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The official start of the cross-country season is about to begin and that can only mean one thing: it’s time for every person you know to tell you how to run your perfect cross-country race. I’ve been guilty in the past ( but that’s not going to stop me from doing it again. To save you time, I’ve read a lot of articles and I’ll boil them down for you.

First, let’s talk start. Should you power off the starting line like you are being chased by a chainsaw-wielding grizzly bear or should you control your adrenaline and save energy for later in the race? If you’ve ever watched or ran in a cross-country race, you know that jackrabbit starts are standard. There might be some tactical advantage in getting out fast. Pete Magill, winner of multiple national masters cross-country championships, recommends a quick start to gain advantages when the course narrows or when mud or soft dirt slows competitors down. Get out in front, he suggests, to avoid being stuck in a traffic jam.

Magill’s advice, however, requires that we dispense with one of the mantras of successful racing: even pacing. Even pacing should allow you to have more energy left at the end of a race, the point when you are trying to gain places by outkicking competitors. If you start too quickly, you can exhaust yourself and spend the rest of the race merely hanging on because you’ve burned through all your glycogen stores –– and trust me, it’s not a great feeling.

One of the foremost proponents of running an even pace for better finishing is legendary coach Jack Daniels, who points out that it can take a lot of discipline to stick to an even pacing plan when other teams are churning away from the starting line at a frantic clip. Patience is the key. Set an early pace that allows you to finish strong and your competitors will come back to you because they will slow down while you maintain your pace. Remember: they don’t hand out awards at the first turn.

As a smart runner, you can make the right choice for the course that you’re running IF YOU KNOW THE COURSE. Cross-country courses come in lots of flavors and conditions. They can be dry and flat. They can be swampy and slick. They even can be filled with hills with foreboding names such as Coronary, Cardiac, and Suicide. Knowing the course allows you to implement course-specific racing strategies that will contribute to team success.

Know the Course!

If your course quickly narrows after the start with trails that are hard to pass on, it is a good idea to expend some early energy to get to the front. Narrowing courses create bottlenecks that you want to get through as quickly as possible. A course with wide passing space later in the race, however, would be a good course on which to implement the “controlled and steady” approach.

Knowing the course also allows you to take advantage of my other related piece of advice for successful cross-country racing: KNOW YOURSELF. By this, I’m not suggesting getting into a Zen space before the race (although that can certainly be helpful for some); rather, I am talking about knowing your strengths as a runner. You should analyze how you can best deploy your strength on the particular course you are about to run when you’re making your race plan.

Are you, for instance, a better hill runner? If there are some hills in the back half of the course, plan to control yourself in the early going and pass competitors on the hills. However, if you struggle on hills, it might be a good idea to expend some additional energy passing people before the hills, knowing that you might lose some places as the terrain grows steeper.

You’re almost there.

I’ll leave you with the advice of John Treacy, Ireland’s two time world cross country champion (1978, 1979) and silver medalist in the 1984 Olympic Marathon, who evokes control and going with your strengths: “Get out well, but not too quickly, move through the field, be comfortable. Strategy-wise, go with your strengths. If you don’t have a great finish, you must get away to win. I’ve always found it effective to make a move just before the crest of a hill. You get away just a little and you’re gone before your opponent gets over the top. Also, around a tight bend, take off like holy hell. I’ve done that a number of times. You should not be flying down the home straight. Most of your efforts should have been put forth earlier.”

Finally, enjoy the process of learning what works for you and analyzing the best approach to each new place you race. By knowing yourself and knowing the course, you’ll put yourself in the position to compete well each time you toe the line.

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