Knee-high mud, driving rain, howling wind and numb hands form many people's memories of cross-country running at school. But despite this unappealing recollection, cross-country is the training backbone for many of our most successful distance runners - from Mo Farah to Paula Radcliffe - and the benefits for track and road runners are manifold.
Farah, who bagged gold in the European Cross-Country Championships in 2006 and silver in 2009, recently became the first athlete in 20 years to win the 10,000m and 5000m European track titles. "I usually take part in cross-country races during the winter to help my preparations for the major championships," says Farah. "Cross-country is a tough discipline as courses can be hilly, muddy or even snow-covered. But it makes you strong and it's a great way to progress your training."
The sport's history is rooted in a traditional paper chase race, with 'hares' laying a trail and the pack following. Although paper chases continued well into the 20th century, reduced access to land and the problem of litter led to their demise, and the races we see today began to grow in popularity. The earliest records show that cross-country running began in the mid 19th century.
Before long, clubs were being formed and races run throughout the country, with the first national cross-country championship held in 1876. Now, in England alone, there are over 900 clubs registered with a cross-country discipline, and more and more runners are reaping the rewards of this winter training.
Nick Anderson, former UK Athletics head coach for cross-country (runningwithus.com), says endurance is greatly enhanced by the discipline: "The undulations and hills power up your legs, and having to cope with the differing pace caused by changes in terrain gives your heart a boost."
The discipline also builds lower leg strength. "Your foot mark changes with every step because the ground is uneven and sometimes very unstable, too," says Anderson. "It means lower limbs and stabilising muscles become very strong, and you develop a greater ability to absorb shock. Keeping the momentum going on a soft surface is hard work, so you are building muscles that will give you great strength and power."
George Gandy, director of athletics at Loughborough University, adds that cross-country can increase your core strength. He explains that despite being on substantial conditioning programmes, the athletes he works with still feel the effects of a tough cross-country race. "Every part of their bodies will ache after the finish," he says. "That tells you that even if you do your planks and all the core stability work you could imagine, you will not be able to condition yourself adequately enough for it."
One of the greatest challenges of cross-country is the ability to keep a constant speed on ever-changing terrain. And while Gandy maintains that no amount of core strength training can properly condition runners to breeze through their first cross-country effort, he agrees that working on improving this crucial area can certainly aid posture when running over uneven ground, resulting in a more relaxed running style. A strong core will allow a runner to conserve more energy than someone who is having to work harder to maintain grip and balance on steep and often slippery slopes.
"Some runners lean into descents and go with the flow, while others will be 'pecking back' at it, chopping their strides short as they go down," explains Gandy. "The stronger, better equipped athletes will survive because they can run over that surface with a measure of relaxation."
The payoff for runners opting to take a bit of pain going cross-country in the off-season is clear, as far as Gandy is concerned: "There will be considerable fitness benefits, which ultimately make you stronger and faster by the time the summer comes around."
Mind over matter
But the benefits are more than just physical. Mastering the skill to run over uneven terrain while being battered by the elements will stand runners in good stead come spring and summer. Cross-country also is a great way to see beautiful areas of the British countryside, which can help break the monotony of a training regime and offers a sense of liberation that you won't find on the road or track. As Gandy puts it, "Every track is pretty much the same - 400m round and you turn left at the corner. But with cross-country you get many variations of conditions and surroundings, and that is part of the fun."
Three-time winner of the European Cross-Country Championships Steph Twell describes cross-country as her 'bread and butter' training during the winter, adding, "I love that each run is different, and that not only do you have to physically fight elements such as mud and rain, but that running outdoors over varying terrain makes you mentally strong, too."
Cross-country courses do not tend to be precise distances or feature mile markers, and this, coupled with the changeable terrain, makes times irrelevant. "This means you can focus on your running and get the sense of exhilaration and freedom from racing through the countryside," says Bud Baldaro, England Athletics national coach mentor for endurance.
Runners can learn to gauge their effort and pace themselves more effectively and, as they get more competitive, the race skills learnt in cross-country can be readily transferred to other surfaces. Anderson agrees that it encourages runners to throw away their watches: "You're not worried about what your mile splits are - instead, you're competing against the other runners."
Nic Gould, who runs with the Thames Hare and Hounds, the oldest cross-country running club in the world, enjoys the fact that the sport gives him the chance to compete in a more relaxed environment. "I can run against my competitors rather than trying to chase PBs," he says. "Plus, the team race is often just as important as the individual competition. I am able to contribute to team victories in races that I would never be able to win individually."
Cross-country also offers camaraderie in another sense. "The emphasis can often be on conquering the course as much as beating other runners, and this has helped to engender a real sense of community," explains Baldaro.
It's easy for regular road-runners to get involved in cross-country. Anderson says the best way to get into it is to try a 5K Saturday morning 'parkrun' (parkrun.com). These are free weekly runs held nationwide, which provide a great, gentle introduction to the discipline. Most clubs also belong to a winter cross-country league and Anderson says that runners of all abilities, from beginner to elite, take part in these races.
While clothing is the same as for road and track running, cross-country runners tend to wear spiked shoes to offer extra grip on slippery surfaces. Gandy advises runners to get used to wearing spikes before embarking on a cross-country race: "Wear them two or three times to do some one- to three-minute reps a couple of weeks before the race."
A cross-country warm-up shouldn't differ very much from your usual running warm-up. The major muscles of the lower limbs - the glutes, hamstrings and quads - need to be prepared, so find a flat area and do a 10-15-minute graduated run that increases in pace. Try building up to 70-80 per cent of your full speed, but concentrate on posture and practise technique.
"Some of my best memories are the worst days I've ever had on cross-country courses," says Gandy. "At the time it wasn't very nice, but what doesn't kill you makes you tougher - and it certainly gives you a few yarns to tell afterwards."