Cross Country running is a great sport for young athletes to participate in during the winter. The distances are age appropriate and courses are fun, on soft surfaces and traffic free. Cross country also has a team competition component which creates a great competition for all levels.
With young athletes we also want to be fostering a love for running through enjoyable sessions while also challenging them physically and mentally and helping them learn new training and racing skills.
Here I provide a few fun activities that you can incorporate into your practices that will do just that. These can be used with both primary and high school runners. Adjust the distances and number of times they complete the loops according to the level of runner.
1. Open Gate
This activity is great for teaching your runners to start controlled and pick up the pace as the race progresses as well as developing the mental toughness to push hard when they are tired.
Work out a nice route that is anything from 400m to 600m long. Make it interesting with turns and even some small hills.
Set an initial time that the runners need to complete the course. This initial time must be such that everyone will be able to get around the course at a comfortable pace in that time. For our example we will say that the initial time is 3 minutes.
At the word "Go", the "gate" opens and the runners start running around the course. As soon as the runners have set off the gate closes.
The gate will open again after 3 minutes for the runners to run their next loop. That means that runners finishing the loop in 2 minutes will have 1 minute to rest before the gate opens again. Runners finishing the loop in more than 3 minutes will miss the gate opening and are out.
Now you have two ways you can continue the session:
a) With each opening of the gate, you reduce the time they have to finish the loop. For example, first lap is 3 minutes, second lap is 2 min 50, third lap is 2 min 40 etc. So the gate opens on:
3:00 | 5:50 | 8:40 etc.
This will challenge them to get faster and faster. You will be surprised how fast some of the "weaker" runners can push!
b) Start at a time that will require a good steady pace from lap 1 and will allow for only a short rest. Then keep the time the same. So using the example of 3 minutes, the gate will open on:
3:00 | 6:00 | 9:00 etc.
This will develop the physical and mental endurance to hold a pace.
A game such as this is great when working with mixed abilities and fitness levels as everyone will be challenged to push beyond themselves.
2. Obstacle Relay Races
This activity involves setting up a simple obstacle course that the runners need to run through a certain number of times. You can use natural (tree stumps, river crossings etc. ) or manmade (steps, jungle gyms etc. ) obstacles. This is a great session to do in your local park.
Have everyone run continuously or use a relay format for a more interval type session.
If using a relay format then: for long courses, keep the teams small so they don't stand around waiting too long. For short courses, use large teams if you want the runners to have a long break and small teams if you want to challenge more their endurance by giving a shorter rest.
3. Over the Top - Hilly Relays
Hilly relays will help teach runners to push hard over the top of a hill and also improve their skill at running fast downhill. Ideally you want to find a hill that they can run over the top to the other side and back over again. You can also set up a course where they run up a hill turn and come back down, or make it interesting with some up and down zig-zags.
Divide the runners into teams and then have them compete in relays against each other. Each runner will run hard both up and down on each leg. .
4. Scavenger Hunt
This is a great one for keeping them running for a long time without even realizing it. Runners also need to work together as a team so no one is left behind.
Divide the runners into smallish groups.
Give each group a list of 10 to 20 items that they need to find on their run.
Example: A red postbox, house with a green door, a yellow car etc.
It is good to provide a general idea of a route/area to head towards and to give a time limit. Make sure an adult or high school runner accompanies younger kids.
They can find the items in any order. The first team back (or the team that finds the most in the time limit), wins.
5. Crossing the Channel
One of the skills you want to teach young cross country runners is to always try to get to narrow or tricky (bridges etc.) sections on the course first.
Set up a course that has some tricky sections - narrow channels, bridges, river crossings etc. You can use your surroundings or set up your own barriers. Get creative!
All the runners start at the same time and need to stick together until a you blow the whistle (almost like a neutral zone in car racing). When you blow the whistle they need to race to get through the channel first. Once through they continue running easy together until you blow the whistle again.
Keep them on their toes by changing the point where you blow the whistle on each lap. You can also have a special whistle sound that if they hear that they need to turn and run the course in the opposite direction. I also suggest mixing up the challenge each lap by having different runners run in the front and back of the group each time. This will prevent the strong runners always running in front.
Please get in touch if you would like to arrange a coaching session for your school.
Onwards and upwards!
Professional running coach
Cape Town, South Africa