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Training to Race

By David Olds

Crossroads School

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 your opponent."

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.





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.



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.



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 pack.

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.



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.



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 in pain.

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 upcoming season.

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