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Cross Country Season Rapidly Approaches! Some Tips for Better Racing

In this month’s “running tip,” I’ll offer several pieces of advice for achieving success during the upcoming cross country season. Much of this advice is aimed at the high school athlete, but older folks should remember that there are several great opportunities for people of all ages to experience the thrill of racing cross country in the Capital Region. For example, Tawasentha Park hosts a popular three-week series of races beginning on Monday, August 8, at 6:30 PM and running through August 22.

Be sure to get ready for the hills

Start in a way that you can finish strong

There are several schools of thought about the best way to start a race. Pete Magill, a running expert who has won multiple national masters cross country championships, encourages runners to get off to a quick start to avoid getting stuck behind slower runners when the course inevitably narrows. If a course has multiple turns, hills, or tricky terrain such as mud and soft dirt, there can be frequent slowing. Being in the front allows you to move through the mud before it becomes a soupy, slippery mess.

This can slow you down

Starting too quickly, however, is risky. Legendary coach Jack Daniels notes that if you jump off the line too fast, you are liable to lose your momentum as fatigue sets in at the end of the race. Daniels suggests running under control during the early part of the race, so you can pass competitors during the later stages, while not getting passed yourself. Since cross country at the high school level is a team sport where place, rather than time, is the key to success, this strikes me as a wise approach. Coach Greg McMillan likewise echoes this advice when he suggests that runners should be “cautiously aggressive” during the early going. Therefore, the consensus appears to be this: set an early pace that allows you to finish strong.

Know the course and plan your racing tactics accordingly

Your starting speed should be based on the course that you are running. For this reason, you have got to KNOW THE COURSE. Familiarity will allow you to pace yourself appropriately. If, for instance, the course narrows dramatically during the first hundred meters, go out quickly and seize a lead position. If a course is particularly muddy, it makes sense to expend some extra energy to get near the front so that you won’t have to struggle through increasingly sloppy conditions. Flat and dry courses with room for passing allow you to conserve energy, run within yourself, and pass competitors that went out too quickly. Race tactics should depend on the conditions and attributes of a specific course.

Check out the course so that you are not surprised by something like this…

Train for terrain by doing hill work

There are, of course, some general training guidelines to keep in mind as you gear up to race cross country. Most courses do incorporate a variety of terrains and the best way to successfully navigate thick grass, soft dirt, mud, and stones is to adopt a higher knee lift by shortening your stride length and increasing leg turnover. If you don’t really want to practice by running through the mud (and who does, really?) you can train for it by doing hills. Successful hill work requires a higher knee lift, which will help you through tricky terrain, as well as get you ready for the inevitable hills. 

Repeat after me: hills are your friends

Hills can be great attack opportunities. Remember when you’re practicing to get in the habit of surging as you reach the top of the hill to maintain your momentum over the crest. Many runners will relax and lose momentum as they reach the top, but you can capture some places if you increase your effort over the top and pass your competitors going downhill.

Just like running uphill, however, downhill running must also be practiced. For faster downhill running, be sure to avoid looking down at your feet, engage your core, and lean forward slightly from the ankles. You will also want to practice shortening your stride on the downhill while you quicken your cadence. This will allow you to avoid the common mistake of braking your momentum by landing on your heels as you run downhill. 

Take time to adapt to your spikes

One final bit of advice: most high school runners will invest in some spikes to help conquer the varied terrain of the cross country course. Be sure to get used to your spikes before you race. Do some running in them and remember that the lower heel-to-toe offset in the typical cross-country spike can put some stress on your Achilles tendons and calf muscles. You can address the soreness accompanying adapting to your spikes by using the new Addaday Nonagon Foam Roller or an Addaday Type C Massage Roller.



If in doubt, roll it out!

To sum up:

  • Ÿ Don’t start too quickly, unless the course merits this tactic
  • Ÿ A steady effort can result in higher placement
  • Ÿ Know the course!
  • Ÿ Cut down your stride and increase your cadence
  • Ÿ Train for a variety of terrain by becoming good friends with hill workouts
  • Ÿ Practice Running Downhill
  • Ÿ Get used to your spikes before you race
Two final pieces of advice: double knot your laces and have fun!

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