Neuromuscular and “Speed” work:
Having covered both specific work and aerobic work during the competition period, I’ll now move on to probably the most controversial and perhaps confusing part of training for cross country. Depending on the coach you listen to or the program that you follow there could be a very heavy emphasis on speed work during the competition period or no emphasis at all. Before we continue, I’d like to break the faster work down into two categories.
The first is neuromuscular work. This refers to running that is max or near maximum speed. It is done almost purely for neural and mechanical benefits. Look at the summer base section for more information on neuromuscular work.
The second classification I use is “anaerobic” work. While technically not the correct scientific term, it’s what has stuck in my training. Also, it makes it easier to grasp the concept. If we break down the training based on the event distance, which in this case is a 5k, then classifying certain training intensities is relatively easy. If we train at slower than 5k pace, it is more aerobic. The further away from race pace you get, the less specific it gets. So, that’s why 10k to LT pace is considered direct aerobic support and marathon pace and slower is just general aerobic support. The same is true on the speed side. 2 mile to mile pace is seen as direct anaerobic support to the race pace, while 800 and down is general anaerobic support, or neuromuscular work. Now that we have the two different classifications for speed training, we can go into detail on how they are used during the competition period.
To start off with, let’s look at where we left off in the base period of training. At the end of the summer, various types of neuromuscular work were emphasized. Depending on the athlete, hill sprints or flat sprints with some longer but still fast segments added on were being done. A typical example of the neuromuscular work being done would be, 6x10sec hill sprints with 3x25sec hills after.
During the competition phase, I like to take the neuromuscular work in two directions. First, it is done at maintenance level, which means similar workouts that would be done during the base phase, just with less volume or done less frequently. The idea is to keep what we have already developed. So, doing a set of hill sprints (i.e. 8x10sec) every 7-14 days depending on the athlete and season would be an example. The good thing about hill sprints is that if the athletes have been doing them since the summer, they are basically an easy workout on the muscular system. They only really fatigue the CNS (Central Nervous System). That means that these can be placed the day before workouts without any consequences for the most part.
The second direction to take neuromuscular work is to combine it with specific work. By combining something like hill sprints to specific work, you can increase the strength endurance of the muscles. This means that you can work on extending the endurance of the fibers that you recruit while doing the hill sprints. In addition, doing hill sprints in a fatigued state will help to force recruitment of fibers. A good way to do this is to insert hill sprints in between sets of specific endurance intervals. For example, you might have an athlete scheduled for 3 sets of 3x600. After each set insert 4-6x 10sec hill sprints.
The other classification of speed work is anaerobic work. The degree and intensity of the anaerobic work needed for a 5k cross country race varies a lot based on what each individual needs. A slow twitch type athlete will need very little anaerobic work to reach his potential, and too much can easily upset the balance and temporarily degrade his aerobic system. On the other hand, a fast twitch type athlete needs more anaerobic work too bring him to peak race fitness. Even in simple terms, this makes sense when you think about what it will take to recruit the fiber the athlete has. A FT athlete needs more intensity to recruit and train those fibers. Because of these differences, I’ll split up the discussion on anaerobic work into what a ST versus what a FT athlete would do. Then bring it all together, showing how to progress anaerobic work.
Looking at where we left off in the summer, the athletes were doing some neuromuscular work and some easy 200s or speed variations at 3200 down to mile pace. Where we go from here depends on the athlete.
ST athlete-Types of anaerobic development:
A ST athlete will need less anaerobic work to bring him to peak 5k racing shape. Because of this, there will be a limited number of full anaerobic workouts. Instead, small amounts of faster work will be added on to the end of other workouts, and maintenance anaerobic sessions will be done. These combination workouts will serve as a transition into about two full anaerobic workouts that are done sometime during the last part of the season (last 6 weeks or so).
Making a combination workout out of a high end aerobic workout is as simple as adding on a couple reps of faster work at the end of the threshold segment. An example would be 20min at LT followed by 4x400m at 1 mile pace. Similarly, you can add faster segments at the end of a specific endurance workout, such as doing 5x800 with 4x 200 at mile pace at the end. Finally, adding some longer hills after a neuromuscular hill sprint workout is another way to accomplish the goal. Progressing these workouts into a full anaerobic workout is also relatively easy. Simply shift the ratio of the workout more onto the anaerobic side of it. An example would be going from 20min LT and 4x400 to 10min LT with 6x400m to a full session of 8x400.
Since High school runners race often, a good session to do a few days before races is a maintenance session of anaerobic work. They are really only medium workouts but do a great job of providing a small anaerobic stimulus and getting the athletes ready to race by increasing muscle tension. An example of one of these workouts would be 8-12x200 with 200 jog at 2 mile down to mile pace. Essentially these are just fast aerobic intervals.
FT athlete-Types of anaerobic development:
Due to his greater anaerobic capacity, a FT athlete will use his anaerobic system to a higher degree than a ST athlete. In addition, he will have more FT muscles which means that he needs more higher intensity work to recruit and train those muscles. We will use two different kinds of faster paced workouts, fast aerobic intervals and anaerobic repeats.
Fast aerobic intervals are designed to enhance the aerobic abilities of the FT fibers. As long as you manipulate the workout, they will essentially give the same benefits of typical aerobic workouts like threshold runs. These are included throughout the training cycle, as can be seen in the inclusion of speed variations, easy fartlek, and pace 200’s earlier in the cycle. These workouts are essentially the same as maintenance anaerobic workouts for a ST athlete, except the volume is larger. Instead of doing 8-12x200, the workout might be 16-20x200. The recovery period might also be shorter to keep things aerobic.
Full Anaerobic workouts for a ST and FT athlete are similar. The traditional 10x400 at mile pace is a good example of one. Generally, during CC season I like to use a mix of mile and 2 mile pace work, trending towards 2 mile as we get closer to peaking. This is because 2 mile pace serves as specific anaerobic support to the 5k. Using hill repeats is a good way to get anaerobic work done in cross country without worrying too much about the debilitating effects of doing too much anaerobic work. In addition, doing the work on hills will further develop strength endurance, so you are killing two birds with one stone.
Next, i'll add a little more on speed work and kind of tie everything together with a post on peaking.