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XC Race Strategy

Answered By Jeff Arbogast


My son is 12 years old and looking forward to running in an up and coming Jr Olympic Cross Country Race. At the 5K distance he has run as fast as a 19:38. He also has a strong activity base, as he spends much of the summer trail running, playing soccer and mountain biking, with the fall being his XC race season. What he often struggles with in big races is how to pace himself out of the start. Often he gets swept up with the lead runners, goes out too fast, but cramps up and does not have a good race. Conversely, he observes that if he goes out too slowly, the 3K distance isn't long enough to close the gap. He will often beat kids in a 5K, who he can't quite catch at 3k distances. With that as background, is there any advice for his race strategy or how to prepare him in the next few weeks?


This just screams for the "7-second start" and seems to indicate he is going out too fast for too far, emphasizing the "too far". Kids have got an ATP reserve of 10-15 seconds; they can run full out for about that length of time before they start to go anaerobic and build up lactate faster than they can clear it. So, we try to get kids to go for 7 seconds flat out at the start (clearing all the flying elbows and spikes) or for 7 consecutive left foot strikes. This allows then to fire out with the leaders yet 'settle' into a good rhythm as the main pack forms. They will be at the critical mass of the pack (towards the front) and able to use strength (his cross training / biking / soccer) in a prolonged drive that will wear down his opposition (3k v. 5k). I don't care who the authority is or why they say it; a runner cannot come from too far back in the pack and place well in a race against decent competition. Sure . . you can gun down some old ladies from way back, but not age-group racers who are close in ability. You have to strike from near the front and keep an eye on the competition. Too far back and you waste too much energy trying to catch up. By the time you can get into striking range you are hammered. You have said as much already . . .he has strength (gunning opposition down at 5k), but is fighting to clear lactic acid (I doubt it is 'cramping') and has aerobically died early in the race. All he's got to do is give it a 7-second start, lock into a good position to keep an eye on the leaders and their moves, and as soon as he 'settles', start a drive that picks off one kid at a time until he moves into a critical point, or terminal stage where he can launch a kick, usually around 600-400 to go at his age. He is just going anaerobic and can't clear the lactic acid. It takes his system a while to buffer and clear and the pack moves away from him (like from 2k-4k), then he regroups and makes a move, too late and from too far back.