Olympian Eilish McColgan on how to be a muddy marvel this winter

There is no doubt about it – cross county is hugely beneficial for runners. It’s a fundamental part of athletics. Regardless of age or ability; the gruelling combination of mud, hills and freezing temperatures produces strong athletes, not just physically but mentally.

There is nothing harder than waking up at the crack of dawn to run around a cold, muddy, field. However, if you’re tough enough to take on the challenge – here are some top tips to get you raring to go!

1. Get tough.

Although the race will be a much slower pace than your track/road sessions, the tricky terrain and monstrous hills mean that the effort exerted is much harder. Get practising over the tougher terrains. Ideally, find a training venue similar to what the race may throw at you – grass fields, short sharp hills, long hills and very muddy underfoot. The best type of sessions to do are tempos or fartleks; longer reps with a short recovery. Don’t focus too much on pace – it’s all relative – concentrate on your effort.

2. Get stronger mentally.

It’s going to be hard. I can’t recall ever finishing a cross country race and not feeling like I may be dying. However, the benefit from incorporating some cross country sessions and competitions into your winter programme will be enormous. The uneven ground and demanding hills are perfect for increasing your VO2 max and perhaps, more importantly, gaining that vital leg strength. Come summer, you’ll be happy that you spent those winter months clocking up some seriously muddy miles.

3. Get there early.

A lot of athletes like to walk the course before racing. Typically cross country races are loops so you don’t have to walk the entire distance to see the full circuit. Visualising the course will give you a better idea of pace judgement and to sight the most arduous parts; the toughest hills, muddy sections, etc. Another small tip; bring some toilet roll! The portaloos can become a horror scene.

4. Tape your spikes.

After walking the course, it’s time to decide what size of spikes to put in your shoes. If the course is relatively flat or frozen the smallest size may suffice but, for a muddier terrain, the big guns might be needed! If it’s exceptionally muddy secure your shoes with tape. Taping right the way around your feet and over the laces can give you piece of mind that they won’t come off easily in the mud. There’s been many a missing shoe left on a muddy course throughout the years – mine included!

5. Wrap up warm.

Winter conditions are, nine times out of 10, grim. Layers upon layers of clothing (and some waterproofs!) are essential. Depending on just how cold it is, a long sleeve top might be necessary underneath your vest to try and retain some heat. If you’re not a fan of racing in leggings another option to keep your muscles warm is to use baby oil! Sounds odd but you’ll be left warmer… and moisturised! Bonus.

6. Throw away the watch.

Pace and times become completely irrelevant on the mud. It’s crucial to start easy and work your way into the race. Instead of worrying about the clock, focus on the competitors in front of you. At halfway, push on and attempt to pick them off, one by one. Finishing a cross country is probably the most satisfying feeling you will get as a runner. There’s the initial sigh of relief that it’s finally over but also an overwhelming feeling of achievement. And, like the memory of a gold fish, you’ll quickly forget just how awful it was and be crazy enough to do it all over again!

» These top tips formed part of the cross country special edition of Running Monthly magazine, available with the October 6 issue of Athletics Weekly