A Progression of Strides for Cross Country
What are strides? And why do cross country runners need to run strides to race faster?
Give me a few minutes and you’ll have the answer to both questions.
A Stride is a Quick, Short, Controlled Sprint
A stride is simply a quick, short, controlled sprint — anywhere from 70m to 150m — that’s faster than your race pace and much faster than your training paces. To be clear, this is not all out sprinting, but it’s also much faster than your easy run pace. In my coaching we’re often doing strides in the last 15-20 minutes of easy runs and long runs, so a stride at 5000m pace is a dramatic change in pace on those days.
When the cross country season starts you may have some easy days where you spike up and run faster on grass or on the track, mimicking running 5k cross country pace, then speeding up. But for the first several weeks of summer cross country training you’ll be doing strides as part of the run. I’ll explain the rationale for this shortly.
Let's take 20 seconds to review why you need to do strides to run fast in cross country, using the car analogy chapters from Consistency is Key: 15 Ways to Unlock Your Potential as a High School Runner. The analogy is that you, the runner, are like a car, and we need to do the following so you can race fast in cross country.
1. Build the Aerobic Engine
2. Strengthen the Chassis
3. Rev the Engine Most Days
We’re building the aerobic engine with challenging aerobic workouts.
We’re strengthening the chassis with post-run strength and mobility work every day that we run.
And we’re “revving the engine” with strides almost every day we run.
I’d love for you to have these three chapters from Consistency Is Key for free. Share your email and I’ll send it to you immediately.
“Why Do I Need to Run Strides?”
From Consistency Is Key...
“When I talk to high school athletes about training, and we look for places where they can make simple adjustments right away, I find it’s this revving the engine concept that’s most often missing.
While many athletes do strides one or two days a week during their season, they aren’t doing them most days that they run.
You need to incorporate strides if you want to race to your potential.
There are two simple reasons: You have to practice running faster than race pace to internalize that ‘challenging but doable’ effort so it feels realistic when the gun goes off. And you must regularly rehearse speeding up—or ‘changing gears’—if you want to do the same thing in a race.”
This is important – you need to internalize these two reasons for doing strides.
1. You need PR cross country pace to feel comfortable. When you do strides at 1600m pace or 800m pace, 5k race pace feels easy.
2. You need to be able to speed up in the last 1000m, 800m, 400m, and 200m of the race if you’re going to PR.
If you’re going to race fast in cross country, you need to be able to “groove race pace” and then you need to speed up at the end of the race! A commitment to running strides most days will empower you to do both when the season starts.
Now let's talk about the mistakes most high school runners make with strides.
Running Strides – Three Common Mistakes
More Consistency Is Key...
“Athletes typically have one of several problems with strides.
First, they don’t do them the first day of summer training. Instead, they wait a week or two, and then add them to the mix.
Second, if they do strides the first day of summer training, they don’t have a progression in mind. For example, in three weeks’ time, do you run more strides, do you run longer strides, do you run faster strides, or do you do some combination of these three variables? The key is to plan out a progression for revving your engine.
Third, some athletes are afraid that if they run fast in the summer (or in the winter, as they prepare for outdoor track), they’ll ‘peak’ too early.”
You’re going to do strides the first day of summer practice.
I’m about to give you a progression for those strides, one that will increase the chance that you stay injury-free.
This last point is important:
You will not “peak” too early in your cross country season if you run strides the first day of practice.
In fact, the opposite is true:
If you fail to follow a progression of strides, one that has you running 5k pace the very first day of summer practice, you won’t be ready to run strides at 800m and even 400m pace when official practice starts in August.
Said another way, in a close race, when team points are on the line, you’ll need that extra gear to beat people near you, or run down an athlete or two in front of you. Doing strides in week one of practice sets you up to do that in October and November.
A Progression of Strides for Cross Country
The following progression of strides is for cross country runners training in the summer.
- The assumption is that you’ll do this assignment at least two days a week, and as many as five days a week.
- You’ll want to do at least one week of strides at a given assignment before you move to the next one. Often, you’ll need a couple weeks before you move on to the next strides in the progression.
- If you miss practice for a week, you must not advance to the next level of strides as the chance for injury increases.
- To start the season strides are based on effort, so you don’t need to time them (nor should you time them). Later in the progression it’ll be helpful to time your strides.
- You should be using date pace for the track distance assignments – the pace you could race today. That said, it never hurts to get closer to next track season’s goal pace for 800m and 400m when you’re in the last two phases of this progression.
Here’s the progression. Again, do each one for at least a week before moving on to the next one.
- 4 x 20 seconds at 5k effort.
- 5 x 20 seconds at 5k effort.
- 5 x 20 seconds starting at 5k effort and squeezing down the pace to 3200m effort.
- 5 x 20 seconds starting at 5k effort and squeezing down the pace to 1600m effort. I recommend 5k, 5k, 3200m, 3200m, 1600m for the five repetitions, but simply run by feel and don’t time these.
- 6 x 20 seconds at 3200m effort down to 1600m effort.
- 6 x 20 seconds — 2 at 3200m, 2 at 1600m, 2 at a slower 800m effort.
- 3 x 25 seconds — 5k/3200m/1600m effort, then 3 x 20 seconds at a slower 800m effort. You can take as much recovery time as needed to be able to run with good posture and good rhythm on the 800m effort strides. Note: This is a great day to start transitioning into spikes – you can run the first three in trainers, change into spikes, then run the last three in spikes.
- 3 x 25 seconds at 1600m effort, then 3 x 20 seconds at a solid 800m effort. Again, this is a great opportunity to change shoes between the two sets of strides.
Note: Boys who can run well under 2:00 in the 800m can do 15-17 second strides rather than 20-second strides, as this will be roughly 100-115m. Conversely, a coach might want this athlete to get a bit more volume with this progression. The 1:58 runner would get in roughly 135m for each 20-second stride, and that might be ideal – more volume for the older, fitter athletes.
Don’t Make This Mistake with the Progression of Strides
A key mistake I see athletes make with strides is pushing through the assignment when they feel less than 100 percent.
If after two strides you feel horrible, yet the assignment is for six (and you need to speed up too!) you’re better off just running 1-2 more at the same pace and calling it a day.
As I often say...
When In Doubt, Do Less. #WIDDL
This won’t happen very often, but a handful of times each season it’s going to make sense to shut things down early, and, as my college coach would say, “live to fight another day.”
Another way to think about it is that you’re fit and healthy and it would be a mistake to “push through” when you feel horrible.
If you’ve read this far into the document, you’re serious about being better, so motivation isn’t the issue. The key for someone as motivated as you is to be smart about your training and have the humility to call it a day a couple times a year when you're feeling horrible.
Summary and Next Steps
A stride is simply a quick, short, controlled sprint — anywhere from 70m to 150m — that’s faster than your race pace and much faster than your training paces.
Strides make 5k cross country pace feel easier, and they empower you with the ability to speed up in the final minute of the race.
You’re going to do strides the first day of summer practice to race fast in the fall, and you’re going to follow a progression of strides to stay injury-free.
On a day when you’re feeling tired after the first couple of strides, you’ll either shut it down or do two more strides, and call it a day.
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