GB international Alex Teuten offers insight on the psychology of cross-country racing

As many UK athletes will tie up their spike laces once more for the regional and national championship cross-country fixtures, it seems a good time to talk about it.

Cross country is a multi-faceted discipline; at different points in any race it tests the physical strength, speed and the mental fortitude of every athlete. So many of Britain’s greatest athletes have graced the surface, and indeed I believe it is a key ingredient to being a successful athlete on the track or road: ignore it at your peril!

Cross country has always been a mainstay of my athletics career; ever since the annual school race round the football pitches in year 4 when I fell in love with it all.

So much of being a successful cross country athlete is having a good feel for the surface, and I think the only way to acquire that is to get out there and run in the stuff! Don’t be afraid to get yourself covered in mud; it will wash off and the benefits of running on the surface should not be discounted. The soft surface underfoot reduces the impact force, which ultimately will lower the risk of injuries. Of course, be careful to find a well-lit route if running at night!

“Don’t be afraid to get yourself covered in mud … the benefits of running on the surface should not be discounted”

On top of that, carrying out your easy runs on the grass provides a more testing workout, so whilst the stopwatch won’t appear flattering, you can take comfort in knowing you worked hard for it.

Finally, thanks to the uneven surface, you can benefit from strengthening stabiliser muscles (for example, tibialis anterior), ankles and even your core, so you’re actually getting two workouts in one!

TALKING TACTICS

The other really important aspect of cross country is race-craft and tactics. I don’t think anyone can claim to know everything when it comes to this. No race is the same and so each calls for a different strategy.

My advice on this would be to try to play to your strengths. You will know from your training what aspects you will be strong at. Maybe it’s your finish, maybe hill running is your forte. It could be when the course becomes very muddy. Whichever it is, use it to your advantage.

I also believe every athlete in a race has a “rough patch”, where they are struggling to maintain the pace they are running at. It can be a great opportunity to make an aggressive move on an opponent, but it’s important to know your own limitations.

BE BRAVE

From my own perspective, my style of racing changed quite significantly a couple of years ago. I remember the occasion well: it was the Home Countries International in Falkirk, March 2016.

Eamonn Martin, the England team manager (who lit up this sport in previous years) gave me some home truths. He told me I needed to be brave in racing and stop giving opponents a lead as it puts you on the back foot. Having taken on board what he said I later ran a blinder, finishing second overall.

“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance … it’s important to avoid complacency”

I’ve never looked back from that result. Yes, there have been times when I’ve taken a conservative approach to a race since then, but I’ve always tried to go into races without fear, with belief that I belonged at the front with the best.

There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance though, so it’s important to avoid complacency. That race changed me, and never was that point so poignant than at the European Cross trials last November in Liverpool, where I finished ahead of three Olympic athletes in Andy Butchart, Andy Vernon and Tom Lancashire to secure my first GB vest. I suppose the take-home message here is to never discount yourself, no matter what the company!

KNOW YOUR COURSE

A big part of that result was exploiting the conditions. There is a lot that can be gained from preparing and analysing the course before you run. I would always recommend walking the course beforehand, or at the very least the last kilometre when you need the most traction. Seeing the course helps you prepare mentally; you can visualise the race and identify the best route to take through tricky sections.

Ironically though, I often blaze straight through the middle of a muddy part, as shifting weight and trying to find the least-shod path can often be a fruitless endeavour and costs time and energy. The best advice I can give on this is to relax and feel the surface. Trying to push through mud rarely leads to an increase in speed, it merely induces fatigue quicker!

“There is a lot that can be gained from preparing and analysing the course before you run”

The same applies to sharp turns. There will be times where you can put your foot down (literally!) but from experience, leave it for the parts where traction is easily gained.

Regarding spike pins, the correct length is imperative to a good race so be sure to give sufficient time on the day to swap out any that are too short or long. I often use slightly longer spikes at the back of the shoe compared to the front, but that’s a personal preference.

I cannot write an article on cross country without at least mentioning the World Cross! This is described by many as “the greatest foot race on earth”, and will next be held in Denmark in 2019.

Lord Sebastian Coe has said the following about the event: “It is really, really exciting because it will showcase our sport in an innovative, modern, exciting setting but also show that cross country is a tough sport, and it returns it to what I will describe a traditional cross country course with the surrounding landscape.”

On the basis of that we could expect conditions to be muddy, undulating and mentally challenging, and I, for one, am relishing that!

» BUCS cross country champion Alex Teuten formed part of Great Britain’s bronze medal-winning senior men’s team at the Euro Cross in December and can be found blogging at alexteuten.wordpress.com