Friday, September 28, 2007


Running fast and racing are two very different things, and training to run fast and training to race are also two rather different things. "Training to race" takes the principles behind training to run fast and gives them a more specific focus--competition. Unfortunately, many of us focus our workouts exclusively on running fast while relegating the tactics and strategies of racing to post-workout or pre-race discussion. In doing this we separate the running from the racing. Racing and competing well require skills which must be taught and practiced, not just discussed. Therefore, training itself should be designed to both teach and practice the tactics and strategies that we want to employ in races. So, once a good level of basic fitness has been achieved, the focus of workouts should shift away from trying to run faster and further and towards training to compete.

Workouts need to be developed which challenge you to push hard physically, as well as mirror race situations. Athletes should practice tactics, strategies and the act of racing, not just the discomfort of running hard. This does not mean that you have to radically alter your training plan. Instead, it should involve giving a more specific focus to the things you are already doing. Many of us, coaches and athletes alike, believe that hard workouts are good because they are hard. We need to get away from this notion, and we need to create workouts which are hard in the ways that races are hard, so that, instead of just tiring our athletes, the workouts teach them to compete with confidence--to race well. The single most significant thing which stands in the way of runners racing to their potential is fear of the unfamiliar. Sure, pain ranks pretty high on the list too, but fear of the unfamiliar is what stops people short; it's what makes the pain unbearable. Why don't all runners surge off the top of the hill, and push hard to the base of the hill? Yes, they are hurting pretty badly, at that point in the race, but most could run faster if they had to, if their lives depended upon it. In fact, most could run faster if they knew that it would be OK, that they would be able to stand the pain, that they would still make it up the hill, that they would still have a kick at the finish, and that they would finish, period. No, the reason they don't all surge is the fear that it won't be OK, that they won't be able to endure the pain. Therefore, training to race well involves making athletes comfortable with the demands of racing, as well as the practicing of tactics and strategies. Workouts must be designed to familiarize you with the situations, not just the speed, that will be faced in a race. If you are familiar with the situations that you will encounter in a race, you will be less fearful of them, and you will race better. The key to making this process work is a heightened communication between coach and athlete. Instead of creating scripts which simply list the number, length, and recovery of a particular day's repetition training, a coach needs to present and explain a workout with respect to its specific focus. If it is to achieve the desired effect of teaching racing, each workout needs to have a clearly stated why, as well as a what. 6x800m at 10 seconds faster than race pace, with a 2:00 jog recovery is a fine workout, but it says nothing about racing. To make the workout race specific, a coach must add a purpose, something for the runners to concentrate on besides how they feel and what pace they are running. For example add to the above workout: “Focus particularly on #'s 4,5,6. Make sure that #'s 1-3 are on pace, don't run them too fast or too slowly; then total concentration on #'s 4-6. Do whatever you can to not slow down.” Then, take it one step further and tell them why they need to do this, how this workout is going to help them in their next race. “These are the reps which most closely mirrors how you feel in the painful middle of the race when you tend to get scared and slow down to recover a bit. They are mentally, as well as physically tough. The only purpose of #'s 1-3 is to get you to #4 feeling tired. Then you can practice running hard and on pace when you feel like you have to slow down. You will see that you can continue to run hard while you are hurting. And remember, if you're hurting in a race, so is the person running next to you, and if you can push hard at the point when you are hurting the most, you will beat that person. So this workout gives you a chance, in an unthreatening environment, with nothing on the line, to learn how to deal effectively with the hardest part of a race and to become familiar with how it feels. And, believe it or not, soon you will come to look forward to this part of the race and its pain because it is here that you can do the most damage to your opponent.” Now you have a workout with a very specific link to teaching runners how to race and how to deal with the things that make a race hard. Nothing about the workout has changed except the presentation and explanation of it but, believe me, doing the workout is a completely different experience. Communication and observation are the keys. What are your goals? What are your strengths and weaknesses? Ask yourself: “What was hard about the last race? How did the workout go? Was your breathing labored? Were your legs fatigued? Were your arms numb? What really was the limiting factor? What can you do to keep this problem from recurring?”

Below is a list of some tactics and strategies that may be useful. If you don't practice specific tactics, you will not be able to use them effectively in races. The workouts you devise will vary considerably depending on your opponents, and your goals, etc.

Every person has a specific set of skills, strengths, and weaknesses. The decision as to which ones to take advantage of or to work on improving are where the true art of coaching comes into play.


The start is an extremely important aspect of the race and, the bigger the race, the more important the start is. With all the chaos and adrenaline that surrounds a start; it is easy for runners, even experienced ones, to go out too fast or to forget a carefully formed plan.

WORKOUT: Practice 5k tempo running on the track. Plan on going out at faster than race pace for the first 200 meters but settling into race pace by the 300 meter mark. Learning to feel the pace and learning to settle is one of the most difficult things for a distance runner to learn.

Most big races require a start at a pace which is much faster than race pace, in order to be at a place near the front of a pack when the course narrows. Once an individual is trapped behind hundreds of runners, it requires a great deal of time, and energy to work back up through the pack. Once a gap has developed, it is almost impossible to make up. The trick is to get out quickly, establish position, and settle into race pace while using as little extra energy as possible.

WORKOUT: 4 or 5x800m on grass (or a surface similar to a course for which you wish to prepare) with a very quick first 200m and the time at 800m at just a little faster than 1/2 of what the first mile should be (for example a 16:00 runner would run 33-35 seconds for the first 200m and hit the 800m mark at roughly 2:25-2:35). The focus is on returning to race pace and relaxing. Stress the importance of not settling into too slow a pace, thereby losing the advantage you have gained.

Keeping five to seven runners within 60 seconds of each other is the key to success in cross country. Emphasis must be placed upon running with teammates against opponents. This is often difficult for runners to understand, but nothing will tear a good team apart faster than racing amongst team members. Conversely, nothing will help a team win more than running near the front of a race, working together as a pack.

WORKOUT: On a hard day, perhaps a tough tempo run, make the goal of the workout to go as fast as possible while keeping the whole 5-7 person group together. The faster runners will not try to surge away from the slower runners, and the slower runners will feel a new sense of empowerment and responsibility to stay up with the group. If your team cannot realistically all stay together in one group, divide them into two or three smaller groups with the focus still on staying together. The goal could be for the whole team to stay together for the first two or three miles and then break up into the smaller groups. Get your team to do this once in a race, and they'll be hooked. You can easily make pack running the focus of a repetition workout as well.

This tactic, as well as cresting which follows it, takes advantage of the simple fact that it is much easier to gain distance on rivals when they are running slowly than when they are running quickly. Both are classic examples of tactics which capitalize on a weakness by identifying and recognizing the weakness and then avoiding it. Nearly everyone chops their steps and slows down going into a turn. They then must accelerate for 40-50 meters to get back to race pace. Not only does this save time, it wastes energy. Instead of slowing down, runners should swing slightly wide and speed up into and out of the turn. This is a technique which must be practiced many times before becoming comfortable with it. Through practice, you will begin to instinctively approach every turn this way.

WORKOUT: Design a 400-1000m loop on grass with lots of turns. Run loops or parts of loops at race pace or faster focusing on maintaining speed in the turns. At first it will be difficult for you to maintain race pace on the turns. You will feel like you are running faster than the time on the watch indicates. As the season goes on, your technique will improve and it will seem much easier. Just by thinking about turns, you will run them more effectively.

Although almost all coaches discuss the proper hill running technique called cresting; very few runners actually run hills well. As the first hill approaches you can feel the adrenaline pumping as most of the runners, having forgotten their coaches careful orders, charge into the hill, unwilling to give away an inch of the lead or position they have worked so hard to gain. As a result, nearly everyone slows markedly at the top of the hill, often losing the precious ground they've gained by running hard on the hill itself. Cresting involves almost the complete opposite of this: instead of attacking a hill and dying at the top, runners maintain comfortable effort at the bottom of the hill and accelerate the last 50m of the hill itself and 100m over the top. They fly past the runners who are catching their breath. This is a tactic you definitely must practice because it is counter-intuitive--it's hard, and it hurts, which is why so few runners do it well.

WORKOUT: Do 5-8 reps on a 200-500m hill, running the bottom at race pace and surging (accelerating) the last 50m of the hill and 100m off of the top. Jog to the bottom for recovery. Try to run the same time for all reps. The focus is the surge at the top. The key is to realize, or believe, that cresting does not hurt any more than resting at the top of the hill. Pick a visual landmark at which point you begin to accelerate. Make it a part of your pre-race warm-up to identify these landmarks on each course.

The Kenyans use surging to perfection, which is one of the reasons that they dominate the distance races on the international level. The easiest most energy-efficient way to run a race is to run even splits. Once runners are locked into a rhythm, they don't like to make too many charges until the end of the race sprint for the finish. By surging (changing quickly to a faster pace) you force the runners around you to either abandon their comfort zone or let you go. It is like raising in poker and forcing people to either fold or to call your bluff. Surging only works if you are able to continue to race if people do call your bluff. Like cresting, surging works best when everyone in the race is hurting. Therefore, it is best used from the mid-point of the race on. However, this really depends upon the course you are running and your strength. Again, this is one which must be practiced regularly because it is really hard.

WORKOUT: Do multiple loop repetitions, for example, 5 x 600m on a 200m loop. Run race pace for the first loop, five seconds faster than race pace for the second loop, and return to race pace for the third loop. The focus should be on returning to race pace rather than slowing to recover. You will probably find that loop three is as hard as or harder than loop two. Indian runs also work well for this. On a five or six mile distance run have runners run in a single file 2-3 body lengths apart (the further apart, the longer the surge). The person in front of the line says "go", and the person in the back of the line accelerates to the front of the line. When he or she has established position in front he/she says "go" and the new last place runner surges to the front. There are many other ways to practice surging, but this one well if you have a group.

Most runners run pretty well when they are feeling good. Few runners are able to really go for it when they are hurting badly in the late middle stages of a race. Most runners run how they feel. When they feel good, they speed up; when they feel bad they slow down. To race well, you must be able to dig down and push hard when you are in pain.

WORKOUT: On any interval, fartlek, or repeat workout make the goal staying strong in the middle efforts. Do 8x500m hills and focus on pushing through the pain on #'s 4,5,6,7. Most everyone can start fast. And the last repeat usually isn't usually that bad. But the middle of the set is where you learn how to run with pain. They are the repeats which most closely model how you feel in a race. And, if you want to be able to push through pain barriers in a race, you have to practice it.

Everyone tries to sprint at the end of a race. Therefore, waiting to sprint at the end is not always the best strategy. Each runner has different ability when it comes to raw speed. Few distance runners are noted for their sprinting ability, but some are faster than others. Each runner should have a good idea of his or her finishing speed and should plan a finishing tactic to play up his/her strengths. As a general rule no one should pass you in the last 400m.

WORKOUT: Finish a medium-hard day with four or five 500-800m pushes to the finish of your course. The goal is to finish nearest the front in the most pushes. (NOTE: This will, of course, turn the medium hard day into a hard day.)

Distance running is hard, and distance racing harder still. There is a lot of time to think out there during a 5 km or 10 km race, and if all that you have to think about is how you feel or how far you still have to go, you will not perform up to the standards of which you are capable. When it starts to hurt in the middle of the race, it is way too easy for runners to start feeling sorry for themselves. Workouts like these will give you something specific to think about and focus on when the going gets tough. I hope that these ideas help you prepare for races in the upcoming season.


Kyle Marcotte said...

Great post.

Heather said...

This will come in very handy in Kelowna next week.
Thanks :-)

Anonymous said...

This is great Sandra!


Carson Bannon said...

wicked post... thanks!