A coach’s view as the Races that Matter approach and how to peak runners
The regular season for high school cross country consists of multiple style meets in these days of rosters that can exceed 100 runners of boys and girls. Gone are the days where a coaching staff only had to figure out who was in the top 7 Varsity and who fit the second set of 7 running JV. Many states or regions stopped doing the traditional dual meet in favor of larger Tri or Quad Meets that involve all but the Varsity 7 of each gender. Teams race the mid-week Tri or Quad meets to develop the JV and developmental runners with the hope that several of them will stick with a year-round running program. As the fall cross country schedule approaches the Varsity Post-season, the focus shifts to 7-10 boys and girls who will race in the Conference / District, Regional and State Championships. How do coaches arrive at this juncture and be ready for the post-season?
Finalizing your Post-Season Roster. It is called Championship Season for a reason. Gone are the weekend invitationals where you can improve your hill racing or aim for a new best time on a certain course. Now it is all about putting 5 scorers ahead of your competition and winning a District, Conference, Regional and State Championship. Many coaches carry a few alternate runners form the JV ranks to fill in for someone who may get injured or sick during the 2-3 weeks of post-season racing. These runners have proven all fall that they are just outside the #7 runner’s best times and could step in and contribute on race day. Some coaches opt to bring along a freshman or sophomore who may rank #9 or #10 on the roster. This is done to give them a taste of post-season life. Besides running for the “now”, you have to plan for the “later”.
Workouts to get ready. Now the speed has to be honed. The training to this point may have included some longer tempo or steady runs. With the first post-season championship, you need runners to be able to both withstand a faster first mile pace and to have the ability to change gears or increase tempo in the final 800m. Some speed workouts can take place on a grass course and/or on the track. The idea is to shorten previous intervals and ratchet up the speed and intensity. For example, three weeks ago, the Varsity + the alternates may have done repeat 1000m loops on a rolling grass course. Now with a week to go before that first Championship race, you put the same group through repeat 500s and 300s with an emphasis on changing gears or speeding up in the latter half of each repeat interval
Visualizing the course and race. I cannot overstate the benefit of visualization of racing on a course. One, your athletes have to be familiar with the course either from a prior race or at least doing a tempo workout on the course if permitted. In the immediate days prior to the Championship event, use photos of the course and an overview map (e.g., Google Satellite view) to go review where runners need to be in the race. Talk to the athletes about how they should feel and whom they should see on their team at specific locations or markers on the course. Reinforce the need to stay relaxed but focused on the goal of hitting both a time at certain landmarks and where you stand number-wise in the race at each juncture.
The Finish of a race. This is the final opportunity for a runner to shift the score by anywhere from 3 to 5 points. Passing runners in the last 200m is the goal. Once again, visualize hitting a landmark and driving with your arms, lifting with your quads and trying to kick your butt (with your heel). Many times, runners will rationalize that they have given it their all in the first 90% of the race and they just want to get across the finish line. The opposite advice or counsel to each runner should be to tell them that the finish line is just a mark where racing ends. Each runner has to look up at that finish and not slow down until it is underneath your feet
Staying fresh each week. This is the hard part: building the peak and staying on top of it. We emphasize consistent sleep, meals and workouts. The most important at this stage are the first two elements: Sleep and nutrition or meals. If students stay up too late studying and eat inconsistent meals or eat at odd times, their bodies will not respond on race day.