One of the oldest types of sporting competition consists of running between two places over whatever terrain existed between them. In the modern age, this type of competition has evolved into a separate sport we now call cross-country. Over the past 100 years or so, the majority of the best middle- and long-distance track athletes and road runners have incorporated winter cross-country events into their preparations for races in their primary discipline later in the year, as a means to develop running-specific strength.
Okay, so what’s the connection to multisport? Well, if you accept that the run in a triathlon of any distance is a strength-endurance event, then there are important similarities between the triathlon run and cross-country. So spending a bit of time running cross-country—either on your own or in a local race series—this winter will pay dividends come the triathlon season. Here are a few tips to help you get off-road this winter and then transfer the benefits to the road in the spring.
Strength: Although cross-country courses have become more user-friendly (read less extreme and elitist) over the past few years, they are still typically more challenging than running on the road, since hills and soft running surfaces require greater strength and endurance energy than road or track courses of equal length. Also, cross-country runners often develop a high level of mental toughness—just what you need to race well off the bike in a triathlon.
Running technique: To run effectively on rough, muddy terrain, you need to have an effective, economical stride. Runners who over-stride tend to have a low cadence and apply a great deal of force down to the ground, expending excess energy and beating up their legs. An economical cross-country technique mimics the economical run technique triathletes should also practice: light landing, minimal time on the ground, a shorter stride and a higher cadence. This type of running helps reduce energy expenditure and enhances running economy.
Amplify the volume, not the injuries: Training between November and April is often referred to as the base or general preparation period (GPP). It is characterised primarily by a steadily increasing volume of moderate-intensity aerobic training, with a little event-specific strength work to prepare the body for formal high-intensity workouts to come. Running injuries occur most frequently during periods of increasing volume. Cross-country running provides the event-specific strength work you need in the GPP while reducing your injury risk through variation. As you adapt to the changing terrain, you subject your muscles to less-repetitive actions—something that contributes to overuse injuries.
Transition to triathlon running: After spending a few months training and racing off-road you will find you are strong and fit and quite probably a bit faster than you were before. However, running on rough terrain is different from road running, and many triathlon run sections take place on roads that demand running with rhythm and a consistent stride. To regain that rhythm and stride consistency, integrate a few technique-focused workouts toward the end of your base phase. For example, after an appropriate warm-up, run 20 x 400 meters at 10K race pace, with 30 seconds of active recovery after each. Focus on maintaining a consistent rhythm and staying as relaxed as possible. Make sure you stick to your goal pace—the goal of this workout is to cover the distance and maintain your pace while expending as little effort as possible and staying relaxed as possible.
Training for and racing cross-country events this off-season can be a fantastic way to boost your run fitness during the GPP while also providing a healthy competitive outlet. It will develop a great deal of strength and mental tenacity that should serve you well once you get back into your racing flats in the spring.