The championship season in high school cross country can be a long and drawn out affair in the United States. The time period between state sectional meets and the Footlocker
Championship race can last up to eight weeks for some runners. Maintaining fitness, both aerobic and anaerobic, is critical to racing success, yet energy systems need to be cycled in a different pattern to stay at their highest efficiency. There are also numerous psychological considerations to be aware of in keeping athletes fresh during this extended period of time. Some of these areas of physiological and psychological concern are individual in nature, and must be addressed that way, however broad guidelines can be used to provide a chassis for maintaining fitness and even improving fitness during the championship racing period of time.
In training theory the Competitive Period can be broken into two parts, the tapering mesocycle, and the maintenance mesocycle. It takes about two to three weeks to taper properly, so the average cross country runner will only encounter this mesocycle before their biggest competitions. However, for the runners moving on to Nike Regionals and Nationals or Footlocker Regionals and Nationals, an additional three to five week mesocycle is employed to maintain fitness.
There is often a fear among athletes that tapering volume will decrease their overall level of fitness, That is why the key to a good tapering program is maintaining high intensity above all else. Athletes on a low volume and low intensity taper mesocycle have actually been shown to exhibit a more negative mood state and produced slower than expected race times. Conversely, athletes on a high intensity, but slightly lower volume mesocycle show improved mood states, less stress, and improved race performances. Not only does the intensity of the workouts in the tapering mesocycle need to be at a very high physiological level, but it must also be at a level that allows the athlete to feel sharp. Just as an athlete has faith in their overall training program, it is important that the athlete believes in the importance of the taper for it to be effective.
The key workouts done during the three week training period of the tapering mesocycle are meant to maximize an aerobic stimulus every five days, and maximize an anaerobic stimulus every three to four days depending on the athlete. The training protocol for the aerobic work is the long run and must be 20% of the athlete’s current mileage, an example would be an eight mile run done at the aerobic threshold, if the athlete is running 40 miles per week. On the anaerobic side the training protocol is capacity work done as repetition runs. An example during the 5K cross country season would be 3 x 600 meters with 15 minutes rest between. Any racing done during the tapering mesocycle qualifies as hard work. The 5K is about 90% aerobic so most of the stimulus will be directed toward the aerobic energy system. Rest between workouts needs to be complete in an attempt to have the athlete rested for the big meet.
Another mesocycle begins for cross country runners when there is a long break between major competitions. The classic high school model in the United States presently is the three week period between Nike Regional competition and the Nike National Championship race. Keep in mind the runners have already had their taper mesocycle advancing from their state meet to Nike Nike Regionals. This is now the maintenance mesocycle. The three week mesocycle is broken into three, one week, microcycles all with a slightly different training theme. The maintenance mesocycle is usually characterized by no competitions other then the starting point and ending point of the cycle. Microcycle number one will be a week themed around recovery and regeneration, while microcycle number two and three will be two blocks of roughly the same volume with an increase in intensity toward the end of microcycle number two and progressing through the first half of microcycle number three.
Microcycle number one should contain a volume that is about 80% of the volume of the week before which was the last week of the tapering mesocycle. The workouts for the week would very much resemble a week of General Preparation. No true long run, speed, strength or Special Endurance 1 workouts. The only aerobic work would be continuous recovery runs and the only anaerobic work would be a short session of Special Endurance 2, with a volume of about 60% of the normal load.
Microcycles two and three would be a quick rebuilding theme followed by a short three to four day, fast decay, exponential taper. Bring back the true long run and a tempo run (time trial) spaced during this block of time, but neither within five days of the final competition. Do an intense Special 1 session and Special 2 session forming a back to back bridge between the two microcycles. Keep the rest between repetition runs long at 9-15 minutes to ensure it as a capacity run. Done properly they can do these days back to back and then start the anaerobic recovery progression toward the final race, six days later. Add a workout of three or four quarters, at 5 seconds faster than race pace, about three days before the race; just to make sure the enzymes stay high. Prescribe a 4 minute rest interval between each 400 meters.
Remember that both tapering and maintaining fitness are very individualistic. Know your athletes well. Adapt and alter as needed, but do not over-coach your runners during the drawn out maintenance mesocycle.
Scott Christensen is the head track coach at Stillwater Area High School in Oak Park Heights, MN.