Training to Race
By David Olds
Santa Monica, CA
Running fast and racing are two very different things, and training to
run fast and training to race are also two rather different things. "Training to
race" takes the principles behind training to run fast and gives them a more specific
focus--comeptition. Unfortunately, many of us focus our workouts exclusively on running
fast while relegating the tactics and strategies of racing to post-workout or pre-race
discussion. In doing this we separate the running from the racing. Racing and competing
well require skills which must be taught and practiced, not just discussed. Therefore,
training itself should be designed to both teach and practice the tactics and strategies
we want our team to employ in their races. So, once a team has achieved a good level of
basic fitness, the focus of their workouts should shift away from trying to run faster and
further and towards training to compete.
Workouts need to be developed which challenge your runners to push hard
physically, as well as mirror race situations. Athletes should practice tactics,
strategies and the act of racing, not just the discomfort of running hard. This does not
mean that you have to radically alter your training plan. Instead, it should involve
giving a more specific focus to the things you are already doing. It will, however, ask
you to examine more closely why you have your athletes do the things that you ask them to
do. Many of us, coaches and athletes alike, believe that hard workouts are good because
they are hard. We need to get away from this notion, and we need to create workouts which
are hard in the ways that races are hard, so that, instead of just tiring our athletes,
the workouts teach them to compete with confidence--to race well.
The single most significant thing which stands in the way of runners
racing to their potential is fear of the unfamiliar. Sure, pain ranks pretty high on the
list too, but fear of the unfamiliar is what stops people short; it's what makes the pain
unbearable. Why don't all runners surge off the top of the hill, and push hard to the base
of the hill? Yes, they are hurting pretty badly, at that point in the race, but mosyt
could run faster if they had to, if their lives depended upon it. In fact, most could run
faster if they knew that it would be OK, that they would be able to stand the pain, that
they would still make it up the hill, that they would still have a kick at the finish,
that they would finish, period. No, the reason they don't all surge is the fear that it
won't be OK, that they won't be able to endure the pain. Therefore, training to race well
involves making athletes comfortable with the demands of racing, as well as the practicing
of tactics and strategies. Workouts must be designed to familiarize your team with the
situations, not just the speed, they will face in a race. If your runners are familiar
with the situations that they encounter in a race, they will be less fearful of them, and
they will race better.
The key to making this process work is a heightened communication
between coach and athlete. Instead of creating scripts which simply list the number,
length, and recovery of a particular day's repetition training, a coach needs to present
and explain a workout with respect to its specific focus. If it is to achieve the desired
effect of teaching racing, each workout needs to have a clearly stated why, as well as a
what. 6x800m at 10 seconds faster than race pace, with a 2:00 jog recovery is a fine
workout, but it says nothing about racing. To make the workout race specific, a coach must
add a purpose, something for the runners to concentrate on besides how they feel and what
pace they are running.
For example add to the above workout:
"Focus particularly on #'s 5,6,7. Make sure that #'s 1-4 are on
pace, don't run them too fast or too slowly; then total concentration on #'s 5-7. Do
whatever you can to not slow down."
Then, take it one step further and tell them why they need to do this,
how this workout is going to help them in their next race.
"These are the reps which most closely mirror how you feel in the
painful middle of the race when you tend to get scared and slow down to recover a bit.
They are mentally, as well as physically tough. The only purpose of #'s 1-4 is to get you
to #5 feeling tired. Then you can practice running hard and on pace when you feel like you
have to slow down. You will see that you can continue to run hard while you are hurting.
And remember, if you're hurting in a race, so is the person running next to you, and if
you can push hard at the point when you are hurting the most, you will beat that person.
So this workout gives you a chance, in an unthreatening environment, with nothing on the
line, to learn how to deal effectively with the hardest part of a race and to become
familiar with how it feels. And, believe it or not, soon you will come to look forward to
this part of the race and its pain because it is here that you can do the most damage to
Now you have a workout with a very specific link to teaching runners
how to race and how to deal with the things that make a race hard. Nothing about the
workout has changed except the presentation and explanation of it but, believe me, doing
the workout is a completely different experience for the runners. I tell my kids all this
stuff, and they buy it every time.
Communication and observation are the keys. What are your goals? What
are your strengths and weaknesses? Ask your runners, "What was hard about the last
race?" "How did the workout go?" Make them give you real answers. They'll
say that they got tired in the third mile or after the fourth hill repeat. Don't accept
that. Did they really suddenly become sleepy? I doubt it. Make them be specific. Was their
breathing labored? Were their legs fatigued? Were their arms numb? What really was the
limiting factor? What can you and they do to keep this problem from recurring?
Below is a list of some other tactics and strategies your team might
use in a cross country race, together with workout ideas to help your team implement these
tactics. If you don't practice specific tactics, your team will not be able to use them
effectively in races. The workouts you devise will vary considerably depending on your
team, your opponents, your team's goals, etc. Each team has a specific set of skills,
strengths, and weaknesses. The decision as to which ones to take advantage of or to work
on improving is where the true art of coaching comes into play.
HOW TO INCORPORATE TACTICS INTO YOUR
The start is an extremely important aspect of the race and, the bigger
the race, the more important the start is to your team. With all the chaos and adrenaline
that surrounds a start, it is easy for runners, even experienced ones, to go out too fast
or to forget a carefully formed plan to stay together with teammates. Each runner needs to
have a specific job at the start, someone or something to key off of to ensure that they
don't get lost in the mad scramble for position. Develop a starting plan for your team.
This plan will vary according to the particular race or course on which you are running.
At Mt. SAC, where each team gets only one person on the starting line, the plan will be
very different than it will for a dual or triangular meet where you can have all seven on
the line. Make it a regular part of your training to practice starts. It is not enough to
just talk about what the runners should do.
WORKOUT: Find or set up an area which resembles the first 400m
of a particular course you will be running. Set your runners up on the line in the order
and configuration they will use in the race. One person needs to be chosen to lead the
group out. The others need to follow this lead. Give each runner another person to follow;
this is their one job. Run 5-10 practice starts with runners focusing on the one job that
they have, staying within touching distance of their teammates. This may sound simple, but
it gives an order and a specificity to what can otherwise be total chaos. Be sure to
practice this on your home course to give your runners that extra advantage of knowing
exactly where they are going and who they will be near. Be sure that at the race your
runners use the plan you have practiced.
GETTING OUT FAST AND SETTLING IN
Most big invitationals require a team to start at a pace which is much
faster than race pace, in order to be at a place near the front of a pack when the course
narrows. Once a team or an individual is trapped behind hundreds of runners, it requires a
great deal of time, and energy to work back up through the pack. Once a gap has developed,
it is almost impossible to make up. The trick is to get out quickly, establish position,
and settle into race pace while using as little extra energy as possible.
WORKOUT: 4 or 5x800m on grass (or a surface similar to a course
for which you wish to prepare) with a very quick first 200m and the time at 800m at just a
little faster than 1/2 of what the first mile should be (for example a 16:00 runner would
run 33-35 seconds for the first 200m and hit the 800m mark at roughly 2:25-2:35). The
focus is on returning to race pace and relaxing. Stress the importance of not settling
into too slow a pace, thereby losing the advantage you have gained.
TEAM OR PACK RUNNING
Keeping five to seven runners within 60 seconds of each other is the
key to success in cross country. Emphasis must be placed upon running with teammates
against opponents. This is often difficult for high schoolers to understand, but nothing
will tear a good team apart faster than racing amongst team members. Conversely, nothing
will help a team win more than running near the front of a race, working together as a
WORKOUT: On a hard day, perhaps a tough tempo run, make the goal
of the workout to go as fast as possible whle keeping the whole 5-7 person group together.
The faster runners will not try to surge away from the slower runners, and the slower
runners will feel a new sense of empowerment and responsibility to stay up with the group.
If your team cannot realistically all stay together in one group, divide them into two or
three smaller groups with the focus still on staying together. The goal could be for the
whole team to stay together for the first two or three miles and then break up into the
smaller groups. Get your team to do this once in a race, and they'll be hooked. You can
easily make pack running the focus of a repetition workout as well.
ACCELERATING INTO AND OUT OF TURNS
This tactic, as well as cresting which follows it, takes advantage of
the simple fact that it is much easier to gain distance on rivals when they are running
slowly than when they are running quickly. Both are classic examples of tactics which
capitalize on a weakness by identifying and recognizing the weakness and then avoiding it.
Nearly everyone chops their steps and slows down going into a turn.
They then must accelerate for 40-50 meters to get back to race pace. Not only does this
save time, it wastes energy. Instead of slowing down, runners should swing slightly wide
and speed up into and out of the turn. This is a technique which must be practiced many
times before everyone is comfortable with it. Through practice, your runners will begin to
instinctively approach every turn this way.
WORKOUT: Design a 400-1000m loop on grass with lots of turns.
Run loops or parts of loops at race pace or faster focusing on maintaining speed in the
turns. At first it will be difficult for your runners to maintain race pace on the turns.
They will feel like they are running faster than the time on the watch indicates. Do this
type of workout regularly, however, and as the season goes on, their technique will
improve and it will seem much easier. Some of your runners will be better at this than
others. Have them demonstrate and discuss their technique with the rest of the team. Have
the runners who are struggling explain the difficulty they are experiencing. Just by
thinking about turns, your runners will run them more effectively.
Although almost all coaches discuss the proper hill running technique
called cresting; very few runners actually run hills well. As the first hill approaches
you can feel the adrenaline pumping as most of the runners, having forgotten their coaches
careful orders, charge into the hill, unwilling to give away an inch of the lead or
position they have worked so hard to gain. As a result, nearly eveyrone slows markedly at
the top of the hill, often losing the precious ground they've gained by running hard on
the hill itself. Cresting involves almost the complete opposite of this: instead of
attacking a hill and dying at the top, runners maintain comfortable effort at the bottom
of the hill and accelerate the last 50m of the hill itself and 100m over the top. They fly
past the runners who are catching their breath. This is a tactic you definitely must
practice because it is counter-intuitive--it's hard, and it hurts, which is why so few
runners do it well.
WORKOUT: Do 5-8 reps on a 200-500m hill, running the bottom at
race pace and surging (accelerating) the last 50m of the hill and 100m off of the top. Jog
to the bottom for recovery. Have kids try to run the same time for all reps. The focus is
the surge at the top. The key is getting the runners to realize, or believe, that cresting
does not hurt any more than resting at the top of the hill. Pick a visual landmark at
which point the runners begin to accelerate. Make it a part of your team's pre-race
warm-up to identify these landmarks on each course.
The Kenyans use surging to perfection, which is one of the reasons that
they dominate the distance races on the international level. The easiest most
energy-efficient way to run a race is to run even splits. Once runners are locked into a
rhythm, they don't like to make too many charges until the end of the race sprint for the
finish. By surging (changing quickly to a faster pace) you force the runners around you to
either abandon their comfort zone or let you go. It is like raising in poker and forcing
people to either fold or to call your bluff. Surging only works if you are able to
continue to race if people do call your bluff. Like cresting, surging works best when
everyone in the race is hurting. Therefore, it is best used from the mid-point of the race
on. However, this really depends upon the course you are running and the strength of your
team. Again, this is one which must be practiced regularly because it is really hard.
WORKOUT: Do multiple loop repetitions, for example, 5 x 600m on
a 200m loop. Have athletes run race pace for the first loop, five seconds faster than race
pace for the second loop, and return to race pace for the third loop. The focus should be
on returning to race pace rather than slowing to recover. Your runners will probably find
that loop three is as hard or harder than loop two. Indian runs also work well for this.
On a five or six mile distance run have runners run in a single file 2-3 body lengths
apart (the further apart, the longer the surge). The person in front of the line says
"go", and the person in the back of the line accelerates to the front of the
line. When he or she has established position in front he/she says "go" and the
new last place runners surges to the front. There are many other ways to practice surging,
but this one keeps the whole group together.
RUNNING HARD WHILE HURTING
Most runners run pretty well when they are feeling good. Few runners
are able to really go for it when they are hurting badly in the late middle stages of a
race. Most runners run how they feel. When they feel good, they speed up; when they feel
bad they slow down. To race well, you must be able to dig down and push hard when you are
WORKOUT: On any interval, fartlek, or repeat workout make the
goal staying strong in the middle efforts. Do 8x500m hills and have the runners focus on
pushing through the pain on #'s 4,5,6,7. Most everyone can start fast. And the last repeat
usually isn't usually that bad. But the middle of the set is where you learn how to run
with pain. They are the repeats which most closely model how you feel in a race. And, if
you want to be able to push through pain barriers in a race, you have to practice it.
Everyone tries to sprint at the end of a race. Therefore, waiting to
sprint at the end is not always the best strategy. Each runner has different ability when
it comes to raw speed. Few distance runners are noted for their sprinting ability, but
some are faster than others. Each runner should have a good idea of his or her finishing
speed and should plan a finishing tactic to play up his/her strengths. As a general rule
no one should pass you in the last 400m.
WORKOUT: Finish a medium-hard day with four or five 500-800m
pushes to the finish of your course. The goal is to finish nearest the front in the most
pushes. Encourage each runner to employ the tactics he/she feels are necessary to do well.
Discuss the results with the runners and suggest alternatives. (NOTE: This will, of
course, turn the medium hard day into a hard day.)
Distance running is hard, and distance racing harder still. There is a
lot of time to think out there during a three mile race, and if all that your athletes
have to think about is how they feel or how far they still have to go, they will not
perform up to the standards of which they are cpaable. When it starts to hurt in the
middle of the race, it is way too easy for runners to start feeling sorry for themselves.
Workouts like these give your athletes something specific to think about and focus on when
the going gets tough. I hope that these ideas help your team prepare for races in the
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