Cross country, trails and hill training

The mere mention of cross country will take some of you back to your school days, being barked at by the PE teacher and told to run for what seemed like eternity round a bog in plimsolls. But I bring good news – as an adult and a runner the experience is entirely different. Up and down the country, in parks and green spaces most Saturdays throughout autumn and winter there is an opportunity to take part in an cross country race of approx. 5-10km. Most races are organised by local leagues and you need to be a member of a running club to take part. If you are not already a member of a running club you can search for a club here. If you prefer to keep your running as a solo pursuit, the trail running calendar is packed with events than you can take part in independently as a non -club member.seaa-start

If you are an endurance road runner (10km to marathon distance) preparing for cross country and trail races has numerous benefits;

  • hills build strength in tendons, muscles and ligaments in a functional way
  • uphill running enhances technique by increasing cadence, improving your stride shape and encouraging better arm drive
  • helps to build power as you overcome gravity to run up the hills
  • the variety of courses offers a change from your usual road circuit and a mental break
  • soft surfaces are more forgiving on your joints than the road
  • bad conditions, whilst at the time feel tough, develop mental strength

So now you know the benefits, you may be wondering how to prepare for an off road event.

Let’s start with kit.  The only major difference is shoes. If it is not too wet your road trainers will probably do, but once you’ve tried and enjoyed a few events investing in spikes or trial shoes will feel logical.  You’ll gain extra grip plus they are often more lightweight than road running shoes.

In terms of training, hill sessions are key to prepare you for cross country and trial events. Listed below are a few options for weekly hill training based on your experience and goals.

For all hill work you’ll need to identify a hill local to you between 50 – 300m long, ideally off road. All sessions should be top and tailed by a 5-10min jog warm up, dynamic stretches and a jog cool down plus static stretching.


Complete beginner’s hills

6 x 30 seconds faster than 5km pace with jog back recovery


Endurance hills

8 x 2 min hill just slower than your 5k pace with jog back recovery


Speed hills 

15 x 45 secs hill at faster than your 5k pace with a jog back recovery


Tailor these sessions to you by increasing intensity – by increasing reps and effort lengths. For endurance hills go up to 3 minutes. For speed, if you are running for longer than 90 seconds you are entering the endurance zone.


Form enhancing hills

For this you need a hill which has a flat section at the top where you will be focusing on form.

10 x 80 seconds at 5km pace, for the last 20 seconds (on the flat section) focus on form – as per the below pointers.



Once you are comfortable with the ups, lend a thought to the downs. The Kenyans spend a month on downhills – the main benefit being around improved cadence, body position and contact.  Running well downhill is a skill which needs practice, races can be lost and won on the downhill section. Find a gentle hill ideally with a soft surface, or circuit of hills, with flat section (s) at the bottom. Start off with 50m efforts downhill  – focusing on technique and the natural pace of the hill – as you become more comfortable you can extend the distance that you are running for. Walk or jog back up the hill. Or you could practice this on a route of rolling hills so you practice transitioning from uphill to downhill as you would in a race.


Pre race sharpener

45 seconds down hill at 1 mile pace, 30 seconds rest, then back up the hill to get to your start point in 45 seconds or less

Recovery for 3/ 4 mins and then repeat 5/6 times.


Whilst hills themselves are form enhancing, it is worth thinking about your technique in order to maximise the benefits and enjoyment of hill training.

Uphill – Stand tall, look to the top of the hill and elongate your body by lifting your hips. Lift your knees high to power up the hill. Take short quick strides. Use your arms to drive you uphill and try not to let your arms cross the midline of your body. Focus on activating your glutes and hamstrings so that you don’t overstress your calf muscles.


Downhill – you will feel more relaxed than going uphill, but keep a fast cadence to maintain a short stride so that you don’t jar or ‘break’ as you come down the hill. Allow your arms to float to help you with balance. Listen out for the sound of your feet landing and try to quieten any slaps down.

Remember to build up your training sensibly and avoid hill training if you have an injury/niggle.