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Girl Cross Country Running

Building Strength and Preventing Injury: Lessons from Cross Country

Building Strength and Preventing Injury: Lessons from Cross Country

Jason Fitzgerald (or Fitz) is the founder of Strength Running, a 2:44 marathoner, and online running coach. He loves running the trails, strong coffee, and cycling. Strength Running unleashes Fitz’s passion for helping runners achieve their best and prevent running injuries. Subscribe to get instant updates from Strength Running.

Cross country is like the middle child of distance running: often forgotten and undeservedly ignored. Typically reserved for high school and college runners, cross country offers numerous benefits that aren’t often utilized by runners training for track or road races.

Nearly all aspects of cross country – from hill workouts, avoidance of the track, and a focus on a long base period – provide injury prevention lessons.

Here’s how you can learn from cross country and build running strength while avoiding injury:

Skip the track and hit the dirt. In college, we only ran about 25% of our fast workouts on the track. In high school, none of them were on the track. Instead, we chose to run on grass fields, wooded trails, dirt paths, and crushed gravel that gave our legs an even more forgiving surface than the hard track.

The more uneven trail and grass surfaces helped us improve our coordination and allowed us to run more total mileage. And let’s not forget that the consistent left turns on a track can cause muscle imbalances that often lead to injury.

Tracks are very useful tools to run workouts, but often you can spare your body by choosing other venues.

Focus your workouts on hills and tempo runs. For most of our cross country season, our bread and butter workouts were hill repeats and tempo runs. Cross country demands leg strength and a huge aerobic engine, both of which are improved with hills and tempo workouts.

Ideally, run your tempo on a soft surface off the track, like a dirt path. Tempos increase your body’s aerobic capacity – or put in a sexier way, they help you run faster without getting so fatigued. And everybody wants that!

Hills are perfect for developing leg strength (like you’d get from the gym) and speed (like you’d get on the track). There is less impact on your legs in uphill running and it reinforces proper running form, so they prevent overuse injuries and help you become a more efficient runner.

Run more volume! Too many runners think they can run fast on the track and in their local 5k without running a lot of miles. That’s simply not true. To maximize your potential for your goal race – and your long-term development as a distance runner – it’s important to run as much as you can within the limitations of experience, safety, and desire.

To increase mileage, back off on the intense workouts. Learn from the previous lesson and switch a fartlek or interval session to a hill workout. Replacing grueling interval workouts with volume will help you become a faster runner in the long-term. High total mileage was always reinforced during cross country season and often took a backseat to fast workouts during track. Don’t make this mistake.

Barefoot strides are your best friend. During the high school and college years, cross country training and racing happened over the summer and fall. We took advantage of these warm months and ran barefoot strides after most of our distance runs.

Barefoot strides are one of the most effective injury prevention strategies that you can implement in your training. They strengthen your feet and lower legs and reinforce efficient running form. Sprinting also recruits many more of your muscle fibers, improves form, and makes running slower seem easier. Start with two 100m barefoot strides on a well-manicured field and progress to 6-8 over a month or two of training.

Preparatory mileage is crucial to success. A lot of new runners don’t give the base phase of training enough attention, or devote a few weeks to easy running before they start with harder workouts. This is a mistake and they’re missing a big opportunity to improve their fitness.

A college cross country season starts at the very end of August, but training begins usually in late May. During these three months, the majority of focus is on easy running: building an enormous endurance base that will support the harder workouts and races that come in the fall.

This long period of easy base mileage includes strides, but rarely any structured workouts before August. It’s more difficult to get injured during easy mileage – and easier to get injured if you skip this base phase of training.

I’ve run 8 seasons of competitive cross country in high school and college (and another “season” after college with two more races). They’re by far my fondest memories of running: serene trails, long runs in summer heat, and the feeling of morning dew on your bare feet.

Cross country is sometimes the forgotten middle child of running, but let’s look at the lessons it provides and learn from them. I think we can all prevent an injury or run a little faster if we take these lessons to heart.

[image: easylocum]

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Extreme Marathon Runner Beth McCurdy

Run While Injured or Wait And Heal?

Beth McCurdy


I remember a time not so long ago when I didn’t get injured from running. Even though I have never been a super fast runner, I have been able to run extreme distances without any problems; I guess I thought that I was gifted in that respect.

But, here I am 41 years old, done countless races including a 100 mile road run in Key West on asphalt and concrete, and had no problems as a result except for a few (or so) lost toenails. But a few months ago, I bought the wrong shoes. Who would have thought that buying the wrong shoes would cause so many problems-but it did and now I’m struggling.

After I read “Born to Run”, I thought, wow, I would love to run effortlessly with little on my feet. So, I went for a run on the beach without any shoes and felt what it’s supposed to feel like. It felt good. But, could I run a marathon barefoot like Matt Jenkins on the pavement day after day? I’m not sure.

But the day that my injury took a turn for the worse was when I ran with barefoot Matt in the Tupelo Marathon. I really wished I was him on that day. Running barefeet and feeling the Earth with every step looked so appealing. But, instead I was running with a bad foot and feeling pain with every step. I could have DNF’d the marathon and in fact, should have. It’s not like I really cared about the race or my time. But, something kept me running. I don’t know what it was but something kept me running.

Was it the shoes, my stubborness that wouldn’t let me slow down, or my age that caused this injury? Or is 5 years too long to go without an injury. Was I due? These are all questions that I want answered. But regardless, the reality is that I have a problem that is keeping me from doing what I love to do.

For now, I can’t run the way I used to run. My foot injury is a distraction from what I love. Unless you are a runner or athlete, you cannot truly understand how devasting this can be to a person.

My passion is running outside short and long distances. Right now, I’m lucky if I can run short. Meanwhile, I need to figure out what the lesson is that I am supposed to be learning as a result of this injury. Maybe I am a fool for thinking that I am indestructable. Maybe I care too much about running. Maybe I need to think about other things in my life right now besides when I’m going to run my next ultra. Maybe I need to be grateful that even with this nagging injury, I am still a runner and am blessed to be able to do what I love.

Finishing Tupelo on my bad wheel

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