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Speed Endurance For Cross Country

Article By: Jeff Arbogast
Bingham High School

Throughout the modern era of organized workouts for distance running we see time and time again the inclusion of speed work and speed endurance intervals for improvement of leg speed in cross country and distance track. Athletes from the earliest youth track clubs to masters meets and beyond improve their ability to hold a challenging pace through various types and lengths of repeated intervals, with the length and number of these repeats usually depending upon the distance of the race and the competitive ability of the athlete. The rationale is sound . . . train the body to accept the speed and deal with the discomfort.

However, distance running in the new millennium is showing athletes of all ages in the USA that speed work is much more than a finishing product applied only to build a powerful kick. Athletes in the new superpowers of distance running, Kenya, Ethiopia, and Morocco to name but several, incorporate speed into virtually every phase of distance preparation. They realize that base work anchors the pyramid that speed builds, but the floors to the top of that pyramid rely heavily on the input of speed into detailed training programs.

Speed in cross country can be used for many things. Speed can lead to a devastating kick . . . a long prolonged drive to the finish . . . the ability to modulate speed according to terrain and racing conditions . . . and a feeling of tactical completeness in the competitor who can answer every move made in the multifaceted chess game that emerges in a large race. Pure speed is always an advantage, but speed endurance, an ability to hold speed over time, can demoralize the opposition and provide the athlete with tactical advantages of strength and speed that are unbeatable.

An element that is always missing from speed work of any type in youth and high school cross country or distance track is the rationale for the distance and the understanding by the athlete of the precise nature of the work and the physical and mental advantages possible by completing speed endurance intervals. While speed and speed endurance work applies a stress to the body, the stress to the mind is virtually always overlooked. It is possible to use speedwork in a totally new form . . . to incorporate both the mind and body into a racing machine that evaluates the race with a totally new perspective . . . one of decisive mental and physical power coming from one important core workout.

At Bingham High School in South Jordan, Utah, we utilize a core workout of 5 x 800m with a 3:00-3:30 rest. This workout becomes a standard and is really the only true track workout we complete during the week with the rest of the intensive runs being hills, power runs, or step-downs of various distances. Each workout on the track is charted and athletes do their best to improve their weekly average of the 5 x 800m all through the season. But . . .many schools do similar work, so what makes this different?

The crux of the Bingham program is detailed explanation of the core workout before the athlete ever steps onto the track. We look at a cross country race not as 5000m, but actually as 6 consecutive 800 meter segments put together into a race format with no rest between intervals! Our athletes begin every race looking at the race as a series of manageable distances, not as a large and confusing length requiring focus and concentration for 15 to 18 minutes. Our athletes focus on their speed endurance in this manner by using the following rationale.

Imagine the better varsity runner attempting to complete the normal 3.0 - 3.1 mile cross country race in 16:00 for a male and 18:30 for a female. Developing athletes in youth athletics and high school are asked to keep concentration on a myriad of things, mental and physical, for a period of time that is perhaps the longest in youth sports. Wrestlers have 3 minute rounds . . . football players have plays which last from 8-13 seconds . . . gymnasts perform routines which never last over 2 minutes . . . basketball players must focus on a play or free throw which lasts half a minute . . . but the cross country athlete is asked to far exceed that. Possible? Yes . . . but is there an easier way to help the athlete learn this skill?

In the core workout of 5 x 800m, we ask each athlete to run a speed which he or she can hold for each interval without a loss of quality, typically no more than a 2-4 second difference from first to last. That same 16:00 boy or 18:30 girl is attempting to run what amounts to 3 consecutive miles in 5:20 for boys and 6:10 for girls. Our primary desire is to break down our core workout so that each athlete can see how easy it would be to run 800m segments in a race at a much slower pace than their normal intervals with the only complicating factor being the lack of a rest interval which is traded for a much slower race pace continuity! Before we ever go to the track, we show our athletes that a 5:20 mile equates to a pair of 2:40 800s. When asked how many 2:40 800s they can run in a row, distance runners normally respond "All day!" That is not too far from the truth when that same athlete can average 2:18-2:20 with a 3:00 minute rest. Our girls running 18:30 are running 3 consecutive 6:10 miles, which works out to a pair of 3:05 800s for each mile. They have the same response when asked how many 800s they can run at 3:05 pace, since they can normally run 2:35-2:45 on a 3:30 rest!

So, we begin by explaining we are going to break down a race into 6 component parts, either separated by the athlete on a running watch or on the course by roughly dividing the course into 800 meter sections by landmark. Instead of attempting to focus on a 16:00 or 18:30 section of time, we want to mentally picture the race as a series of 800s. However, to make things even easier, we are going to look at this race as only 4 consecutive 800s . . .not 6! Why? We believe that the first 800m of the race is a positioning battle and the athlete has not yet accumulated any lactic acid intolerance. The only critical aspect of the first 800m is the fast "7 second start we incorporate to break free and use the available ATP in the muscles . . .an energy that will drift away in the first 800 anyway if it isn't used in the first 7-10 seconds. Our athletes throttle back and the
first 800 is over before they are even feeling any physical or mental race effects.

The second through fifth 800s are our focus! This gives us transitional phases between the second and third, third and fourth, and fourth and fifth 800s which are demanding on the athlete, but remember, the boys are now turning over 800s in 2:40, a relatively easy rate of speed, while the girls are running 3:05, which seems like a jog! We try to focus the athlete to drive through these transitional phases . . . a much easier task that attacking an entire 5000m race! Regardless, the athlete will accumulate lactic acid and fatigue throughout the second through fifth 800s, but with speed endurance work, the mental and physical strain is lessened

The sixth and final 800 is what cross country is all about. Although we train speed endurance, the last 800 is always a matter of internal motivation to win or set a new personal best. Although 6 x 800 is only 4800m, the final stretch will be a result of the athlete's heart and soulas they drive to the finish. Athletes who can rise to the challenge will work this last 800, and those who are faint of heart will rely on training to carry them through. For this final drive to the finish, we always end our 5 x 800m sessions with at least 2 200m all-out efforts with a 60 second
rest in between. The reasoning is simple . . . the best runners on a world level practice running fast when they are tired! To develop the last 800, the final kick, and the feeling of always having the extra gear we end each workout this way . . . our boys running 25-27 and our girls running 30-32. In this way, the body is trained to expect to have to switch to a higher gear when it is tired, and it learns to deal with the physical and mental effort required.

Our athletes view each race as ultimately 4 consecutive 800s run at a pace that is dramatically slower than their speed endurance pace, with the first and last 800 being two different mindsets. We always do incorporate pure speed at the end of the workout . . . but only when we are tired! The feeling our athletes get is that they are jogging the course until the later stages, but the speed they are running, coupled with the ATP start puts them into the lead pack anyway. From this point, with superior speed endurance and good leg speed, we feel they have a good shot at moving up through the last few runners in any major invitational scenario.
So, for the coach, spend time with your athletes breaking the fear of 5000m of running! Break the race down into segments, practice those segments much faster than race pace, then throttle your athletes back on race day so they feel comfortable both physically and mentally! The 5 x 800m core workout gives a super standard for the athletes to shoot for each week, a constant monitor of their progress over time, and a confidence booster. Spend as much time in the classroom as you do on the track, demonstrating the relative speeds they can run on the track in intervals as well as how comfortable they can get on a race course when they run substantially slower. Gain the athlete's confidence that this approach is far easier to handle both mentally and physically, with the appropriate prerequisite of speed-endurance work done at good speed.

For the athlete, anticipate how easy this can be as you concentrate on sections of your most important races, maintaining form and efficiency through 800m sections of the course while others lose focus on the grand picture'. The strain of the race diminishes as you understand the relationship of the 6 different 800s . . . the easy first, the challenging second through fifth, and the true speed you will unleash in the final 800, as you not only have the training of running fast when you are tired, but you also have trained like an 800 meter runner!

For all of us, the way of the future is training speed, regardless of the distance. To remain competitive in a world where runners routinely run fast as a matter of course, we must re-learn the components of the distance races. Breaking down a 5000m race into sections which are run much slower than speed endurance pace yet much faster than we expected allows the athlete to practice running fast, but doesn't break her or him mentally! Bring the body, the heart, and the head into play in a race by eliminating the fear of the race by substituting fast and manageable sections into your race plan!

Jeff Arbogast
Bingham High School

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