The foundations of summer success are often built on the mud during the winter, as David Lowes explains
Is cross country is a must in relation to success on the track?
Of course, this is an argument that will literally run and run and, indeed, is there a definitive answer?
Many track purists maintain that the winter is the start of the preparation for the following summer and they are not wrong. However, it must be understood that, although mud and track may be thought of as a marriage of seasons, to provide success on one or the other or even both, they can also be divorced in terms of specialisation.
Put simply, endurance runners fall into three basic categories:
(a) those who use cross country as a competitive winter phase to provide summer success;
(b) those who are weak on the track so specialise at cross country and use the summer as a preparatory phase;
(c) track-oriented athletes who avoid cross country altogether with the indoor season sometimes used as a competitive stimulus towards a summer peak.
At senior level it is rare that world-class distance stars are proficient on only one surface and a conundrum that often goes unanswered is whether track stars are great because of cross country and whether the same may be true the other way around.
To reach the highest echelons endurance runners need the armoury that both seasons provide. Paula Radcliffe, Mo Farah, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba are just a few of many examples of those who show true world-class on both surfaces. Out of that foursome the latter three have also targeted the indoor circuit with excellence too.
Without doubt, winter strength and summer speed go hand in hand and any aspiring athlete who wants to win a major distance title will need these prerequisites in abundance.
At middle-distance the picture is more obscure, many taking the indoor competitive option while others choose to abstain from event participation altogether for the duration of the winter.
Steve Ovett, Steve Cram and David Moorcroft were a select few that bucked that trend and even participated in the National Cross Country when it was traditionally a leg-sapping nine miles. Cross country requires great functional stability and what better way to strengthen ankles and lower legs than running over uneven terrain?
Although in years gone by cross country was possibly deemed only for the immensely strong and perhaps for those not having the necessary pace for track, that has now changed immensely. Cross country at the highest levels today not only needs strength, it also needs pace in its sharpest form, which is always evident at the World Cross.
Problems can arise for those who follow a 12-month periodised plan and with the competition calendar always loaded with options a conservative approach is needed. To ensure peak performances discretion needs to be the key word in terms of competitive preferences.
On top of all the physical benefits, muddy and undulating terrain is no doubt a character-builder. It’s part of an apprenticeship that youngsters in particular will benefit from immensely and will continue to do so in their later senior years when they need to be mentally tough to succeed.
Whatever surface you prefer, if you want to be a world-class distance runner the chances are you are going to have to be almost equally proficient on both surfaces, so embrace the mud this winter.