Get ready for winter racing with 2009 ITU World Champion Alistair Brownlee’s guide to getting mucky on the run

I’ve always loved running, but I far prefer going cross country to running on the road. Running through the mud feels different from the roads and track – I just love the feel of it. Getting messy is always fun! I do it, though, because I enjoy it.Alistair Brownlee off-road running

I first started doing cross country running when I was eight or nine years old. There are lots of benefits. During the winter, there are loads of races around, so there are plenty of chances to compete. It also breaks up the monotony of training. That’s not why I used to do it, but now I’m focused on the tri season it’s great to break up winter training and the cross country season does that quite well.

Getting out into the countryside, in the open air, with great views, is also a benefit – though being winter, it can get a bit cold! I might be a Yorkshireman, but I’m not sure I’ll ever fully get used to the cold!

One of the best things about cross country running is that it definitely helps prevent injuries. The soft ground helps, but there are other factors. When you’re running on the road, every time your foot lands it’s the same. On cross-country, it’s different every time you put your foot down. There’s a different type of force going through your legs every stride. The thrusting and bending also helps strengthen muscles that might otherwise not get worked too hard in road running. People say it makes you more robust as a runner, and I’d agree. If you can run fast on soft ground, you can run fast on any ground.

Be prepared

If you’re going to give cross country running a go this winter, make sure you have a good pair of cross country spikes or trail shoes. If you head out in your normal running shoes, you might slip-up and injure yourself.

Make sure, too, that you have some warm clothes with you. It can get pretty cold, so there’s no point just going out in your tri suit – you’ll freeze! It’s better to have extra layers.

Think training

If I was going out on a training run I’d probably just head out down the canal near my home and out into the countryside from there. I do a lot of running on Ilkley Moor too. The terrain can be testing, but if you’re running well it doesn’t really matter. It’s hilly, but that’s all part of the fun.

I really prefer running off-road, so grass or mud rather than well-kept paths, because that would be like running on the road anyway. I tend to mix it up between woodland, hills and moors – anything as long as it’s a bit different and not too straight and boring.

I would advise people to do as much running as they can off-road. If they’re used to running off-road, I’d say mix it up and keep it varied. So perhaps do one run a  week that’s on pretty rough ground, and another on grass. If you’re not used to running off road, keep to smooth grass to start with, and then build it up once you’re more confident. If you live somewhere flat, drive somewhere hilly every week for a long run. If you have to drive for 10 minutes to get to a good spot, do it. Keeping the trails and tracks you use varied helps keep your enthusiasm levels up. If you’re only going to do one session a fortnight, make it quite hard on some heavy, hilly ground.

Run for fun

The biggest benefit of cross country, for me at least, is that it teaches you to really love running. I’ve run in so many nice places that are really inspiring. If you enjoy it, then you want to do it more – purely for enjoyment, rather than thinking of it just as training. Then you get better at it, because you do more of it.

You can say it’s good for running strength, speed and endurance – and those things are important benefits – but for me it always comes back to enjoyment.

Of all the places I’ve been around the world, Britain has got the best terrain and climate for off-road running. It’s very rarely too cold to run, the climate means that the ground is often quite soft, and we’ve got a great network of footpaths covering most of the country. That makes it brilliant for cross-country running.

Race off road

Running for enjoyment and training is all very well, but at some point you should think about entering some races. It’s a great way to break up the off-season and it allows you to keep that competitive edge.

In terms of structuring your off-season, I’d suggest identifying a couple of races you’d like to do well in, and working your training around that. For example, the county championships are always at the beginning of January, or maybe a race in March to finish off that phase of your pre-season, before the triathlon season starts.

Look up your nearest local cross country league. They tend to be made up of about four or five races, starting in November and running through to January and February. I’d say sign up and do those races. Don’t take them too seriously – think of each one as a training session at the weekend. You can then use those to prepare for the one race, like the county championships, that you’d like to do well in. You can take that a bit more seriously and taper down your preparation, as you would for any big race.

Traditionally, the first cross country league races of the year are a bit shorter – usually around 8km. That means there’s a natural progression over the course of the season towards the longer distances – usually 12km. Unless you’re a novice runner, I wouldn’t worry about distances too much though, or starting too easy. It will be testing from the off. Just get stuck in.

Race ready

Don’t expect your first big cross country race to be easy. The pace can be pretty quick, and a 12K race is very hard work. Keeping up with the pace of the leaders, on soft ground and in bad weather makes you work hard physically and toughens you up mentally. There’s no room for laziness. I’m sure the amount of cross-country running I’ve done over the years has helped me get where I am today.

When it comes to racing, I tend to just go out and run hard – as you generally would at the end of a triathlon sprint. The 12K runs require a bit more pacing, but it’s always fairly quick. Time-wise, you should be looking to run a similar pace to how you’d fare in a straight 10K road race.

Cross country courses change every year, but my favourite is always the Yorkshire Championships. I’ve won it seven times in total now, six times as a junior and once as a senior. That’s my local county championship, so it means a lot. It’s always right at the start of the year, which feels like a funny time to have a race, but it’s a lot of fun. There will be regional and county championships near you, so look them up and give them a go!

Keep racing all winter with the Asics Winter Off-Road Series in association with and Triathlon Plus