Oaks High School has run well just often enough at the end of
the season to gain a reputation for peaking. Coaches have asked
me on occasion if there is anything special that we do, perhaps
some secret, which allows us to perform at our best in the big
meets. I never know if I'm quite believed when I say that we don't
do anything special. If there is a secret, that's it.
One of the first barriers
to peaking is the coach's belief that he can, and must, make it
happen--that it's somehow his responsibility. Peaking is a matter
of circumstance. The championship races have the best competition
and are the culmination of several months of training. It stands
to reason that they will yield the best performances, especially
if the weather is kind.
The idea of resting
to produce a peak seems to be borrowed from swimming, where athletes
not only taper, but also even shave their body hair. Believe it
or not, I have had a few athletes over the years ask me if I though
they should try that! But, because of the buoyancy of water, swimmers
are able to perform a great deal more work of a cardiovascular
nature with much less stress to the musculoskeletal system than
runners. A little rest before a big competition may in fact help
them with a peak. For the most part, because runners are prisoners
of gravity, we really do the bare minimum. If we try for more,
we inevitably get injured.
At Thousand Oaks High
School, the training sessions last about two hours. But with stretching,
form drills, uninspired and redundant speeches by the coaching
staff, the actual running is about 45 minutes or less. Thousand
Oaks runners rest about 23 hours and 15 minutes a day; and still
we get injured! The point is, if we start resting even more than
that, the fitness level is going to take a plunge. So I believe
in doing the same basic training all the way to the end. The body
can adjust to about any routine over time; however, if you vary
the routine too much, with either too much work, too little work,
or work of a radically different nature, the body's going to rebel,
usually with a very flat looking race.
Another popular approach
to peaking is to not only lessen the work load, but also increase
the speed sessions, in some cases to near sprint sessions. This
approach, too, is fraught with danger. At best, the result will
be a near effortless over-commitment of the opening mile of the
race, followed, in most cases, by a steady fade. Too much speed
can also make an athlete tight and sore and completely flat. There
is a bit of a secret here: the athlete running the fastest at
the end of the race is usually the athlete with the most endurance
and not the athlete with the most speed. There are exceptions
to this, especially if the race has been at less than maximal
speed. But most coaches can recall instances of 4:25 milers kicking
down 4:08 milers at the end of a cross country race. Basic speed
does a runner little good if he is not as fit as his competition.
Here are some of the
things we do at Thousand Oaks High School to get ready for the
1. Cut back
a little on the intensity, but not the volume of work.
2. Have a general
race plan, but don't make it too specific. In other words, give
the athlete lots of freedom to follow his own racing instincts.
talks should be early in the competition week. The closer the
race, the less said. Avoid talking to athletes about the competition
on race day itself. They're just kids and they freak!
4. It's easier
for an athlete to race the field than another individual. We almost
never talk about beating a certain runner; that's generally irrelevant.
We shoot for reasonable places, as in 2 in the top 10, 3 in the
top 15, all scorers in the top 25, if we've got a talented group.
(That's one of the many reasons cross country is such a great
sport. I find competitors to be much friendlier in cross country
than track, where the competition is, of necessity, more one-on-one).
In one memorable race,
Thousand Oaks upset the favored team in C.I.F. finals. That team
wore radically new uniforms for the big race. Neither our runners
nor the coaches caught this and thus, never even saw them in the
race. We were surprised to find out that we had won by three points.
But our runners had gone out and got the places they were supposed
to. And this is a unique problem at State, where there are so
many individuals who do not count in the scoring. I have a hard
time advising our runners what places to shoot for. Ironically,
the further back they are in the pack, the more individuals there
are in front of them, and so the further up they actually are
finishing. The state system still befuddles me, but it's a piece
of cake next to the blizzard of options available to a southern
section finalist, where an individual has two or three actual
5. Avoid absolutely
anything approaching mental coaching. There may, in fact, be a
mental side to competition, but it is essentially uncoachable.
Leave it alone; it's a Pandora's Box. Once you bring it up, you
can never get rid of it. This includes running imaginary races
in your head, hypnosis and self-hypnosis, relaxation exercises,
psyching up, etc. I tell runners that you can't run a race until
the gun goes off. Have a general plan and then forget about the
race. The less you think about it, the better, and that includes
the coach. You can whip yourself into a frenzy thinking too much
about the big race. It's not good for you. It's not good for your
team, and it's anything but relaxing.
6. No race is
the race! There is always another race!