Over the weekend, both the men’s and women’s teams ran race scenario time trials on our championship course. The workout had two goals: first, “flex” our developing fitness “muscles”; second, hone in on good racing tactics for this course. New to the conference, the course offers an interesting challenge.
The first kilometer of the course is a significant downhill into a 3k floodplain loop. The women will run 1 lap of the lower loop and the men will run two laps; 5 and 8k, respectively. The final kilometer points the runners back up the same opening “k” to finish on top of the hill. The downhill start into pancake flat middle miles will offer an excellent pacing challenge for the final “k” straight uphill.
For a time trial such as this, the student athletes were instructed to hold goal race pace throughout the course. I am a strong believer in the opening mile should be near your average pace. Most people find this to be a conservative approach to racing. However, I find young and or novice athletes generally race better this way. Far too often high school athletes will hammer the first mile (i.e. 5:15), yet average 30-50 seconds slower per mile (5:50/avg).
Going out fast is important in an XC race; it guarantees a race pace effort, puts the athlete in a good scoring position, etc. However, too fast at the start causes a huge drop in pace around the 12 minute mark of the race; assuming the athlete has been running at or above his or her VO2max. Suddenly there is an oxygen debt to repay and the only way the body can is to reduce the stress to maintaining homeostasis (slowing down).
If the athlete above were to run the first mile conservatively (5:40) more often than not they’ll have a much better average race pace (5:42). Possibly even faster because there was less oxygen debt to repay. Compare 18:07 5k to 17:42; that’s an easy 25 seconds.
If a goal of going out fast in the first mile is to ensure a competitive finishing position, too fast can quickly become detrimental. Version #2 of the same athlete finished 25 seconds ahead of version #1. In many major invitational, 25 seconds can be 40-50 places!
Admittedly, every cross country course is different and brings its own unique challenges. So, it is better said the first mile should be the average pace of the whole race effort. It is also important to track an athlete’s’ progress on common courses year over year. Within reason, this gives you “apples to apples”.
Circling back to the team’s time trial on the conference course. Remember the new one, with the 1k downhill to start? How does one pace in this scenario? Running time trials on the course really help practice different pacing tactics. Overall I expected the paces to be 5-10 seconds slower per mile than goal pace due to the non-competitive environment. All considerations consolidated we figured out the perfect formula to attack the course come championships. It’s pretty simple. All you do is…
…Ha! What tactician reveals their plan ahead of battle? I will tell you after the championships.