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Preparation For The Big Meet

Article By: Jack Farrell
Retired boys & girls cross country coach,
Thousand Oaks High School, Thousand Oaks, CA

Thousand Oaks High School has run well just often enough at the end of the season to gain a reputation for peaking. Coaches have asked me on occasion if there is anything special that we do, perhaps some secret, which allows us to perform at our best in the big meets. I never know if I'm quite believed when I say that we don't do anything special. If there is a secret, that's it.

One of the first barriers to peaking is the coach's belief that he can, and must, make it happen--that it's somehow his responsibility. Peaking is a matter of circumstance. The championship races have the best competition and are the culmination of several months of training. It stands to reason that they will yield the best performances, especially if the weather is kind.

The idea of resting to produce a peak seems to be borrowed from swimming, where athletes not only taper, but also even shave their body hair. Believe it or not, I have had a few athletes over the years ask me if I though they should try that! But, because of the buoyancy of water, swimmers are able to perform a great deal more work of a cardiovascular nature with much less stress to the musculoskeletal system than runners. A little rest before a big competition may in fact help them with a peak. For the most part, because runners are prisoners of gravity, we really do the bare minimum. If we try for more, we inevitably get injured.

At Thousand Oaks High School, the training sessions last about two hours. But with stretching, form drills, uninspired and redundant speeches by the coaching staff, the actual running is about 45 minutes or less. Thousand Oaks runners rest about 23 hours and 15 minutes a day; and still we get injured! The point is, if we start resting even more than that, the fitness level is going to take a plunge. So I believe in doing the same basic training all the way to the end. The body can adjust to about any routine over time; however, if you vary the routine too much, with either too much work, too little work, or work of a radically different nature, the body's going to rebel, usually with a very flat looking race.

Another popular approach to peaking is to not only lessen the work load, but also increase the speed sessions, in some cases to near sprint sessions. This approach, too, is fraught with danger. At best, the result will be a near effortless over-commitment of the opening mile of the race, followed, in most cases, by a steady fade. Too much speed can also make an athlete tight and sore and completely flat. There is a bit of a secret here: the athlete running the fastest at the end of the race is usually the athlete with the most endurance and not the athlete with the most speed. There are exceptions to this, especially if the race has been at less than maximal speed. But most coaches can recall instances of 4:25 milers kicking down 4:08 milers at the end of a cross country race. Basic speed does a runner little good if he is not as fit as his competition.

Here are some of the things we do at Thousand Oaks High School to get ready for the big race:

1. Cut back a little on the intensity, but not the volume of work.

2. Have a general race plan, but don't make it too specific. In other words, give the athlete lots of freedom to follow his own racing instincts.

3. Strategy talks should be early in the competition week. The closer the race, the less said. Avoid talking to athletes about the competition on race day itself. They're just kids and they freak!

4. It's easier for an athlete to race the field than another individual. We almost never talk about beating a certain runner; that's generally irrelevant. We shoot for reasonable places, as in 2 in the top 10, 3 in the top 15, all scorers in the top 25, if we've got a talented group. (That's one of the many reasons cross country is such a great sport. I find competitors to be much friendlier in cross country than track, where the competition is, of necessity, more one-on-one).

In one memorable race, Thousand Oaks upset the favored team in C.I.F. finals. That team wore radically new uniforms for the big race. Neither our runners nor the coaches caught this and thus, never even saw them in the race. We were surprised to find out that we had won by three points. But our runners had gone out and got the places they were supposed to. And this is a unique problem at State, where there are so many individuals who do not count in the scoring. I have a hard time advising our runners what places to shoot for. Ironically, the further back they are in the pack, the more individuals there are in front of them, and so the further up they actually are finishing. The state system still befuddles me, but it's a piece of cake next to the blizzard of options available to a southern section finalist, where an individual has two or three actual finishing places.

5. Avoid absolutely anything approaching mental coaching. There may, in fact, be a mental side to competition, but it is essentially uncoachable. Leave it alone; it's a Pandora's Box. Once you bring it up, you can never get rid of it. This includes running imaginary races in your head, hypnosis and self-hypnosis, relaxation exercises, psyching up, etc. I tell runners that you can't run a race until the gun goes off. Have a general plan and then forget about the race. The less you think about it, the better, and that includes the coach. You can whip yourself into a frenzy thinking too much about the big race. It's not good for you. It's not good for your team, and it's anything but relaxing.

6. No race is the race! There is always another race!

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