Cross Country Workout Themes

Posted by Scott Christensen

One of the most important chores that a cross country coach does is to set the workout themes for the many daily sessions during the season.  The workouts must be compatible with the other workouts that are sequenced around each other, and themes must be appropriate for the time in the macrocycle in which they are found.  The stimulus of the workout must be properly set for each individual to match their skill, training age, and chronological age.  Once the theme of the workout session is properly chosen, then the running course and structure of the workout can be set.

Workouts need to vary in both intensity and volume.  There is an inverse relationship between these two training terms.  Volume is measurable in miles, while intensity is both perceptive and measurable as a percentage of maximum speed for each individual. 

Maximum speed is defined as the meters per second rate that can be achieved for up to 60 meters in distance at full effort.  Thus, working with maximum speed is a workout theme.  All other running is a fraction of maximum speed and is clearly defined by physiologists and is embedded in contemporary training theory. 

The meters per second measurement is a difficult value to work with at practice, especially for the cross country coach.  However, a 400 meter time at full effort is easy to work with and the two can be correlated as Table 1 indicates to set up intensities for the workout, thus establishing a workout theme.

Scott Christensen, Workout Themes

The themes shown in Table 1 are appropriate training sessions for all running events in track and field, in addition to cross country running.  The event profile itself determines the frequency that each of these themes would be done in an athletes training plan.  Since cross country training is multi-lateral training and involves improvement in speed, strength, coordination, flexibility, and endurance, then all of these themes will be found in varying frequency in a cross country runners training plan.

Speed: defined by training theorists as maximum speed and the work designed to improve it.  These are training sessions of 60 meters or less done at full effort.  Done in repetitions, the theme is designed to improve strength and coordination besides increasing maximum speed in the cross country runner.  The total volume of the session should be around 500 meters with enough rest between each unit of work to ensure full recovery, or about 3-4 minutes.  This workout theme has no endurance component to it.  The force production needed to run maximum speed for 40 meters is more than six times then what is needed to run at lactate threshold pace, so it is a good strength session.

Speed Endurance: defined by sport scientists as the work stimulus designed to maintain near maximum speed.  These are training sessions of 60-150 meters done at near maximum effort.  Done as intervals, the theme is designed to improve strength, speed, and aspects of endurance, as high speed is attempted to be held over a great distance.  Total volume of the session should be about 750-900 meters.  Rest is enough to ensure a high level, but not complete recovery, or about 5 minutes.  The workout theme has high speed endurance and strength components to it, as proper posture and high force production is required as the cross country runner increasingly tires over the prescribed distance.

Special Endurance 1: defined by training theorists as the intensity of work designed to hold a high degree of speed over a distance of 150-300 meters.  Energy supplied is mainly glycolytic in origin, so the ability to tolerate the onset of acidosis over the last third of the distance is the key training stimulus.  The mmol of lactate produced is between 12-14 mmol over the latter portions of each bout of work.  This is about twice the level of 5k production, so for a short period of time during each bout of running during the session, the athlete begins to build or maintain a high lactate response (HLR).  Done either as intervals or repetition running, the total volume of the session should be about 1200-1600 meters for the cross country runners.  Rest should vary depending on the phase of the macrocycle.  Recommended is 3-4 minutes between bouts of work during specific preparation and 8-10 minutes between work during the competition phase.  The theme of the workout is a combination of strength, sub max speed improvement, and aspects of endurance.

Special Endurance 2: defined by physiologists as the intensity of work designed to hold a somewhat high degree of speed over a distance of 300-600 meters.  This is a classic cross country runners interval session, but it should be done with caution.  The mmol of lactate production approaches 20 mmol during each bout of work which is three times higher than 5k race production through the comfort zone of the race.  At this degree of lactate production mitochondria are critically damaged due to acidosis.  Done early in the year as efficiency work with 2-3 minutes recovery, it is done as capacity work during the competition phase with as high as 15 minutes recovery between bouts of work.  The theme of the workout is a combination of anaerobic endurance, sub max speed development, and general body strength.

Intensive Tempo: defined by training theorists as mainly an aerobic activity with less than 6% anaerobic component.  This is a classic “tempo” run done as either intervals with incomplete recovery, or a continuous run.  Total volume for the session is about four miles.  If broken into intervals it can be done in bouts of work between 400-1600 meters with short breaks.  The intensive tempo pace is run just slower than 5k race pace, but over a greater distance, so it promotes endurance and general body strength as the main themes.  If done as intervals the rest should be one minute or less between the bouts of work.

Extensive Tempo: defined by sport scientists as an aerobic activity of less than 4-5% anaerobically derived energy by respiration   Practically, this is about 65% of max 400 effort (table 1), or about 10k pace.  The theme of this work is endurance and general body strength.  Done as a continuous run or broken down into intervals with short rest, it is meant to promote improved use of glycogen by the aerobic energy system.  If done as intervals, the rest should be one minute or less and broken down into a work distance of 800-3200 meters. 

The Thresholds: defined by physiologists as the aerobic and lactate (anaerobic) thresholds, the intensity and volume of these workouts are designed to have a heavy theme of improvement of the aerobic energy system.  The aerobic threshold is the classic long run pace done weekly by cross country runners.  The effect of the workout is structural in nature with an improvement in the cardiovascular system as the main training theme achieved through a strong emphasis on endurance.  The distance is run far enough to reach improvements in this area, but slow enough to spare glycogen for use later in the microcycle.  Acidosis is not a factor here.  The lactate threshold is the point at which acidosis begins to occur.  The intensity of work done at the lactate threshold is faster than long run pace.  The slight ability to deal with small amounts of lactate is the training theme.  Aerobic threshold workouts should be continuous runs of 60-90 minutes, while lactate threshold runs are 35-50 minute runs done at a higher intensity than the aerobic threshold runs (table 1). 

Training Resource: The Training Model for High School Cross Country

Careful planning and implementation of microcycles is the guts of a cross country training program.  The selection of workout themes and the sequencing of the sessions within the microcycles provide the training stimulus. 

The event profile sets the physiological demands of the event and it is the role of the cross country coach to train their athletes for the event. 

The frequency of the workout themes to meet the demands of the event for any runner is called individualization of training. 

The most successful running programs do the best at making this all work in a progressive manner.  


Scott Christensen is the head track coach at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, MN.

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