Cross-country running for triathlon

Boost your triathlon speed and strength by taking to the trails this winter

by Jacqueline Wadsworth

trail race
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Getting started

If you like the sound of cross-country, there are hundreds of off-road races to choose from throughout the year, from gentle summer events to more brutal winter races.

Cross-country leagues offer a different sort of competition. Regional race series are held in autumn and winter, and to take part you must belong to a club that is affiliated to your local league. As a rough guide, league races are held between October and March, usually once a month, with race distances varying from 8-12K for men and 5-8K for women. Some of the UK's top athletes can be seen leading the field at these races, but cross-country is for all standards, with many runners simply happy to turn out for their club because every point counts in the final team results.

Many running clubs that also have thriving triathlon sections have been stalwarts of the cross-country scene for decades. Thornbury Running Club in South Gloucestershire is one of them. "We take part in two leagues, the Gwent and the Gloucester, and have done so for years," says triathlete Maddie Parrott, who is also Thornbury women's cross-country captain.

"As triathlon has grown at the club, our triathletes have used cross-country to build fitness and stay competitive during the winter. Cross-country competition is also great fun to take part in because it gives clubs like ours the opportunity to get together as a team. We cheer on the men, the men cheer for us, then there's some friendly rivalry when the team results come out."

In recent years, triathlon clubs have been joining the cross-country leagues, too. Last winter, for example, Birmingham and District Cross-Country League had three tri clubs competing in their races, and Manchester Triathlon Club fielded several teams in the Manchester Area Cross-Country League.

This is simply the latest development in a sport that has a long history. According to Ian Byett of the English Cross Country Association, cross-country began at least as far back as in the 1800s, with village steeplechases. "Runners raced from church steeple to church steeple, negotiating hedges, ditches and whatever else stood in their way," he says. "Leagues really began after the war when groups of clubs got together to introduce more structure to races. Today, cross-country is very popular at grass-roots level and people turn out whatever the weather conditions, in mud and rain."

Many of our top triathletes cut their teeth on the fields of cross-country, including the Brownlee brothers and Jodie Swallow, who was English Schools Cross-Country Champion three times.

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