Have you been bitten by the cross-country bug? If not, you've got some catching up to do because more and more triathletes are realising just how beneficial a winter of cross-country running can be. As well as being one of the most effective ways to maintain a good aerobic base in autumn and winter, cross-country running will do a great deal more than simply keep you at a certain fitness level. This is because the country puts up resistance, unlike roads and pavements, which can act like a static conveyor belt.
One of the biggest benefits is the development of power. Muscular power is the ability to generate force quickly, and comes from running through mud and long grass, jumping puddles and obstacles, and maintaining pace up hills - all at race pace. If you've never worked on your power, you'll certainly notice the difference when the triathlon season starts again when you find yourself sprinting to transition or putting in a burst on the bike or run.
Cross-country is also good for core strength. Rough and uneven ground forces you to keep your balance as you run (although you may not even be aware you're doing it), and that involves using your body's core. A strong core will pay dividends next summer in everything from transitions (fiddly shoe-changing is much easier if you can keep your balance while standing on one leg) to your sprint for the line; your arms and legs work most efficiently when your body is upright and strong, not sagging.
Another benefit to be gained from the country comes from softer running surfaces, which mean you'll be far less likely to pick up the sort of injuries that can result from a winter pounding the asphalt. Of course, you can twist your ankle more easily when trail running, but on the other hand, uneven terrain helps develop foot and ankle strength.
Last but not least, your stamina will improve as you work to take each cross-country obstacle in your stride, no matter how thick, deep or fast they come.
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.
The only way is up
The best way to train for cross-country is to run off-road whenever possible. Hill running will strengthen your legs, so find an undulating route and work hard up the hills, lifting your knees and working your arms. Alternatively, find a moderate hill to run up hard for about a minute, with a jog-back recovery. Start with six to eight repetitions, building to 12, but don't go so fast that you're crawling by the end. Concentrate on maintaining good running form from the first to the last effort.
The ability to vary pace is very useful in off-road races, when gateways or narrow paths can slow you down. If you spot an obstacle in a race, accelerate through the field so that you reach it before a queue forms. With this in mind, vary your speed while out training by using 'fartlek' sessions, in which you incorporate changes of pace within a continuous run. Fartlek is Swedish for 'speed play' and is based on a form of interval training. Use the countryside to guide you. For example, after warming up you may decide to stride out around the edge of a field, with an easy run through the next field, followed by a series of quick bursts from tree to tree, and so on.
Hills can make or break your race, depending on how you deal with them. On steep down-hills many runners put the brakes on, but it's easier and much faster to stretch out and let gravity dictate your pace. Simply lean forward, lift your elbows out to the side for balance and off you go. You'll find that not only are you travelling faster than more cautious souls, you're also giving yourself a breather, and at the bottom you'll have momentum to keep going. However, this 'free-wheeling' is best done with confidence so practise running downhill when you're out training, starting with friendly slopes and moving on to steeper, uneven hills when you're ready.
So what kit do you need to run over the country? The most important item is a pair of shoes that give you good grip. Cross-country spikes are ideal for shorter races run entirely on soft ground, but they're not so good on stony stretches or asphalt. Studded running shoes are more versatile and, although they may not grip quite like spikes, they are more comfortable on hard stretches. Specialised shoes like this will keep you light on your feet and can save minutes in slippery conditions. However, be aware that they don't always offer much support or cushioning, so if you plan to enter longer off-road races it may be better to invest in some trail shoes.
As for clothes, if you're running in a league race you must wear a club vest to show whom you're representing. If it's cold, a thermal top underneath is a good idea, along with hat and gloves. Make sure that you've also got plenty of warm, dry clothes to change into afterwards.
Events to try
To find out more about cross-country leagues or off-road races in your area, the best place to start is your local running club's website. If you're after something more adventurous, try one of these:
The Winter Tough Guy (pictured here) in Staffordshire lives up to its name by putting competitors through the wringer in freezing winter conditions. Next year's race is on January 29. This is a good one to enter as a team. Visit toughguy.co.uk for more details.
The Grizzly in South Devon can't be beaten for wackiness. It's is organised by the Lean, Mean Runner Bean, and the theme of next year's race, on March 11, is 'Every bog has a silver lining'. It's incredibly tough and very popular. If you miss out this time, make a date for 2013. Find out more at axevalleyrunners.org.uk/races/grizzly.htm
The Notorious Night Runs are a series of after-dark races in March held in Oxfordshire, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Peeblesshire. The emphasis is on fun, with lots of obstacles to negotiate while in fancy dress. Visit ratraceadventure.com/notorious/index.html to find out more.