Many runners take on miles of tarmac on a daily basis, comfortably losing themselves in “the zone” whilst their legs do all the work. The appeal of running is being able to achieve this state of “euphoria” and the natural high that follows a good run. On the other side of the coin, cross country running is a selfish child that demands your attention constantly, and just a small lapse in concentration could mean a painful fall or sinking into mud up to your proverbials!
Every footfall is vital, placement must be carefully considered. Unlike the level terrain of the road or pavement, each step could place your foot at a different angle requiring a different muscle set to push off each time. And therein lies a major benefit of the cross country sport. It gives your body a much more thorough workout than its tamer counterparts, Mr Road and his alluring partner Ms Pavement.
A five mile cross country course provides a much greater health benefit than a five mile road course. There are those tarmac stalwarts who would argue the toss, but if you can run up the side of a rocky hill and make your way down the treachery of the other side applying a combination of brakes and force, it stands to reason that your body will work harder.
Your mind has to stay focused on the route, unlike a road route there are no markers or guidance. You simply have to make a split second decision on which patch of ground you’re going to run across and commit to it. You learn very quickly to judge the terrain and avoid the pitfalls.
To test the theory I did a basic timed experiment – I ran for five minutes at a quick pace along a flat section of road. I rested until my heart rate was back to normal. I then picked a relatively flat field and ran round it for the same period of time. Without a shadow of a doubt my muscles burned more after doing the latter route, and my breathing was more laboured.
I’m not knocking the appeals and benefits of road running. I enjoy a good hour on the road, alone with my thoughts, my music, and just feeling in tune with my body and heart rate. But I know that if I include the occasional cross country route into my training regime, I will certainly reap the benefits. And if you take it one step further and do your hill and interval training on cross country terrain, imagine the full body and cardiovascular workout levels your body will receive.
So embrace the mud, sniff the country air, don’t worry about the cow pats and veer off that tarmac. Find a good footpath, there are loads of resources out there telling you where all the public footpaths are. Start on the tarmac, go out into the countryside and do your final few miles back on the tarmac. What you end up with is an athletic equivalent of Hovis Best of Both Bread! Take a bite, you’ll love it!