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Planned Balance (Multilateral Training) for Cross Country Runners

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by Scott Christensen

Cross country coaches frequently wear blinders while setting up the training macrocycles for their athletes, instead of using multilateral training.  This narrow view prevents coaches from fully developing their athletes into a complete and balanced manner.

Sport scientists have done an excellent job at identifying the five major bio-motor factors that an athlete needs to develop for athletic success regardless of the sport.  These bio-motor skills are properly called Primary Physical Components (PPC). The five PPC are:
1) Speed; which is the ability to move the body and body parts rapidly,
2) Strength; which is the ability to produce force,
3) Flexibility; which is the ability to achieve large ranges of motions in the joints,
4) Coordination; which is the ability to perform skills efficiently and accurately and,
5) Endurance; which is the ability to withstand fatigue.  
Without question cross country runners require a highly developed endurance physical component to be successful.  In contrast, a hurdler needs a highly developed coordination physical component. Other events need an emphasis on other PPC.  The point is, all track events usually have one PPC that is the key to success in that event.  The same is true for all sports and their lineup positions.  It is up to the coach to balance the development of these PPC in order to match the needs of the position, or in the sport of track and field, the specific event.

Multilateral training protocol recognizes that all five of these PPC contribute in some way to performance in all events, so all should be developed through training in order to improve performance.  These PPC are also interdependent upon each other so great development of any of these components is impossible without parallel improvements in other components.  The basis behind developing a PPC multilateral training protocol is that coaches and athletes must over time address all of these PPC in some planned balance and that the balance of development stages of these PPC is as crucial as the absolute development level of any one of them, such as the endurance component for the cross country runner.

In cross country running training, endurance is developed through the training modalities of continuous running, interval running, and repetition running.  Since all three of these vary chiefly in the rest between bouts of work performed in a training session, improved endurance is the result if implemented properly.

Speed in cross country running training is developed by training units of maximum speed and speed endurance.  These two training modalities develops faster maximum speed, so that sub-maximal speed becomes more efficient.

Running on an incline (hill) can build up strength in your cross country athletes
Running on an incline (hill) can build up strength in your cross country athletes
Strength in cross country running training is concentrated on moving the weight of the body more effectively by producing greater force against the Earth by the muscles of the legs.  Any running will develop this type of strength, but the faster one trains the greater the force production.  Another aspect of this type of training is to add an incline.  This necessitates greater force production by the legs to fight the incline.  Core body strength falls in this category as improvement in body core strength puts the runner’s body in a more effective body posture for an improvement in running economy.

Flexibility development in cross country running training strikes to improve the range of motion of the joints of the pelvis, knee, and ankle.  An improvement of one inch in one’s stride length, accomplished with increased joint mobility, results in far fewer steps in a 5000 meter race.  Static stretching, dynamic stretching, and plyometric drills on joints that are very warm will result in a much greater mobility over the long run.

Coordination skill improvement in cross country running training is often just ignored.  Yet, because the foot is always searching for balance upon ground contact, it is fundamental in improving the runner’s overall time.  Wasted time on the ground is what slows many runners, yet they lack the coordination to do anything about it.  Bounding drills, skipping, and backward thrusts greatly improve ground-preparation contact coordination skills, as will maximum speed running and some forms of sub-maximal barefoot running.  Stationary drills such as craning and fast jumping-jacks can also help improve ground preparation contact coordination skills.

Planned balance in cross country running multilateral training emphasizes that endurance is the most critical PPC to fully develop.  But, it also recognizes that speed, strength, flexibility, and coordination must also be developed for complete athletic success.


I have quite a few similarities in my developing middle distance program I am currently working through. Time will yield the results and will also influence the evolving nature of the program. But so far I am quite impressed with the information and methods that Scott Christensen uses, and I must admit, it has been an influence in my programming. I am happy to get it wrong, as long as learn from it and correct the mistakes made so these kids reap the benefits. But I'm confident I'm on the right path in the right direction.

I take time to help these kids develop coordinated movements, be it in the gym, on the track doing drills or even kicking the soccer ball around or throwing the Frisbee. We touch acceleration every training session, finish every session with flexibility exercises, or strength routines then flexibility. The progressive overload of the program ensures the endurance factor is taken care of too.

I hope this proves to be as insightful for other coaches out there as it has for me, as find too many kids lack the coordination skills to develop their athleticism.

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