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Training Plans

Train Like a Harrier

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8 cross-country workouts to improve your trail times

Photo by Oscar Rethwill.

There’s nothing quite like the start of a cross-country race—morning frost on the grass, 200 runners anxiously awaiting the starter’s gun and the crackling of spikes on patches of pavement between dirt trails and grass fields. Unlike their track and road counterparts, the challenge of a cross-country race lies more in the sheer grit of competition than in maintenance of a steady pace.

Cross-country runners are often referred to as “harriers,” referring to a breed of hounds that is specifically bred for hunting hares. Below are eight cross-country workouts to help you train as a harrier and get faster on the trails. Because cross country is more about maintaining an even effort than a specific pace, these exercises can help you better tune into your body’s cues and feedback. Whether you’ve ever run XC competitively or not, these workouts will boost your speed, stamina and confidence when venturing off-road.

Complete these workouts on gentle, non-technical trails to reap the cardiovascular benefits without worrying too much about your footing while still enjoying a forgiving training surface. Precede each workout with an adequate warm-up and follow it with a cool-down. Start slowly and increase speed steadily until you reach workout pace.

Workout 1

Acidosis Threshold (AT) Run

OBJECTIVE: Develop sustainable speed for longer races

Time: 20 to 40 minutes

On a flat trail, run 3 to 5 miles at AT Pace (see Pacing Your Workouts). if you’re training for longer trail races, extend this workout by 3 to 4 miles, or 20 to 30 minutes, and run 15 to 20 seconds per mile slower than AT pace to practice holding a comfortably hard pace for an extended time.

Workout 2

VO2 max intervals

OBJECTIVE: Raise your vO2 max to boost aerobic speed

Time: 30 to 50 minutes

Run 5 to 6 x 1⁄2-mile repeats at vO2 max pace, or 3 to 4 x 3⁄4-mile repeats, with a 1:≤1 work-to-rest ratio. For example, if you can run two miles in 12 minutes, you should run each 1⁄2 mile in 3 minutes with 21⁄2 to 3 minutes jog recovery.

Workout 3

Anaerobic Capacity Pyramid

OBJECTIVE inject speed into your legs

Time: 25 to 60 minutes

Run 1 to 2 sets of 1, 11⁄2, 2, 21⁄2, 2, 11⁄2
and 1 minute at anaerobic pace with a 1:11⁄2 work-to-rest ratio and 5-minute jog recovery between sets.

Workout 4

Long Hill Repeats

OBJECTIVE: Boost leg muscle power and vary leg, arm and core muscle use from flat running

Time: 40 to 70 minutes

Run 5 to 6 sets of 1⁄2-mile uphill (5-to- 8-percent slope) at 5K race pace with jog back down as recovery.

Workout 5


OBJECTIVE: increase both your uphill and downhill speed

Time: 30 to 60 minutes

Run 4 sets of 1⁄2-mile uphill and 1⁄4-mile downhill (2-to-3-percent slope) at 5K race pace with 3-minute jog recovery.

Workout 6

3-2-1 Fartlek

OBJECTIVE: Practice rapid changes
 in pace

Time: 25 to 50 minutes

Run 3 to 6 miles, picking up the pace for 3 minutes, 2 minutes and 1 minute with equal time jog recovery. Repeat this 3-2-1 pattern throughout your run.

Workout 7

The Surge Run

OBJECTIVE: Practice random surges in speed to adapt to race competition

Time: 30 to 60 minutes

Run with other runners of similar ability level for 4 to 6 miles on trails, with one runner designated as the pacesetter, whose job 
it is to surge at different points in the run. When the pacesetter surges, practice reacting quickly by picking up your pace to match the pacesetter. You can vary the workout by allowing multiple pacesetters.

Workout 8

Hares and Hounds

OBJECTIVE: Have fun while developing speed and agility

Time: Any

For a contemporary version of the early 19th-century English game that started the sport of cross country, designate one or two runners in your group as the hares, with all other runners designated as hounds. The hares take off first through woods and on trails, leaving a trail behind them using powdered chalk or flour and hiding small objects (e.g., flags, tennis balls) along the way. Once the hares get a head start, the hounds take off on their scavenger hunt, following
 the trail left by the hares and searching for the hidden objects. The hounds can be divided into teams and compete against each other to find the most objects.

Dr. Jason Karp is a nationally recognized coach and 2011 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year. He holds a Ph.D. in exercise physiology and is the author of five books, including 101 developmental concepts & Work- outs for cross country runners.



20 to 25 seconds per mile slower than 5K race pace

85-percent max heart rate

This is the fastest speed you can sustain aerobically, which enables you to hold a faster submaximal pace for an extended time.


2-mile race pace

95-to-100-percent max heart rate

VO2 max is the maximum volume of oxygen your muscles consume per minute, which gives you a bigger aerobic engine and enables you to run at a faster maximal aerobic pace.


Mile race pace

Fast enough that you’re breathing very hard and get “heavy legs”

Anaerobic capacity refers to the ability of your muscles to generate energy without oxygen, which improves your speed for shorter races.