If you haven’t run a cross-country race since your school days, now’s the time to get muddy, says Chris Donald

If summer running is about speed and the odd dose of sunshine, winter running is about mud, sweat and waterproof gear. As focus switches from road and track to cross-country, so strength – of both body and mind – come into play.

Proponents claim that cross-country running is tougher than a Tough Mudder, more challenging than a Rat Race. It is certainly a test of character, but also of endurance and proprioception as your body is forced to adapt to changing terrain and environmental conditions. What sets successful cross-country runners apart is a switch in training that enables them to tackle the harshest of conditions. It is invariably cold and often wet.

So what can you expect to experience underfoot? Some level of mud is a given, but variety is the spice of cross-country courses, which can range from flat, fast parkland routes to thigh-sapping hills and glue-like ploughed fields. Up and down you’ll tread, along churned footpaths and through bottlenecks of gates, often accompanied by hundreds, if not thousands, of other competitors. You’ll spot lost shoes, broken men and women and curse exposed tree roots. But the chances are that once you’ve tried it you won’t look back.

Beyond the sense of accomplishment you will feel upon completing a cross-country race, there is something else that sets them apart. Fields surrounding the start line of a race take on the appearance of a music festival. Colourful team gazebos are erected, club flags and banners are unfurled and flasks of tea and hot chocolate are shared among fellow runners within the vibrant tented village. It is a challenge unlike any other. And it’s time to take part.

Top tips

1 PREPARE FOR A FAST START

You will need a good warm-up as cross-country races start as quickly as 5km races. You’ll be straight into race pace and the nature of the terrain will quickly spread the field of runners, so you can’t allow yourself to hold back.

2 TRAIN FOR VARIED PACE

You’ll be running uphill, downhill, across fields and every variation will affect your pace. You need to be prepared to adapt to these changes and to maintain your pace.

3 TIME IS NOT IMPORTANT

In a cross-country race, it’s your finishing position that matters, particular when running for a team. Leave your stop watch at home.

4 GET TO KNOW THE COURSE

Jog or walk it before the start so that you can see where the route narrows, where the hills are and when to put in a spurt of pace.

5 THINK ABOUT YOUR STRIDE PATTERN

On very muddy courses, it may help to shorten your stride length slightly and pick up your cadence so that you have better balance and are less likely to slip.

6 FOOTWEAR IS IMPORTANT

You might be able to get away with trainers or racing flats on dry, parkland courses, but off-road shoes or spikes will be essential in the wet and mud.

» Chris Donald is a Level 3 UKA endurance coach and director of Purple Patch Running (purplepatchrunning.com)