Cross country is a unique balance between running a set pace, racing against the competition, and adjusting for each individual course. Let’s take a look at what is required to run your best in a competitive cross country race.
1. Know your pace. Most distance runners are aware of the importance of setting a correct pace that they can effectively sustain for the duration of the competition. No surprise here, but most runners take it out too hard. In fact, typically WAY too hard. The mass start creates a sense of near panic, often times forcing athletes to sabotage the remainder of the race for what they believe to be good positioning in the first 400 meters. While good positioning matters, it cannot come at the complete expense of the remaining nearly 3 miles of the race. Instead of getting sucked into this situation, talk with your coach about the average paces it will take per mile to achieve your goal time for that specific meet. For instance, 6:30 per mile will get you a time of a little over 20:00. So, do not go out in 5:45. I repeat DO NOT GO OUT IN 5:45! For every second you go out above even pace for your goal time in the first mile, you could lose as much as 5 seconds in the third mile. If that doesn’t sound like a good trade, it’s because it isn’t! As always. exceptions do apply as you may need to make small adjustments to account for things such as courses that have a narrow lane to race and may make passing extremely difficult. Talk with your coach to determine these adjustments and find the best balance to ensure you save enough in your legs for a strong second half of the race when it really counts.
2. Know your competition. If knowing your pace is of prime importance, knowing your competition is a close second. You will be likely racing head to head with dozens, if not hundreds, of runners. It is essential that you have a solid idea of where you should be in that pack of runners at different points in the race. If you are a favorite you will want to know who the other challengers are and, if possible, the style of race they like to run. This may be a case where you have to adjust your pace to try to inflict challenges on your opponent. These challenges may not be in line with your perfect pacing, but they may be what is necessary to defeat an opponent. Similarly, team strategy also comes into play. Your coach should be able to tell you which teams are your nearest challengers and how you should position yourselves relative to them to give the team the best chance to come out on top. Again, knowing the typical strategy of the teams you are racing (hard starters, fast finishers, etc.) will allow you to effectively combat those strategies while also not sabotaging your own race.
3. Know the course. The best pacing strategy and the best strategy to defeat your competition can all be undone by failing to account for the specific challenges of each individual course. Whether you are dealing with a course containing the “Hill from Hell”, or you are running in Kansas (see pancake flat), you will want to know exactly the points in the race where things can go spectacularly great or devastatingly wrong. Maybe the first half of the race is downhill. You are feeling awesome and flying along only to realize that at halfway you have to retrace your steps back uphill in the second half. Or maybe you are racing an 800 superstar and they can thrive on a flat course. You need to have strategies to account for these unique differences of every course.
Over the next few days I will be diving deeper into each of these strategies to give you more specific tools to turn these 3 simple keys into PR setters for you.
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Ben Tilus – Owner/Head Performance Coach – XLR8 Performance Lab