One of the most frustrating aspects of analyzing cross country running training is the post-race reflection of an athlete’s sub par performance. Even the really great performances have something sour that catches the coaches’ critical eye. As in any analytical, cause-result relationship, the result is more obvious than the cause.
One of the more common negative results in cross country racing is the athletes’ inability in finishing the race strongly when the outcome lies in the balance. Physiologists and sport psychologists both term this portion of the end of the race the critical zone. Both scientific disciplines are involved because the reasons for both success and failure can be found in either the body or the mind of the runner.
Some athletes are afraid of success, but most are afraid of failure, so that becomes the over-riding motivation of runners in cross country racing. A few have little racing motivation at all and view the third mile of a race as no different than the first mile. There are many very good runners who eventually find a race that they are not confident of themselves in, whether it is the other competitors or the stakes of the competition itself.
Watching a good runner falter down the stretch is tough on everybody. Most athletes would never point the finger at their own psychological shortcomings for this problem, so it is up to the coach to find a means of re-directing the motivation of the runner in a different strategic paradigm.
The reason for many individual races that are lost in the critical zone can frequently be traced to a weak or missing unit in the physical training session components. A cross country coach should feel very confident in their athletes’ preparation. They may feel they have covered all training zones, and indeed that may be true. However, physical training has an individual physical response to stimuli. What may have worked for others on the team may not have had a training response for all. There are many different workouts that can produce the same training stimulus. It is important that the coach detects a weak area in training and then schemes a different way of producing the same type of stimulus next time.
Related: The Curious Case of Lactate
Since most cross country races are won or lost in the critical zone, it is important to determine if it was an aerobic energy system problem or an anaerobic energy system problem that caused the result.
The five kilometer cross country racing distance is profoundly aerobic. The time needed to run 5k determines that 92% of the energy is supplied by the aerobic system and 8% by the anaerobic system. Physiologists have determined that 45 calories, or 11 grams of carbohydrate, are needed from the anaerobic energy system to race 800 meters to exhaustion. The 5k event requires 34 calories, or 9 grams of carbohydrate from the anaerobic energy system to race to exhaustion.
Curiously, these values are close to one another, but the time to race these two distances is very dissimilar. Since the product of anaerobic respiration is lactate and hydrogen ions (lactic acid), which are known to cause rapid fatigue, how can that be? The answer lies in rate of lactic acid production. The 800 meters gets a very strong dump of lactic acid in two minutes, while the 5k dumps about the same amount, but over many minutes.
Ultimately, it is the anaerobic energy system that compromises the critical zone of the cross country race. The athlete’s inability to buffer the slower release rate of lactate deep in the race is the problem. This is a far different situation than a 400-800 meter runner tolerating a rapid rate of lactic acid synthesis, but over a short period of time. The cure for the cross country runner may be as simple as slowing down the first mile of the race by 5-10 seconds, thus lowering the rate of lactate release. This should permit a faster critical zone because there is less accumulative anaerobic fatigue early in the race.
Adding a few different kinds of workout sessions during the specific preparation and pre-competitive periods may also help in a stronger critical zone for the 5k as well. The goals of the sessions are to simulate in bits and pieces what the racer will encounter over the critical zone of the race without actually doing the full effort. In the true meaning of the “interval” training term, it is more work than could possibly be done in one continuous effort. The examples that follow use time as intensity markers. The coach should change the intensity times to meet the gender, talent, and development of the runners on the team.
WORKOUT 1: Active 1 mile warm-up, followed by a 4 mile cut-down continuous tempo run @ 5:30, 5:30, 5:20, 5:10, then a 4 minute recovery jog to the track, then 4 x 300 meters @ 45, 44, 43, 42 with an escalating rest of 80 seconds, 90 seconds and then 2 minutes between each bout of work, then a cool down.
WORKOUT 2: Active 1 mile warm-up, then 3 x 1000-500-200
Set 1: 2:55, 80, 30. Rest between: 2 min, 2 min, 3 min.
Set 2: 2:53, 79, 29. Rest between: 2 min, 2:30 min, 3 min.
Set 3: 2:51, 78, 28. Rest between: 2:30 min, 2:45 min. Then a cool down
WORKOUT 3: Active 1 mile warm-up, then 1 mile @5k race pace, then 5 minutes active recovery, then a 3 mile continuous tempo at 85% VO2 max pace, then 5 minutes active recovery, then 1 mile @VO2 max pace. Then a cool down.
Scott Christensen is the head track coach at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, MN.