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A Competitive Cross Country Program

by Cary Nerelli
Morro Bay High School

Building a competitive cross country program is an exciting and ever-evolving challenge. Though there are features that characterize any successful training regimen (base training, speed/pace work, rest days, etc.), the ways in which those features are utilized vary to a great degree. The myriad number of ways to train distance running athletes always provides fodder for discussion and debate. The real key, however, is not necessarily the methodology used to develop a team, but whether the athletes believe in themselves, their teammates, and their system.

The program that we have developed at Morro Bay High School is a product of many influences. Conversations with other coaches, keeping up-to-date with current thought, and the age-old method of trial and error have all played a role in our system. After every season our coaching staff assesses the season. The core of our system never really changes, but we are always tinkering with it to see if we can produce better results.

The crux of our philosophy is that we want our athletes to become lifetime runners. Even those who move on to race at the collegiate level are going to see an end to their competitive careers. We want all of our kids to continue their running after they leave us, simply for the physical and mental health benefits they will enjoy. With this concept in mind, our program strives to create a balance between providing a strong, competitive interscholastic tradition with a system that essentially "undertrains" our athletes.

The geographical location and temperate climate of the Central Coast, along with the proximity of a wide variety of running surfaces provide for a perfect environment for distance training. Morro Bay High School is located on the beach and we are able to utilize the hard-packed sand for long, leisurely runs that are not only conducive to LSD training, but provide for a scenic and relaxed run. The soft sand helps us build leg strength and gain mental focus and confidence. Hill workouts are held at a number of locations, each with its own particular appeal. The variety of locations keeps workouts from being monotonous and challenges the runners as they look forward to these "money in the bank" days. The Morro Bay Golf Course and the hills opposite our local junior college are key sites for our hillwork. The golf course is three miles from the high school and our work there gives us a chance to combine some distance-integrated hillwork. The workouts at the junior college are valuable because they replicate very much the conditions found at the Southern Section CIF prelims/finals course. Not only are these hills very close to the type found at CIF Finals, but weather conditions range from warm to very hot on the days we train there. In contrast, our workouts at school are held in generally mild weather conditions and we are seldom forced to curtail our work due to extreme heat or cold.

As with most schools, our training begins in the summer. We concentrate our summer training in having the athletes work almost exclusively on building their base. We encourage them to run hills and use fartlek runs as well, but the emphasis is on building a solid base. We have a training program that allows for all levels of entry ability (See accompanying summer training table.)

At the beginning of the summer, we place each athlete in his/her appropriate mileage program. As the summer progresses, an athlete may cross to a program with higher or lower mileage depending on his/her needs. Each program is divided into three week cycles called sets. The third week of each set is a "rest week." For example, an athlete training in Program #1 would start the summer running 34 miles each of the first two weeks, then drop to 32 miles in the rest week. He/she would run 40 miles each of the first two weeks of the second set, and 34 during the rest week. The runner follows the program for the entire twelve week summer and comes into the cross country season ready to continue training having averaged 41 miles per week.

The actual cross country season is divided into two phases: regular season, which encompasses the first eight weeks, and, championship stretch, in which we prepare for league, CIF, and State Finals. As we move from regular season into championship stretch, mileage is reduced, speed work is shortened but still intense, and we work to get our kids ready for peak performance. Like the summer program, our cross country season is divided into three week sets, featuring two up weeks and a rest week. The difference is in how the week is organized for training. We work in a pattern that becomes familiar to the athletes. They know that Mondays are LSD days, Tuesdays belong to hills, Wednesdays and Fridays are easy days, Thursdays are for speed/pace work, Saturdays are race days, and Sundays are "shake-out run" days. We believe in running seven days a week but keep a constant eye out for fatigue, especially in the rookies. Following is a sample week of training from a regular season set and one from championship stretch. Our top athletes run the maximum, everyone else works to their ability.


Week 4 (2nd week of Set #2) -- Total Mileage = 54

  • Sun., Oct. 1 Easy Run -- 7 miles easy distance, stretch
  • Mon., Oct. 2 Long Slow Distance Day. 10 miles easy run, 6x110 strides, stretch
  • Tues., Oct. 3 Hill Day -- 30 minutes on Saddles Loop at the local junior college. 1 mile warmup, 1 1/2 mile cool down, stretch
  • Wed., Oct. 4 Easy Day -- 1 mile warmup, stretch & drills, 7 miles easy distance, 6x110 strides, stretch
  • Thu., Oct. 5 Speed Work on the course -- 1 mile warmup/stretch, 6x800 at slightly faster than race pace/full recovery, 1 1/2 mile cool down, stretch
  • Fri., Oct. 6 Travel Day to Stanford -- stretch & drills, 7 miles easy, 6x110 strides
  • Sat., Oct. 7 Race Day -- long warmup, cool down to finish mileage, stretch


Week 11 (week 2 of set #4) -- Total Mileage = 35

  • Sun., Nov. 12 Long Slow Distance -- 7 miles, 4x110 strides, stretch
  • Mon., Nov. 13 Speed Work on track -- 1 mile warmup, stretch/drills, 4x400 at faster than race pace, 4x110 strides, stretch
  • Tues., Nov. 14 Easy Day -- 1 mile warmup, stretch/drills, 4 miles easy, 4x110 strides, stretch
  • Wed., Nov. 15 Downhill Day -- 2 mile warmup, 6 x downhill (these are very slight angled downhill on grass surface), 1 mile cool down, stretch
  • Thu., Nov. 16 Easy Day -- 1 mile warmup, stretch/drills, 4 miles easy, 4x110 strides, stretch
  • Fri., Nov. 17 Travel Day to CIF Finals -- 1 mile warmup, stretch/drills, 3 miles easy, stretch
  • Sat., Nov. 18 Race Day -- race day warmup/stretches/drills, cool down to finish mileage, stretch


One factor that must be figured into the equation when we are working on our periodization plan is travel. Morro Bay is among a number of schools that must travel considerable miles, especially as championship stretch nears. We are located near the extreme north of the CIF Southern Section and several of our competitions involve overnight travel. We prepare for the rigors of the CIF Prelims, Finals and State Meet by travelling overnight three consecutive weekends early in the season. Our competitions at major invitationals at Bell-Jeff (Los Angeles), Stanford and Clovis (state meet course), not only give us a chance to race against outstanding competition, but prepare us for making the trips during the championship stretch. Because we travel so much early, making a long trip is nothing to be feared, nor anything to get over-excited about for our athletes. In addition, we have traditional places at which we lodge and stop for meals, so the athletes are always in familiar surroundings.

Many coaches view the amount of travelling we have to face as something negative. We look at the travel as something positive. Travelling as a team, especially in the early season, creates bonds among the athletes that are very strong. It also gives us time to talk about the course and competition we are facing, discuss race strategy, and just "hang together" as a group. We know where our athletes are and how late they are out the night before the championship races. If we happen to do well in the big races, we have plenty of time to celebrate together on the way home. If we do not have an especially good race, either as individuals or as a team, we have time just to be with each other and be of mutual support.

With the completion of our last competition (hopefully the State Meet), our athletes take one or two weeks off training. Those athletes that do not move on to a winter season sport begin the lifting and running program that will carry them through to the start of the track season. As February approaches, we hope our distance runners are again mentally focused and physically ready to begin the track season. Hopefully, individual and/or team successes they have had in cross country will propel them into a solid track year.

Every cross country coach and program has features that are unique to that program. As mentioned earlier in this article, there are several paths that can be taken to ready teams and/or individuals for a competitive season. Whatever path is chosen, the overriding factor that is essential for maximum performance level is the confidence the athlete has in the training system.


Morro Bay High School

Summer Running Program


Set                Programs#    Week               
1   2    3    4 5    Novice1    June 19-25      
34  28   24  18 12   6          June 26-July 2   
34  28   24  18 12   6          July 3-9           
32  25   21  15 12   62         July 10-16      
40  34   32  24 18   9          July 17-23      
40  34   32  24 18   9          July 24-30      
34  28   26  20 15   93         July 31-Aug 6    
44  38   36  30 24   15         Aug 7-13           
44  38   36  30 24   15         Aug 14-20       
38  34   32  25 20   154        Aug 21-27       
48  44   40  36 30   21         Aug 28-Sept 3    
48  44   40  36 30   21         Sept 4-11       
41  37   32  30 25   15
Total Miles:       
445 387 354 291 228 141

Avg. Miles/Week:    
41     35    33  27 21   13


INSTRUCTIONS: Most of this mileage should be EASY DISTANCE. The purpose is to build up your distance base for the season. After Set #1, work 1 day per week of fartlek. In Sets #3 and 4, you can work harder and longer on the fartleks. HILL WORK 1 day every 10 days. One distance day each week should be your long day. Sunday or Monday being the best one of these.


Sample Program: Using set 1 of Program 1

    6/19    6/20    6/21    6/22    6/23    6/24    6/25    
    7       4       5       4       5       5       4    = 34 mi.
Long Day    Easy    Easy    Fartlek Easy    Easy    Hills
    1) Keep a log of your daily runs.   
    2) Stretch before and after you run.    
    3) Get in the habit of doing strides    
    4) DRILLS!  

Let's get mentally and physically prepared to do well this year. Have a nice summer -- check in with me every week or two.

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