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How First-Time Runners Can Prepare for High School Cross Country in 5 Easy Steps


Thinking about trying cross country for the first time? Maybe you’re a rising freshman, a parent of a runner, or maybe you’re an upperclassman looking to try something new. You might have some trepidations about running, especially if you’re a first-time runner.

I had all of those same feelings when I joined cross country my freshman year. Having only ever done a few road races before, I didn’t know what to expect when I signed up for the team. But I went on to run 4 years of cross country in high school and college, and now I’ve been coaching for 11 years. I absolutely love the sport.

In this article, I’ll help you prepare for cross country in five easy steps. The goal is that you’ll feel confident and ready to get the season started on the first day of practice. In this article, you’ll learn how to:

  • Decipher the sport and running terminology
  • Buy the right gear
  • Know how to train without running too little or too much
  • Implement the right stretches for before and after running
  • Add in cross-training and core work

Follow these steps, and first-time runners can be on their way to a successful, injury-free, and fun cross country season.

1. Decipher the Sport and Running Terminology

First, before even beginning the sport of cross country, it will help to know what you are getting into. Cross Country is a simple sport without too many rules.

For starters, most cross country teams do not make cuts, and everyone gets an opportunity to run in the races. Most races are 5Ks (3.1 miles). For us, we run 3Ks before Labor and 5Ks afterwards. Teams typically have a dual, tri, or quad meet during the week and more competitive invitationals on the weekend. Varsity meets usually allow up to 7-10 runners; although in some cases they could allow more. However, in Regionals and States, only 7 runners can run. For Junior Varsity races, there tends to be no limit on who can run in the smaller meets.

Additionally, cross country courses can range from flat to hilly or somewhere in between. The types of surfaces can vary too. I’ve run on gravel, dirt, grass, golf courses, across streams, over logs, in the sun, and in the woods. That’s what I love about cross country. Every course is unique.

To score a cross country race, you take the place of your first five individuals and add them together. The lowest score wins. The sixth and seventh runners are used in the event of a tiebreaker, so we stress how much they matter too.

Lastly, you should be familiar with some terminology when it comes to running. I have broken down some common key running phrases.

Cross Country Phrases

  • Easy pace: Recovery pace, not ridiculously slow. An “as you feel” pace.
  • Easy/Moderate pace: Relaxed, picking it up to a little faster than easy pace.
  • Moderate pace: The pace you go when you’re on a “regular run.” It’s not hard, just a decent, enjoyable effort.
  • Tempo pace: About 30 seconds per mile slower than your current 3 mile pace. These runs are to be done on a flat course and the same pace be maintained throughout. “Comfortably Hard” as we call it, tempo workouts are the most important tool for improving your fitness and endurance. Also known as “Anaerobic Threshold Pace,” this run will raise the heart rate at which fatigue sets in. Basically, you can go harder for longer.
  • Race pace: This pace is how fast you have most recently run a 3 mile race or how fast you plan to run in your next one.
  • Repeats/Intervals: Interval training that consists of doing fast repeats usually done at threshold/tempo or race pace. They are usually shorter in length (400s, 600s, 800s, 1000s, and mile) and a rest occurs between intervals.
  • Fartlek: Swedish for “speed play,” these workouts are for building your ability to vary pace when you need to. Putting on surges to break the competition as well as being able to respond to their attacks is an important part of racing. These workouts consist of timed bursts of near race pace with about equal amounts of easy recovery running in between.
  • Hills: These workouts build strength and you will need it with the courses you race. Usually, hill work is done at close to race pace and is a fairly short, concentrated effort. They improve your agility, toughness, and overall strength.
  • Long: The intermediate-advanced runners will do one long run of an hour+ every week, usually the weekend. These runs are done at a relaxed pace, no faster than moderate effort. The long runs will make you stronger, both physically and mentally.
  • Strides: Short bouts of faster running with recovery in between. They usually are 50-200 meters in length. They are not all out sprints but usually done at mile or race pace. Runners are to elongate their strides and work on their form.
  • Warm up/Warm down: You will stretch and then use the first 5 minutes of your run as a warm-up and then again the last 5 minutes will be used as a cool down. For more intense, harder workouts, you will spend about 10-15 minutes warming-up, following with stretching, and 4 quick strides. After the run, you will spend 8-10 minutes on a cool-down run at an easy pace. Always remember to stretch after a run.

Having this knowledge of cross country before the season starts will be helpful to you.


2. Buy the Right Gear

The great thing about cross country is that it doesn’t require much gear or equipment. All you really need is a pair of running shoes and a watch.

For shoes, I’ve always been partial to Brooks. But other popular brands are ASICS, Sauconys, Nike, HOKA, Adidas, and New Balance.

I suggest going to a local running store or even a national chain, having the sales expert measure your foot and recommend certain types of shoes, trying on a few pairs, and jogging in them to get a feel for what is right for you.

As for a watch, we tell our runners that you can go as cheap or as fancy as you want. Personally, I prefer a cheap watch that just has a stopwatch. I don’t need anything more like a GPS, and if I need to take splits or track distance, I use apps on my phone to do that. I suggest starting off with a cheap watch and then seeing your preference as the season progresses.

Other gear that runners might be into includes:

  • Water bottles
  • Yoga mat for core days
  • Running clothes (spandex, compression shorts, dri-fit t-shirts, supportable sports bra, running socks)
  • Foam roller for tight muscles
  • Running journal
  • Spikes for racing

3. Know How to Train Without Running Too Little or Too Much

First time runners should stick to the beginners running guide given to them by their coaches. It’s easy to want to hop in with the advanced and do their workouts, thinking that the harder workouts and more mileage will equate to being faster. The opposite is true, in fact. Doing too much, too quickly will lead to burnout and injury, especially in younger kids whose bodies are still developing.

For our team, that looks like running 2-4 miles (roughly 15-30 minutes) 4-6 times a week during the summer training months. If you’re finding that running 2-3 miles consistently without stopping is hard, and you're stopping to walk a lot, then you want to adjust your training.

I would suggest doing walking/running intervals, almost like a fartlek. For example, run/jog for 3 minutes, walk briskly for 1, and repeat. Increase the amount of time you are running by 15 seconds each day until you are doing almost your whole run without walking.

Another way to do this is by adding a minute each day. For instance, on Day 1 run for one minute. That’s it. The next day run for two minutes. So forth and so forth. This works because mentally your body can handle this. Your brain thinks, “What’s one minute more? I can do that.”

We suggest first time runners to average 15-25 miles per week in the summer months with intermediate runners peaking around 25-35 miles each week for male runners and 20-30 miles per week for female runners. We highly recommend using a running journal to keep track of each run and how you feel to determine how much you’re running and if you’re doing too much or too little.

The important thing with first time runners is to build their base, and that means getting in mileage. Doing a lot of workouts aren’t necessary until runners can handle 3-4 miles without stopping or getting overly winded at an easy pace.

Follow this training regimen, and you’ll be on your way to a great season.

4. Implement the Right Stretches for Before and After Running

Jumping into running without doing any types of stretches will leave you injury prone. Learn how to do the right stretches before and after running.

Before running, you should warm-up by doing dynamic stretching, active stretching where joints and stretches go through a full range of motion. I’ve included a video to help you through this. Spend 10-15 minutes warming up.

After running, runners should cool down with static stretching, stretches where you stand, sit, or lie still and hold a single position. I’ve included a video to help you through this. Spend 10 minutes cooling down.

5. Add in Cross-Training and Core Work

Core is very important for runners. It is what keeps your torso upright when running. Poor form slows you down and leaves you prone to injury, especially when you are tired after a long or intense run. Strengthened core will allow you to remain in proper form. Our team does core work twice a week. I’ve included a video of some important core exercises. We also do 4 by 200 meter strides twice a week to work on form, turning over, and speed.

Cross-training, activities that are complementary to your running training, is a good idea to add into your training, especially on their off days as these forms of exercises are easy on your joints in your legs, strengthen your body, reduce the risk of injury, and provide a mental and physical break from running.

Some good cross-training activities include:

  • Swimming or pool jogging
  • Cycling
  • Elliptical
  • Yoga/pilates

Cross-training isn’t necessary, but it’s important for first-time runners to remember that they are young, and they should explore a variety of activities as constantly running can lead to burnout.

There you have it! Five easy steps to get ready for high school cross country. Always encourage your runners to reach out to their coaches if they have any questions. Don’t get discouraged the first time you go out for a run.

I remember when I could barely run a mile when I first started my running career. Hang in there, take it slow, and most importantly, have fun!