5 Ways to Make the Most of Your Cross Country Season

Cross country runners lined up at the start of a race

Cross country season brings dirt paths, hills and long miles. A high school cross country race is 5 kilometers long (5K), which is 3.1 miles.

Cross country is a fun sport in itself, and it’s also a smart way to stay in shape for other sports like soccer, basketball, wrestling and swimming.

Cross country teams become close after bonding over shared miles, and teammates tend to become lifelong friends. Whether you're a veteran cross country runner or planning to run your first season, make the most of your next cross country season with these five tips.

A group of cross country runners together during a race.

#1 Win the War in Your Mind

All sports require mental strength. A sports psychologist, Sylvian Guimond, stated in a Montreal Gazette blog post that athletes’ success is eighty percent mental and twenty percent physical. With that in mind, try these 3 mental exercises before your next cross country race.

  • Positive self-talk can help you reach PRs in your cross country season. If your inner dialogue is negative, it can leave you feeling discouraged and anxious. Instead of thinking “why can't I break seven minutes in the mile?”, try telling yourself “I’m going to improve my form, focus on my breathing and break seven minutes next time.”
  • Race visualization correlates with positive self-talk. Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympic medalist, used sports visualization as part of his mental training. Bob Bowman, Phelp’s coach, instructed Phelps to watch a “mental film” of his races every night before he went to sleep and when he woke up in the morning. Bowman also instructed Phelps to use visualization during training sessions to help Phelps to push harder. You can implement race visualization in your daily routine, training, and meet days to increase your athletic success just like Phelps.
  • Writing down your goals can get you to your personal best at a faster time frame. Psychology professor, Dr. Gail Matthews, at the Dominican University in California, performed a study on goal setting with about 300 participants. The results showed that a person is more likely to achieve their goals when they write them down. Use the SMART strategy (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound) to create your goals for the upcoming cross country season. Try to be positive when creating your goal statement. Instead of writing “I need to run faster so I don’t get last place,” try writing “I want to shed two minutes off of my 5K time so I can contribute more to my team’s success.” Your goal statement should include a reward statement. During my track season, my dessert palette only consisted of two oatmeal raisin cookies a day. When my mom asked me what I wanted after I ran a PR in the 800-meter run, I already had my answer – a cup of Bruster’s ice crea

#2 Simulate the Race Environment

If possible, you should train on the course that you’ll be racing on. If you are unable to train on the actual race course, simulate the course conditions the best way that you can. Practice running on hills, grass, dirt and any other conditions you may come across on race day.

Many cross country races involve fast starts as runners try to get in position. After the commotion, the pace settles. However, a fast start can present challenges to the latter stages of your race. In order to prepare yourself mentally and physically for a fast start, you should replicate it in training. Try including two to three 300-meter race pace efforts at the start of your intervals. These quicker intervals will make the rest of your workout challenging, but it will help your body mitigate the effects of lactic acid.

For more cross-country specific workouts, check out these five runs to get ready for your upcoming season.

Two cross country teammates run during a race.

#3 Practice Technical Skills

Running alone doesn’t give you all that your body needs to perform at your best this cross-country season. Learning how to breathe efficiently allows more oxygen to enter your body and fuel your muscles. Check out this video to learn three key breathing techniques.

Building up your leg and core strength will help you avoid injuries while running faster and more efficiently. Try this ten minute strength and core workout 1-2 times per week to take your training to the next level. This lower body resistance band workout will help you develop strength in your core, hips, hamstrings and other areas of your body to keep you moving forward.

#4 Shift Your Focus

Try to arrive at the race venue early so that you can look at the course beforehand with your coach. Familiarizing yourself with certain parts of the course can help you make decisions about race tactics.

Focus on effort instead of the time on the clock. Each course has a different terrain. Some have more hills than others. Give yourself some grace if you don’t run a PR at every meet.

Maybe your goal for each cross country meet is to prepare you for the championship meet. Perhaps you are using the cross country season to get in shape for your main sport. Nevertheless, when you focus on improving your running techniques and race strategies, you will see progress in your overall performance.

Cross country runners hugging after a race

#5 Prioritize Recovery

It’s important to recover properly after every practice. Recovering means eating well before and after the run and knowing when to take it easy after a tough workout.

Having variety in your workout schedule helps you strengthen different muscle groups and recover muscles that were worked during exercise. For instance, an easy run the day after a speed workout gives your hamstrings time to recover.

Recovery also includes your daily eating habits. Eating whole grains, carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, and protein gives you the proper fuel to tackle your workouts and to recover from them, too. While you exercise, your muscles break down. Proper post-nutrition helps to repair your muscles.

Getting more sleep, stretching, and using massage tools will help you make the most out of your cross country season. Once your season is over, don’t forget to celebrate your accomplishments and take a break from the demands of training.

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