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Charles Allen: What happens when you swap the road for the mud

Competitors in the U20 men, senior men and masters men race in the Norfolk Cross Country Championships at Thetford. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Competitors in the U20 men, senior men and masters men race in the Norfolk Cross Country Championships at Thetford. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

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Charles Allen discusses the physical adaptations that take place when runners turn their attention to cross country running

The leaders in the U17 girls and boys, U20 women, senior women and masters women race in the Norfolk Cross Country Championships at Thetford. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYThe leaders in the U17 girls and boys, U20 women, senior women and masters women race in the Norfolk Cross Country Championships at Thetford. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Here comes the Winter, time for some cross country.

As the winter months progress the race calendar starts to see the return of cross country events and some fun in the mud to help us stay active and satisfy our running addiction.

I often think the diversity of the sport of running can clearly be seen when discussing road racing versus cross country eventing.

The road environment stays fairly similar all year round with only the odd run being in snow, ice or conditions that might demand you to move differently to normal.

Whereas cross country it is a constant battle not only to keep moving forward with force but also to remain balanced whilst the surface underfoot is constantly changing.

I know when I have changed from long periods of track and road running it has resulted in me feeling an increase in muscle recruitment and an extra level of fatigue even if I am running at comparative levels of pace to that on the road.

So, what is really going on?

We can all acknowledge it leaves us feeling slightly different. Managed surfaces allow our bodies to work more efficiently. As the repetitive movement allows the body to stabilise the movement using as little fibre recruitment as possible.

When we are running cross country and on uneven surfaces our body has to be prepared to protect the skeleton from a wider range of load forces.

This means more tissue has to be stimulated and remain stimulated to prepare for the increased variation in range of motion. This allows for more muscle fibre to be involved and thus we feel more alive. Equally, more stimulated fibre means more energy consumption and increased metabolic overload.

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I often hear coaches and runners claim cross country improves your strength.

I am afraid in science terms this is not strictly true. It will improve the loading potential of muscle fibre over a larger range of movement potential.

I would more suggest this is going to improve muscular endurance and mean there is less chance of performance breakdown. It is down to the individual how they want to term that, the one thing is you will feel stronger and capable of more for the experience.

When I have run cross-country, I have often found the reduced pace I can achieve a little demoralising but the benefits to the cardio vascular system is equal if not improved on running on the road.

It introduces some additional variables which road running cannot give you. The constant engagement, if you switch off you are likely to be the one that comes home covered in mud. Whereas on a lovely city road run you can almost zone out and forget to think about how you are moving.

I would say it is important to not expect performance initially. The need to take it easy to allow muscle to adapt to the greater demand is often overlooked.

Personally, I would never advise someone with weak ankles or niggles to use cross country to firm or address problems.

It would be my advice to approach with care and train by yourself over short distances whilst performing a separate strength and conditioning program until you are confident you can run the same distances of the road in specific designed cross-country courses.

There are many pros and cons to all exercise stimulus and it is important to always consider our health.

If you are a running with an advanced heart condition or circulatory disease it may be worth asking your doctor if it is okay for you to go from a sweaty environment into a cold one quickly?

We can all agree cross country can be hilarious for the social runner and a great stimulus for those looking for PBs on the road next year, but our health must come first at times.

I know after running in the heat this year completing the Half Marathon Des Sables it will be a very different experience taking part in the Hare and Hounds on Boxing Day being knee deep in mud and water.

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