The best cross-country runners will tell you there really is no off-season. Barring injuries or other dire circumstances, a distance runner can significantly improve their performance by training all year long. Many key benefits surround "off-season" workouts, from better balance and agility to improved muscle tone and strength. All of which can lead to record-setting gains in pace and race time.
Of course, many cross country athletes already “cross train” during the off-season by participating in track and field seasons. But not all xc runners enjoy the repetitive nature of the track. So what's a runner to do when the cross country season comes to a close after Districts, Regionals, States, and the other Division Championships?
Holiday and Seasonal 5k's and Fun Runs
With so many new and exhilarating running events gaining popularity — including Color Runs, Tough Mudders, Foam Fest Runs, Spartan Races, and more — no runner should be without plenty of opportunity to run and train in ways that are fun or competitive (or both) depending on your own personal approach.
These opportunities begin right after the cross country season concludes in most parts of the country as a slew of holiday-themed races and runs take to streets nationwide. Check your area for Turkey Trots, Jingle Bell Runs, and other races with a seasonal bent. Some may even involve running at night under the Christmas lights! These races can be memorable and fun in addition to serving an important role in your post-season training regimen. Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick's Day runs extend the holiday run-training season to the beginning of spring, then look out for a plethora of running and training opportunities that range from casual and fun to physically demanding and intensely competitive.
Color Runs, for example, can be a casual way to log some miles and run with a group of friends. Runners begin the event in white shirts and end up virtually tie-dyed by the end of the race, having been playfully doused in colored corn starch at various points along the course by spectators.
Spartan Races and Tough Mudder challenges, on the other hand, demand top physical shape, agility, and determination, leaving even the most accomplished runners fully exhausted by the finish. These racing events involve challenging obstacles, often in the form of walls to climb, mud to trek through, water to forge, and even barbed wires or live wires to survive. These races may not be for everyone, but they may be just what the doctor ordered for some cross country runners looking for a real challenge in the off-season.
Foam Fest runs attempt to combine fun with intensity by pairing all the complexity of a mud run with oversized slip-and-slide type obstacles throughout the course. Many runners find these to be a great balance of hard work and hysterics.
Stay Active in Other Sports
In addition to running, participating in diversified training activities throughout the year can help runners to keep their workouts fresh, exciting, and most importantly, targeted for greater success in the upcoming cross country season. Many runners also participate in other spring sports like baseball/softball, soccer, or tennis.
You can also consider popular sports such as ultimate Frisbee, cross-country skiing, swimming, canoeing, ice skating, hiking, biking, and countless other activities, depending on the season. Anything that gets you moving and your heart pumping can pay dividends.
Perhaps one of the most overlooked and underutilized performance-enhancing strategies for runners is strength training. Whatever else you’ve heard about weightlifting, the truth is “it strengthens muscles and joints, which can improve race times and decrease injury risk,” according to this article from Runner’s World. Quite frankly, spending the cold months inside a heated weight room instead of on icy roads and paths sounds like a good idea anyway!