Basic Cross Country Training

by Coach Rich Wright,
Baldwin HS, Pittsburgh, PA

Basic cross country training is broken down into three phases: Phase 1 is base building, Phase 2 is your competition training, and Phase 3 is your championship and peaking session. Building a base is the foundation of any good runner. You must build up your mileage, strength, endurance, and confidence. Mileage is self explanatory. You need miles under your belt to work on the overall cross country season. As you run more miles, this builds strength, endurance, and the confidence you need to ready yourself for hard practices and races.

Phase 1 – Base Building

A good way to build your mileage is to set a summer goal of a weekly mileage you feel you can handle, and one expected of you from your coach. Let’s use 50 miles over a 10 week period for an example. Build from week 1 – 30 miles, week 2 – 34 miles, week 3 – 38 miles, week 4 – 32 miles, week 5 – 37 miles, week 6 – 42 miles, week 7 – 47 miles, week 8 – 40 miles, week 9 – 45 miles, and week 10 – 50 miles. In each week you increase the mileage, except in weeks 4 and 8, in which you decrease. Weeks 4 and 8 are very important. Each week, increase the mileage of your long run for the week, but in weeks 4 and 8 do the same as the prior week. So for the long run, week 1 – 5 miles, week 2 – 6 miles, week 3 – 7 miles, week 4 – 7 miles, week 5 – 8 miles, week 6 – 9 miles, week 7 – 10 miles, week 8 – 10 miles, week 9 – 11 miles, and week 10 – 12 miles. Starting in week 5 you need to do lactic threshold running. This is running at about 80-85% of your race pace for 2-3 miles, building to 4-5 miles by week 10. Also, try to run 2 or 3 local 5K road races. The 5Ks will give you an idea of your time and how your body feels. Try one in weeks 2, 5, and 8. They will also give you the pace to set your lactic threshold training time. At this time the start of your season is upon you. Your coach will expect you to have mileage. Now you do.

Phase 2 – Competition Training

In phase 2, the first two-thirds of your cross country season are the training and competing season. Maintaining your base is #1. Working on hill repeats, both up and down (more races are lost on down hills than anywhere else), intervals (repeats of one-quarter to one mile), and lactic threshold training (runs of 3 to 5 miles at a set pace, normally 80-85% of race pace). You will be running in section meets, invitationals, etc. during this time. You should never exceed 20% of your weekly mileage with speed work. If you’re running 50 miles, no more than 10 miles of speed work. This includes races, repeats, lactic threshold training, hills, etc. You must understand that the body will only handle so much stress and must have some rest. In this part of your season you must use your races as workouts -- and learn each mile (3) and the finish (one-tenth) to become a better runner. Anyone can go out and run a fast first mile, but if you can’t finish you will not be successful.

Phase 3 – Championship and Peaking

Phase 3 is comprised of the big races leading to the end of your season – section, district, and state championships. At this time you are fine tuning all of the hard work from the past 18 weeks. You’re still training hard, but now your focus is speed and recovery. After any repeat you must have full recovery. Your lactic threshold runs are fine tuned and closely watched by your coach. You should not add any new workouts or crazy things you read about or hear about others doing. The weather is a factor, so dress accordingly. Sleep is crucial. Each race brings much stress to your body, both mentally and physically, because each race could be your last. Never look ahead -- plan one week and one race at a time. Lower your weekly mileage about 5 to 7%. Also, lower your speed work to about 7% of your weekly mileage. Lactic threshold runs should be no longer than 4 miles. Repeats must have a full recovery. If you did a mile in 5 minutes, rest for 5 minutes. You’re working on speed. Everything you do two days before a big race is the most important – Rest, eat, visualize. If you follow these little things, big things will happen.

Good luck and have a great season! The example I used of 50 miles is for older runners and men. Younger runners and women should start at a lower goal of 30 to 35 miles. Work up from 15 miles per week, but follow the same schedule as outlined earlier.


Rich Wright has coached 5 cross country teams to the state finals, and one team to the WPIAL championship. He has coached state champions Ryan Sheehan (St. Francis University) and Dan Mazzocco (Penn State University). Ryan placed 15th in states his junior year, and 5th in his senior year for cross country, and won the 3200m in outdoor track. Dan won the mile in indoor track and both the 3200m and 1600m in outdoor track, as well as being the state champion in cross country. For 10 of his 12 years coaching, Rich’s runners have made it to the cross county state finals.