10 Tips From the Top: Coaches Dena Evans and Brad Hudson tell you how to come out winning this cross country season
By: Cait Chock
Cross country season is upon us. For those racing, cross country offers particular challenges unlike that of the track and the roads. The most obvious being varied terrain, but there is also a much more powerful team component to racing cross country. Coach Dena Evans phrases is well, "Cross country races, in contrast [to track], are often a contest to see who slows down the least. Like an actuary manages and analyzes the financial impact of uncertainty and more specifically, risk, cross country coaches must manage the competitive risks of a sport which often dares the participants to proceed fearlessly at early paces which are guaranteed to bring on the hurt."
Even for those who may not consider themselves cross country-specialists, read on to learn just how much your overall fitness and running economy will improve by venturing into a cross season. Cross country makes you stronger; a runner of any event will thrive off of increased strength.
Here, we talked to two of running's top coaches for their tips on training to race your best and then learning how to make that training cohesive within a team atmosphere to get results beyond that of the individual.
Dena Evans: Club Director for New Balance Silicon Valley and the Co- Director of the Bay Area Running Camp; 2003-2004 NCAA Coach of the Year (Stanford; XC/Track), 3 x IAAF World Team Coach, 2013 BUPA Great Edinburgh Cross Country international Team USA leader
"Cross Country coaches are really actuaries...and other observations about running well this fall...
1) Start a workout with a fast interval
Like most coaches, I prefer athletes I work with to finish strong in workouts, and my default preference is that the intervals move slowest to fastest. This can breed confidence and the habit of finishing well. However, in preparing for cross country there is a role for turning that smooth diagonal into a bit of a trapezoid. A 4x mile (or other length interval workout), where the first and the last ones are planned for a slightly faster pace than the middle two or more, can help prepare an athlete for the need to maintain composure even if the pace doesn't flow toward them like a slow tide. Physically, it can also mean the inevitable quick first mile does not feel as hard and instead, just merely fast. Huge difference.
2) Run workouts on varied topographical terrain
Cross country can be disruptive to runners who thrive on the rhythm of regular surfaces and straight lines. Venture from the track, bike path, or grass field to a location where athletes get the chance to teach their bodies, muscles and cardiovascular system, to handle a bit of instability and undulation. It is one thing to go on easy runs up and down hills, but learning how to navigate these obstacles and remain calm at race pace, or close, is worth practicing, even if the workout paces might need to be adjusted as a result.
3) Practice running in a pack
Some athletes are better at this than others, stemming from personality, experience with team environments in previous years, or lack thereof, or other reasons. Running in a pack is about patience, about relaxation even if you are not the one completely in control of the pace, and about maturity when it is appropriate to let the race evolve over the course of several kilometers rather than forcing the issue earlier than is wise. It is easy to go at your own pace and push individually, stringing out on each interval or pace run. Occasionally subsuming that need to be in the driver's seat while gaining the confidence that will result in taking the wheel in later stages or future races requires practice and trust. "Fearless and frantic" loses to "fearless and calm" every time. The more situations in which an athlete can feel calm, the better. Practice making these situations routine.
4) Always have collective and individual goals
Of course, each athlete is at a different spot, with different pace and place expectations for a particular race. However, sometimes these go straight out the window when the race does not unfold quite as planned. Even if you have only one teammate in a race, shared goals for how you hope to execute the race (some of my favorites include a commitment that every runner finish higher than their place at midway, or every runner passes at least one other competitor over the last X meters, etc), can help provide needed motivation when things have gone to the dogs in terms of personal goals or planned splits. Cross country at its heart is a team sport. As distance runners, this is one of the best opportunities for the immediate connection to our teammates and their performances in a way that soccer players or basketball players take for granted. Success in these moments can often provide the most memorable snapshots of a distance runner's scholastic, collegiate, or club careers. Look for opportunities to find the same page to sing from and enjoy the process of creating the harmony.
5) You don't have to be the low stick to make a difference
Ask any experienced cross country runner or coach, and they can often relate a tale where the fifth runner eked out a place with a final sprint that allowed the team to succeed by just that two point swing, or a sixth or seventh runner pressed on and earned a tie breaking spot that became crucial in the eventual score. In the heat of the race, you never know when the heat gets to a teammate up ahead or one turns an ankle and suddenly drops out. Sometimes, a frantic coach interrupts the pity party of a 6th or 7th finisher to suddenly inform them that they are now in scoring position. Regardless of what has gone on before race day, you never know. That is why they run the races. Scratch and claw for every spot. First, it might make a difference on that very day, and secondly, mastering that competitive spirit might earn you individual honors once your fitness allows you to be on top of the line-up.
Cross country runners are human beings, and as such, we cannot ever completely eliminate the unknown from the equation. Risks will always need to be taken, but with preparation, and the resultant confidence, each risk taken will seem more and more like a good bet."
6. "Train for the specificity of it, meaning grass hills and dirt during specific endurance." Grass and dirt require more strength and power than the flat tracks and road. It's imperative to practice running hard on these surfaces both for conditioning as well as foot mechanics. Extra ankle and lower leg mobility is required to traverse uneven surfaces and it's important to strengthen these areas to avoid injury. Hudson is a fan of uphill threshold runs as well as mixed hill runs. Bottom line: get yourself used to running under the extra demands of varied terrain and doing so on hills.
7. "Use it to get tougher both mentally and physically by racing a season." For those not in college or even affiliated with a team, running a cross country season is still highly valuable to your overall progress as a runner. Many of Hudson's runners are marathon or track specialists but still lace up and muddy-up for cross country races. Gains in both strength and mental fortitude carry over regardless of your key event.
8. "Forget times and learn to feel the different speeds going up hills and downhills." Grass, trails, inclines, and declines all make times rather meaningless. For cross country, it all comes back to effort. Learning how to run hard and push yourself without a watch keeping you on track is an important skill for all runners. Times can help keep you accountable but effort should be an even more reliable indicator. Cross country racers who learn to finely tune their effort level scale will see carry-over into their track and road events. Namely, by practicing your internal pacing gauge you'll learn to push when the watch isn't keeping you on point.
9. "Race as a team, train as team." Cross country is remarkable in that it unites what is typically an individual venture with a formidable team dynamic. The team atmosphere of cross country season is uplifting to the individual spirit and breeds improved performances as a whole. Having a team to keep you accountable when the pain of training and racing sets in is a keen motivator to remain focused and keep pushing. Similarly, hard workouts with shared pacing duties often 'feel' easier even though you're often times running faster. Transferred over to race day, use that company at the starting line and throughout the course to get you to the finish line that much faster.
10. "Wear proper foot wear: spikes and waffles." There is a technical side to racing and training for cross country which requires adequate footwear. With courses that see all conditions and weather patterns, it's crucial to have racing shoes that will give you the traction required to push off with maximum power. Need more incentive to wear the right shoes? They can be the difference between staying on your feet or face-planting.
Take advantage of the ways Evans and Hudson have led their National and World class harriers to the top. Warrants Evans, "mitigate that risk and prepared for uncertainty this fall."
With preparation comes a podium.
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and previously ran for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.