Often on the roads you see runners who are barely moving their arms at all. They don’t lift their knees very much, either. They don’t develop much strength that way. But at times, cross country can be like running with a weight on your back. You really have to work with your legs. They can feel like they’re about to buckle underneath you! Whereas on the road you can usually just patter along. Your legs might start to feel dead, but they don’t buckle.
Sometimes in cross country, you do a jump or you’re running up a hill, and you’re not sure if you’re going to stumble. Or maybe you’ve picked up a lot of mud on your shoes and they feel as heavy as rocks. Either way, you’re building enormous strength: The hills and mud develop power and resilience in your calves, hamstrings, and quads. The uneven ground strengthens your feet and ankles.
Keeping your balance through all the twists and turns and dips is tremendous for your core strength. The challenging terrain makes you lift your knees, and that works your abdominal muscles and improves your technique, or your skill—another of the five S’s. And the remorseless cycle of stress and recovery as the hills roll by will do wonders for your stamina—yet another of the Ss.
Beyond that, the soft, forgiving, even sticky surfaces, not only increase resistance, making you stronger, they also reduce the jarring effect on your body. When something makes you work harder yet reduces your risk of injury, that’s a good workout.
Because you’re forced to work much harder in cross country, you get more out of breath than you do on the roads. Your heart rate goes up more, too. And that’s a huge benefit. Off-road racing is a very effective way to develop your cardiovascular system, producing a powerful heart, an efficient set of lungs, and a dense network of capillaries to transport oxygen to the muscle fibres.
And it makes you stronger upstairs, too.
Cross country racing is a superb way to develop determination and stickability, pushing back against that final limiting factor—psychology. The mental strength that cross country develops will help you in any kind of race you try.
Just as the physical stresses are tougher in cross country racing, so are the mental stresses. Many’s the time you’ll say to yourself, ‘If I can just get up this hill without stopping!’ At this stage you’re not even thinking about whether you can finish the race. Maybe you’ll think about that when you get to the top of the hill. For now, you’re just seeing if you can make it up this one hill without walking. That’s really quite tough—you don’t usually get that feeling in a road race!
But you adapt to psychological stresses just as you do to physical ones—by getting stronger. When you do make it to the top of that god-awful endless hill, you will have reinforced and improved your toughness. With every success you’ll become more confident. When you experience those feelings where it all hangs in the balance and you’re in danger of losing heart, but in the end overcome that nagging voice urging you to give up, your self-esteem gains a real boost. The battle’s against yourself and the conditions, not just your rivals: It’s good character-building stuff!
I think runners who’ve done cross country have the sort of strength necessary to cope when the going gets tough on the roads or the track. Because endurance running is largely about how you cope with these feelings. Mental strength is not about being fitter than the other guy; it’s about stickability and learning to suffer and dig deeper. When you overcome these hardships, you develop the confidence, the drive, the fierceness, and the aggression to really get the most out of all the physical training you’ve done.
And I think that’s brilliant! The sense of achievement and the satisfaction you get from having strained sinews and limbs to the limit is fantastic.
In all those ways and more, cross country helps you improve, whatever your goals. Unfortunately, there are people—some of them, I’m sorry to say, involved in British athletics—who don’t seem to recognise the enormous value of cross country, and consider it to be a bit of a sideline to ‘real’ athletics. Britain used to have a great cross country heritage: After all, splashing through the mud is a very English sort of sport. But unfortunately, over the last 25 years or so, the sport’s administrators and coaches seem to have conspired to devalue its importance.
A lot of the coaching has been done by people who never ran cross country themselves. And the perceived wisdom has been that cross country running develops plodders, not track runners. ‘To beat the best runners and run fast on the track’, they say, ‘you shouldn’t practice running on slippery, soft, slow surfaces.’
And they’d point to people like Dave Bedford, Dave Black, Steve Jones, Bernie Ford, and me and say we were all plodders. Well, that’s quite a put-down. If we were plodders, we were extremely fast plodders!
Part of the problem was the hectic schedule of races, which delayed our preparations for the track season. The National Cross Country Championships, then held in the first week of March, was a very important race—one most runners couldn’t afford to miss. It was the race used to select the team for the World Cross Country Championships three weeks later.
And getting to the World Cross was a big deal. It was arguably the hardest title of all to win. Because among the entrants you had all the 5,000-metre runners, all the 10,000-metre runners, all the marathon runners, all the steeplechasers, and all the cross country specialists—all competing in that one race. In the Olympics, they’re spread out between five events. So the World Cross was absolutely the world championship of distance running.
But if you got to the World Cross, it probably did distract you and delay your preparations for the track. It really entailed trying to peak twice, once in March and then again in June or July. And to fight your way onto the British track team, which was very difficult in those days, meant you had to be pretty fit by the end of May, as well. That left a quite a short time to make the transition.
However, the World Cross is generally run on a smooth, fast course and the answer, really, was to train for it like a track race.
But of course Britain has a bit of a problem with its weather, and even if we hadn’t been preoccupied with cross country races, it would have been too cold here to do hard, fast speedwork. Preparing for a track-type race in March is difficult if you’re in Britain. Warm-weather training camps can be very beneficial. I know they were for us. Otherwise, it can be hard to compete with the Kenyans and the other Africans. They’re undoubtedly training in warm weather, and they might be finding it easier to get that speed in their legs.