biggest mistake is that athletes run too fast on the first two repetitions. But again, we’ll only be 5-6 weeks into the season when they do this workout, and that means that they won’t have dialed in running by feel yet. If this happens, don’t be concerned, and make sure to tell your athletes that you’re proud of them for running hard. To set them up for success, tell them to run the first repetition very controlled – slower than what they could probably run in a 5k cross country race, and then tell them on the second and third repetitions they could speed up a bit.
XC Training System
This is a workout we’ll use mid-summer and late summer in the XCTS. It’s a “bridge workout” to the race pace workouts, and it’s a workout that is mentally challenging. By the time you’ll get to the point in the XCTS where you’ll do this workout, your kids will be ready to both run hard in the workout, and then go straight into the post-run work to “extend the aerobic stimulus.”
A Great Cross Country Fartlek Workout: The 30-90 Fartlek
Kids get to run 5k race pace or faster, while slowly getting more and more fatigued, and therefore simulating what they’ll have to do in a cross country race.
The workout is simply 30 seconds at 5k goal pace rhythm – don't have them look at their GPS watch to see what pace they’re running – followed up immediately by 90 seconds of easy running. We call it a fartlek because we’re playing with speed, yet the 30 seconds is much faster than what they ran earlier in the summer, and the 90 seconds is easy pace running, not steady running.
While we don’t do this workout until mid-summer, it’s a wonderful workout to use in the middle of the season when you want a challenging aerobic workout, but want to keep the volume low. And kids love this workout, and it’s a great one to use when you need a short practice.
Distance or Time
These are always time based, and the sets are 2 minutes. We’ll start with as little as 16 minutes, and could go as high as 40 minutes, though I rarely have athletes, even those who are running 13 miles or more for their long runs, go over 36 minutes.
These 30 second portions are the fastest they’ve run in an aerobic workout all year.
Let’s say an athlete has 24 minutes for their assignment, which is twelve 30-second repetitions. They’ll be fatigued after six or seven, so the last part of the workout will be challenging. And an athlete can always speed up the 90-second portion, which many older, fitter athletes do.
They will get into a groove with the 30 second portions in the first half of the workout. Once they feel comfortable with those, they’ll squeeze down the pace of the 90-second “easy” portions so they become a combination of easy and steady...or as we said during my collegiate years, “steasy.”
Farther or Faster (or both)
Athletes need to finish saying they had two more 2-minute sets in them, so a total of 4 more minutes of running. Now, they might say, “I would have been running all out – practically racing – to be able to do two more sets” and that’s fine. So, they’ll finish their assignment with more left in the tank.
The reason they need to be very controlled with their effort is that this is the most running they’ll have done that’s faster than their current 5k date pace. While this is a faster day, it must be a controlled day.
As with all the workouts, starting the workout too fast – specifically, running the first two or three 30-second portions too fast – is the most common mistake.
As with the aerobic repeats workout, tell the athletes to run the first few repetitions conservatively to get a feel for the workout, then they can run faster. By the time we get to this workout, most runners will have at least a 20-minute workout, so they’ll have ten chances to run 30 seconds. If running the first two to four very repetitions at a comfortable pace allows them to run faster for the rest of the workouts, that’s fantastic.
XC Training System
I love this workout. When coaches email me during the season (which is part of the XCTS – priority email support) we often will use this workout in place of a race-pace workout.
Too often coaches make the mistake of “sticking to the plan” they wrote in the summer. Yet when the team is obviously fatigued in September or October, they still want to do a race pace workout. This workout is a great replacement for a race pace workout because it gets kids running faster than race pace, so they’ll feel comfortable in the race, yet it’s a workout they’ll recover from within 48 hours.
I didn’t use this workout in my coaching a few years ago, and now it’s a versatile workout that can be used both in the summer and during the competitive season. It’s a good one!
I Want These Workouts for My Program!
Great! I want you to have them.
Here’s what I’ve done...
You can get the XC Essentials Training. You’ll get access to:
- Daily training for six different levels of runners, including training for kids with “no prior training” who are just coming out for the team.
- Warm-up video that you can watch on your phone
- Post-run routines for each training day, with video examples of each exercise
- Concise video explaining how each of the 15 points in Consistency Is Key apply to summer training
- Progression of Strides PDF
- PDF of this article and the Comprehensive Cross Country Training Plan
Share your email here and I’ll send this to your inbox immediately.
XC Training System (XCTS)
If you want to take your program to the next level, take some time to check out the XC Training System. It’s a game changer, and it’s helped both veteran coaches and relatively new coaches take their program to the next level (and yes, for some coaches that has meant using the XC Training System and going on to win a state title in cross country).