Skip area navigation

The Phases of a Cross Country Athlete

October 15, 2004

A college cross country race may last about 25 minutes, but what the fans see is only the tip of the running iceberg that is cross country training. Nutrition, weight training and lots and lots of running are involved. "It is satisfying to observe improvement, but it can also be frustrating to have injury or a poor training plan keep you from enjoying reaching your potential. There are many ways to successfully manage the components of making a quality cross country program and training schedule," says OBU Coach Ford Mastin.

Think you're in top physical condition? Try the cross country workout. "There are basically four phases of development during a cross country season," says Ford. "Having these in the right order, making the work load appropriate for the individual athlete, and working the meet schedule to be in harmony with the program are important factors to ensure success."

The first phase  the preparation phase  is the most important, Ford says, because it gives the runner the aerobic base to be able to handle the stress of the more demanding workouts in the season and to increase the workload gradually to minimize the risk of injury. This 10-week phase is a gradual mileage build-up with a pace that is comfortable, which is most important to grow the heart to be efficient in carrying oxygen. "Running "strides" are important in developing the muscles that are used for strong, fast running. The speed of the strides is a faster-than-race pace. The distance is about 100 meters, with a full recovery walk between each stride," says Ford.

The second phase is early season. The early season is a four-week stage for workouts that develop the ability to train specifically for racing. Repetitions, which are distances that are run at race pace  or a little faster  with full recovery between each run, allow the body to produce lactic acid, but the full recovery keeps the body from failure. These workouts prepare the athlete to be able to handle the more difficult interval workouts. Strides, tempo runs, and weight training are still incorporated in this phase. A race can be scheduled at the end of the phase.

The third phase is mid-season. This is the time that a routine is usually established to give the runner the ability to start racing well and become successful in competition. Interval training is the biggest ingredient for this four-week phase. This phase includes runs at various distances run at race pace with the recovery not being full, but just enough to bring the heart rate down to have another run at the set distance.

The fourth phase is peaking. This phase involves the last two weeks of the season, when the runner wants to have his or her best performance. The week's total mileage is lowered by about 25 percent and the number of intervals is cut by as much as 50 percent. It is important to rest, but it is also important to not change the runner's routine very much. This is also a phase when the athlete's mental state must be very positive. It is always good to choose the athlete's favorite workout to incorporate during the peaking phase.

There can actually be a fifth phase, which would be a time of renewal and recovery before starting up again with a preparation phase for the next season. This phase can involve cross training. Walking, hiking, biking, swimming, playing other sports, skating, etc., can offer a break from running for about two weeks. "As in anything, you get out of something what you put into it," says Mastin. "Cross country is a tough sport, with suffering involved. If you have a strong will and keep yourself motivated by reaching achievable goals along the way, it can be a great sport for you."

Cross country runners enjoy more than just the opportunity to compete. "The improved fitness and discipline of the athletes are qualities that carry over to all parts of life," Ford says. Visit the athletics section of for a complete schedule of cross country events. The cross country season begins each year in early September and concludes in November just before Thanksgiving. On September 25, OBU hosts the Bison Invitational, which will include about 100 high schools from around Oklahoma. On November 6, OBU will host the NAIA Region 6 cross country meet.