Those of you who think running around a muddy field in winter in nothing more than a singlet and shorts is certifiably insane, may well ask why this form of running is so internationally popular. The popularity is due to a number of factors, but mostly it boils down to the benefits runners gain from cross country. These benefits have been known since the 19th century and are still claimed today, with many coaches taking their athletes for grass-based and hill-based sessions, and encouraging them to compete in local cross country races.
Mo Farah, for example, is renowned for taking part in cross-country races during the winter to help his preparations for major championships, claiming: "Cross-country is a tough discipline, as courses can be hilly, muddy or even snow-covered. But it makes you strong and it’s a great way to progress your training.”
The undulating terrain and hills in cross-country means you are using more muscles than in any other type of running, in turn strengthening the legs. The uneven ground stabilises lower leg muscles and develops them into great ‘shock absorbers’, whilst the changes of pace help improve your cardiovascular capacity. Furthermore, contrary to some suggestions that state cross-country running increases the chance of injury, if done properly it’s arguably less stressful on the leg joints. This is because the impact from the earth tends to be much less than on other surfaces, such as the road or track.
The benefits of cross country are not just physical. Cross country is a great way to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life, with runners often commenting that running out in the open allows them time to clear their minds and think. Training or racing over trails and fields also enables runners to experience nature and break from the occasional monotony of pounding the pavement or circling the track.
Furthermore, the focus is often on the simple act of running, as imprecise distances and changeable terrain mean times are less pertinent compared to track running. This means runners commonly improve the important skill of pace judgement, as well as experience the liberation of not having their runs dictated by their watch. The aim in each race is the competition against other runners, which hones competitive instincts transferable to all other running environments.
Lastly, being able to race across uneven terrain whilst being numbed by the harsher winter conditions, will almost certainly toughen up the mental aptitude of athletes, something which is also very key for successful road and track seasons.
The team race is often just as important as the individual competition in cross country. One is able to contribute to team victories in races that they would never be able to win individually. Cross-country also offers camaraderie in another sense, as the emphasis can often be on conquering the course as much as beating other runners. This helps to engender a real sense of community as opposed to competitiveness.
So this winter, don’t avoid the knee-high mud, driving rain, howling wind and numb hands of cross-country running. Despite such unappealing associations, cross-country is the training backbone for many of our most successful distance runners – from Benita Johnson to Rob de Castella. With its manifold of physical and mental benefits, cross country running will undoubtedly make you stronger and faster for the road and track come the spring and summer.