Cross country matters – and here’s why
The stamina shown by Mo Farah to win major track titles has its origins in the mud and hills of the old-fashioned cross-country circuit. Long before she smashed the world record for the marathon, Paula Radcliffe’s famous endurance was forged in a similar fashion. It is perhaps no coincidence either that the most prolific 5000m and 10,000m competitors of the modern era, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Dibaba, have 16 world cross-country titles between them.
Even track legends who are not famed for their ability to race well on rough ground, such as Haile Gebrselassie, Seb Coe and Hicham El Guerrouj, have a background in cross country. It is the common thread buried in the history of virtually every distance-running great.
Given this, for ordinary athletes who want to improve their performances on the track or road next year, getting stuck into a winter on the mud is surely a no brainer.
Despite this, runners in the Western world have been drifting away from this traditional training ground in recent years. Trail and road events currently attract the majority of entrants, with far too many runners not even possessing a proper pair of cross-country spikes. Then we have adventure and obstacle races – an appealing and trendy alternative for an increasing number of runners who are content to complete a challenge as opposed to competing in a more natural environment.
All of which is a shame, because cross-country running is one of the oldest sub-sections of athletics. The English National Cross Country Championships, for instance, dates back to 1876. As the runners scrambling under the barbed wire in the below image show, too, old-school cross-country races half a century or so ago were every bit as tough as modern-day, money-making events like Tough Mudder and Spartan races.
If numbers are struggling at the grassroots, there is definitely a problem at the highest level. The IAAF World Cross Country Championships has struggled for popularity in recent years and is now a biennial event with the next edition in China in March 2015.
Part of the problem is the huge dominance by African athletes. Statistically, around 85% of the men’s race at the World Cross in 1973 consisted of European athletes, whereas lately it has fallen to below 30%. Runners from outside Africa have been annihilated and intimidated by the all-conquering Kenyans and Ethiopians for many years now, leading to dwindling media coverage and the draining of talent as promising endurance athletes from Western nations seek success in sports like triathlon and cycling.
Yet all is not lost. The majority of serious athletes – especially in the teenage age groups – continue to use cross country as the backbone of their winter work. As can be seen in the September 26 issue of Athletics Weekly, our 12-page list of cross-country fixtures also show there are plenty of races to find – from local league and schools events in the UK through to regional, national and eventually international standard.
For those still wondering if cross country is worth the effort, consider this. If you look at the background of the reigning world and Olympic 5000m and 10,000m champion, the US-based Briton won the Euro Cross title in 2006 before later placing second in 2008 and 2010. At World Cross level, on the other hand, Farah was 11th in 2007 and 21st in 2010.
His coach, Alberto Salazar, enjoyed the mud as well with World Cross silver in 1982 behind Mohamed Kedir of Ethiopia. In addition the marathon legend won World Cross junior team gold in 1976 and senior team gold in 1983 for the United States.
Stephen Kiprotich, meanwhile, the world and Olympic marathon gold medallist, served his apprenticeship on the country as he finished 24th, 19th and 12th in the World Cross junior race from 2006-08 before 23rd and 6th in the senior race in 2009 and 2011. It is maybe no surprise for an African to have a background in cross country, but what is curious is the fact so many current Western athletes think they can reach their potential by following a different (less muddy) path.
Cross country running also benefits middle-distance runners. The Seb Coe and Steve Ovett story, for example, pretty much started when they placed second and tenth respectively in the 1972 English Schools’ Cross Country Championships. Later, Ovett won English National Cross gold as an under-20, took senior silver in the 1977 UK Inter-Counties and was sixth in the 1979 English National.
Steve Cram, the former world record-holder for the mile, was also a fine cross-country runner and as a senior won races such as the North of England title months before setting the track alight at 800m and 1500m. John Walker finished fourth in the World Cross and led New Zealand to team gold just over a year before winning the Olympic 1500m title in 1976.
In 1978, an unknown teenager called Said Aouita featured on the front cover of AW leading the junior race at the World Cross. The Moroccan faded to 34th by the finish but the cross-country work served a purpose because a few years later he smashed world records from 1500m-5000m.
Of the middle-distance greats, Coe is one of the most passionate when it comes to building stamina on the country. “Cross country should be a standard part of preparation for middle and long distance athletes, as it was for myself, Ovett, Cram, Elliott, John Walker, Aouita, Gebrselassie, Bekele and many others who have also been successful on the track,” the double Olympic 1500m champion told AW at the 2008 World Cross in Edinburgh.
“Until we get back to recognising that cross country is an important part of the conditioning process then we will not see standards of European distance running rise.”
Those who remain unconvinced should consider that negotiating the rolling terrain strengthens muscles, tendons and ligaments in a way that running on hard, flat surfaces cannot. Mentally, cross country toughens the mind and also provides an invigorating and enjoyable environment. Speed training at race pace is indeed vital, but circling a track endlessly can break many athletes due to injury or boredom – especially younger ones.
» The September 26 issue of Athletics Weekly is a cross-country running special, with training advice for racing over mud and hills, plus a 12-page fixtures guide to this winter’s cross country events. Then, on October 10, the magazine reviews the latest cross-country spikes. Click here to order a copy, or buy a digital edition here.