Most cross country coaches have been running since high school and college, or newly enjoy running now. There are some workouts that seem to always go very well for you, but others that result in an endless struggle. From these workouts emerge favorites, but they may not be the best type of work for your athletes. Just having your athletes run your workout each day as you get ready for a 10k race next month is not sensible training for your team. What your favorite workout is for you may not be your favorite workout for developing runners on your cross country team.
A cross country athlete needs a coach for three important reasons: 1) time management, 2.) motivation, and 3) to implement workouts that strengthen the weaker physiological attributes of the athlete. This third point is where the struggle lies. It is human nature to repeat and want to do things we are already good at. If a runner is fast then they want to do sprint training today. If a runner has the capacity to run far, then left to them, they would do a long run today. Hard work lies in doing what the athlete is not good at.
With all of this in mind, how do you come up with favorite workouts for your team? The favorites cannot come from what is best for you, or doing work at what they are already good at. Additionally, these favorite workouts must stand the test of time and be quantitative so that results can be compared over various training periods and among different athletes that you have coached.
As a cross country coach over the last three decades I have two favorite workouts. One is on the aerobic side and the other on the anaerobic side of energy system metabolism. We do neither workout often, only about four to five times each macrocycle. However, when we do them the athletes prepare for the day as if it was the most important race of the year. What makes them my favorite? In my opinion, if done properly, they give the athletes the most bang for their training buck.
On the aerobic side, my favorite workout is 4 x 1600 meter repeats at the athlete’s individual VO2 max pace. Work time is always equal to or close to rest time. For example if I have an athlete that achieves a 10:00 mark for an exhaustive two mile effort, then I know this is their individual VO2 max pace. For this athlete I will prescribe the workout to be four times one mile efforts at 5:00 per repeat, with about 5 minutes rest between. The real value in this workout lies over the second half of the session as they are trying to maintain two mile pace effort over four miles of work with proper and exacting recovery between efforts allowing them to complete the session. In my opinion, there is no better workout to improve aerobic power and it requires a tight control by the coach to make it all happen.
On the anaerobic side of things my favorite workout is 8 x 400 meters on the track with a tight three minute recovery between each bout of work. The ability to tolerate lactate and lowering pH values in the anaerobic energy system has limitations based on the human genome, but it is somewhat trainable. It has been shown that in racing the mile, up to 21 mmol of lactate are produced and must be both tolerated and dissipated. Normal is about 2 mmol. In order to tolerate such a heavy load of lactate the body must be cranked up to a sufficient velocity to produce that load for a short time before it is allowed a recovery period, and then it is forced up that high again and so on.
Related: A Proper Cross Country Warm-Up
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This type of training slowly builds a type of lactate tolerance into the anaerobic energy system that is not native to the body. In other words, this is really hard work. Again the coach is there to provide just enough recovery time to continue the building process, but not cause damage along the way due to acidosis. For example, take a 4:20 miler and examine the 400 effort of 65 seconds per lap to achieve that time. Now subtract five seconds from each 400 for the known effort of 4:20. The workout prescribed will be 8 x 400 meters at 60 seconds with three minutes recovery. The real lactate tolerance stimulus is being accomplished over the second half of the workout and it will provide a real struggle to complete.
This formula of subtracting five seconds off the 400’s of the known effort works for all abilities of athletes. If the runner cannot successfully complete all eight repeats, then you know the runner has a low lactate tolerance and this is exactly the type of hard work that they should be doing.
Coaching Resource: Every Single Cross Country Workout from June Through Nationals
Your favorite workout should probably not be very fun at all. The type of work described here does not promote the enjoyable aspects of running. It is also the type of work that the coach will not be doing alongside their athletes. The coach is there to do the most important aspect of this kind of work: closely monitor the exact recovery time needed to be able to replicate the work efforts. These are not workouts that see a deterioration in performance as the workout wears on. We will leave that to the tempo run tomorrow.