If you’ve been road running for a while, you may be ripe for a change of scene just to freshen things up a bit. You could just try driving somewhere else to go for your run – or you could try something far more radical like cross country running. This isn’t just road running on grass however, cross country running means dealing with everything nature has to throw at you; hills, foliage, trees, loose stones, sharp turns, cambered slopes, fences or logs to leap over, and, of course, mud. Glorious energy-sapping mud!
As you can imagine, this makes it very, very different from track running or even distance running as it is a lot harder to go into a trance state or keep up with any pre-determined time goals. Your attention is constantly focused on what Mother Nature is going to throw at you next – then dealing with it. The buzz at the end is different too, it’s like you’ve triumphed against all odds vs merely completing your fitness duty. Constantly coping with so many obstacles also shakes your body – and even mind – out of any ossification, which has got to be good for you as well.
There are many cross country clubs you can join who hold events but you can also just head out to a park or forest to try running a trail first to see if you like it. Here are a few things to keep in mind when going off-road:
Get familiar with your course
Of course, the biggest thing to keep in mind with cross country running is the terrain. As you might expect with going off-road – there’s no smooth asphalt road like what you’re used to! Or any consistent surprise-free track; or even a crummy crumbling concrete footpath to run on. However, there’s more than likely a lot of slippery, shoe-stealing mud, lakes of freezing cold water hidden by scrub, skiddy wet grass, skull-shaving low branches, and – worst of all – treacherous tree roots, lying in wait to trip you up and turn your ankle.
But if you can go over your course beforehand at a slow jog, or even a walk, you can get an idea of what you’re faced with for future reference. It doesn’t guarantee that you won’t get caught out by any or all of the above – which is half the ‘fun’ – but hopefully you’ll know what to expect and will be able to avoid injury.
Bring a different mindset
Cross country isn’t just about running on different terrains, it also requires a different mindset. Because you are running up and down hills, through bush and leaping over obstacles at various points, you physically cannot keep up a consistent pace over all of it. It’s impossible to run the same speed up a hill as down one, or wading through mud as opposed to sprinting over grass – so put pace out of your mind right from the start. What you can do however is keep up a consistent tempo. If you can hit a hill or quagmire with the same energy as you hit a flat section of land, you will get through quickly enough and the times will even out over the whole thing. It may take a bit to get your head around at first as you’re probably used to seeing instant results speed-wise from effort expended. Not out here.
Find the tightest – and lightest – pair of shoes you have and wear those. Especially if there is water on your course because if so; your shoes are going to get wet and you don’t want your feet slipping inside them. A good tread is also crucial for grip on a variety of terrains and, if you become a convert to cross country running, you should consider getting a specialist pair with spikes. 9mm spikes should be long enough for firm tracks but if there’s lots of mud, go for the 15mm ones. Some runners even tape their shoes on with gaffer tape to reduce the chances of them being pulled off in heavy mud – so that’s an idea to consider too!
Warm up somewhere safe
Do your warm ups in the carpark before you go off-road, not in the slush or mud of your course as you don’t want to get injured before you even start! Don’t worry, you’ll get enough slippery terrain to run in soon enough, but if you’re already warmed up there’s less likelihood of pulling something with any unexpected slips or twists.
Everyone who runs knows the endorphin high you get once you finish, but with cross country this feeling is magnified. Sure, that may be hard to imagine whilst you’re out there slogging away in some cold, wet, remote forest dreaming of a beautiful hot shower. But once you actually finish, the knowledge that you’ve just taken on Mother Nature and at least battled out a draw kicks in – and it would take winning an Olympic medal to top that!