Stagnant Cross Country Times

I am a 16 year old male and a junior in high school. I don't consider myself to be a talented runner, or one with very much natural running ability. I have to put in a lot of work to achieve results. Our cross country team is very small with a Varsity/JV total of 10 boys. I will preface my question by saying that I've had no injuries this season and no illnesses.

My question is: 'Has my coaches' training technique jeopardized my personal success?'

I trained hard this summer and followed my coaches' training schedule. By the time our official school practices started I was running 50-60 miles per week and I felt strong and confident for the upcoming season. Many of my team mates either didn't run over the summer, or barely followed the schedule.

Our first meet was at our home course and I finished the 5k race in 17:38. I was second for our team and our 3rd place runner ran an 18:32. He was one of the guys who barely ran over the summer. I thought this was a good spring-board time and that I may come close to breaking 17 by the end of the season. However that just hasn't happened. Not only have my times been stagnant, but the guy who was nearly a minute slower than me is now beating me, and 2 other guys who didn't run over the summer are running really well too.

The only thing that I can think of that has been different this year compared to previous seasons is that our coach has decided that in practice we need to pack run. In previous years we were allowed to train at a pace that was more suited to our race times. At the beginning of the season the runners who didn't train struggled to stay up with me, but since I wasn't allowed to push my pace too much, it soon seemed to work to their advantage and was a detriment to me. The best runner on our team decided early in the season that he wasn't getting enough out of the training and starting getting up early in the morning to put in extra mileage. He's been able to maintain good success this year. I should have seen this as a warning sign for me and done the same thing, but I put faith in the fact that my coach knew what he was doing.

As a TEAM we've had the best season in our school's history, (our boy's team has never been competitive), but I am very disappointed with my individual success and can't help but think the coach has failed me. What is your opinion?

Well, if you aren't getting enough running in during your regular practice, I don't see why you shouldn't run in the morning. Also, there is no reason why you can't get after it in a race. Is your coach going to get mad at you for running a fast time? I doubt it.

If I were you, I would tell him the exact same stuff you told me. If he is a reasonable man, he will let you run harder in the regular distance runs. Personally, I never looked at the coach as the controller of my destiny. I was in control. The coach gave me advice, but he couldn't run for me. What's the worst thing that could happen if you start pushing the pace in your distance runs, or you start running on Sundays or in the morning? The team will get better, along with you.

Truth be told, there is only so much you can do in a regular season to improve dramatically in a 10 week span. If you already have the good base mileage, you can improve week to week as each race comes. The way I look at it, each race is like an excellent workout. If you have the strength from all of your summer running, then push the pace earlier in the race. You don't know what kind of times you could crank out if you don't start out quick.

To sum it all up, talk to your coach and tell him what you told me. Then, get yourself mentally ready for your next race. If it helps you, when you step to the line, think of it as you against the world. That's what I always thought of when I ran. I wanted to beat other teams, and my teammates. I wasn't slowing down for anyone. Put the hammer on them!

Happy Trails - Coach Tief

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cross country difficulties =(

by Mykelti Cassely
(St. Albert, Alberta, Canada)

I'm signed up for a cross country run on October 4th. I read all the tips on cross country running and saw that there was a lot of things I didn't exactly put it to practice that much. For example, you said you should start out slow and increase your pace during the race. However I've been practicing getting a strong start and I'm pretty sure I've been slowing down during the race =(. So what my question is, is should I begin practicing that way or should I just keep it that way I've been practicing... Also, how slow should I start out. I'm afraid that I won't be able to catch up to the other runners if I get such a slow start =(. Well, that's all I have. Sorry if this question was too long =).
from Mykelti.

Hello Mykelti,

First of all, this is a great question, and I like longer questions. :)

The best way to determine pace is first come up with a goal time that you want to finish at. I don't know the distance of your race, or the time you are shooting for, but I'll give you an example of what I try to instill in runners I coach, and what I try to do myself.

Let's say you are running a 4k (2 1/2 miles), and your goal time is to run it in 20 minutes. This would mean you have to run each mile in 8 minutes. If you run the first mile in 7 flat, you will be totally out of energy for the next 1 1/2 miles. Realistically you should only be 15 seconds faster than your average goal time pace.

If you are racing for place, the best strategy is to go out at the start and be in the middle of the pack. After about two to three minutes of running in a cross country race, the pace usually slows down. This is when you should make a conscious effort of moving up. By the one mile mark you would probably be in the same position you were if you went out hard and then slowed down, but you'll feel much better.

These are just ideas, and you have to race the way you feel comfortable. The main thing is to remember to run relaxed in the earlier part of the race. No straining or sprinting. Remember to be relaxed and smooth in your running. No straining or pushing to be the first one off the start line. Remember that they hand out the awards at the finish line, not after the first minute of running.

In the next couple of practices, try to start out a little back in the pack, and then make a surge in the middle of your run so you can get used to this strategy. It's a lot more fun passing people later in a run or race than getting passed.

Happy Trails - Coach Tief.

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Cross Country Burn Out

by Mike

My son is in 7th grade and he has enjoyed some success running CC. He always finishes near the front of the pack, but his times are not improving (based on meets at at the home course). He is not afraid of working hard, but based on his comments it seems he is worried about pushing himself too much.

He seems to be worried about burning out 1/2 way through the race. I don't have answers for him so I always say "do your best". How do you know how much to push yourself? Thanks.

Hello Mike,

One of my favorite things was coaching middle school cross country. It is a very rewarding thing to coach because you can help teach new runners how to train and race.

I think the main thing your son should focus on is the beginning part of the race. I like to call the first part of a race (the first two or three minutes) where you have to run FAST BUT RELAXED! This means, you need to run a quick pace, but you shouldn't be wasting all your energy right away.

After this, tell him to focus on trying to gradually pass people. One by one he can work his way up to the front, and maybe win a race or two. It is a lot more fun to be passing people in a race instead of being passed. You have to keep it fun at this age so he doesn't shy away from a great sport.

If your son always finishes near the front, then tell him to start out near the front, but let the people who sprint out fast go. I always tell the kids that I coach this, "They hand out the medals at the finish line, not at the first turn."

If he is able to hold back a little at the start, but still run fast and relaxed, he shouldn't have to worry about burning out. Everyone is tired at the end of a race. It's the runners that learn how to distribute their energy evenly that do well.

Another big thing is just running consistently will help him. If he can run a few miles (1 to 3 miles about five days a week) he will improve too.

Take care - David Tiefenthaler

Here is Mike's response to my answer.

Thank you for the info and the quick turn around. I appreciate it.

As a parent, what I really enjoy about the middle school CC races is how nearly every parent/spectator cheers for every runner. It is clear they are giving everything they have to finish the race whether they are 3rd or 53rd. It is so different from baseball, football, hockey and soccer where the parents care about winning and rarely offer anything positive toward the opposing team. I hope my son sticks with CC.

Thanks again.

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Am i burned out?

by Jeremy Hudson
(San Antonio TX)

Hello my name is Jeremy Hudson. After track season I took no break, and i ran over 800 miles this summer. During cross country, well I am doing really bad.

My coach says I can run a 16.44 easy if I put my mind to it, but my fastest time this year is a 17.49, then the next week I ran a 18.21, then a 18.38, then today I ran a 18.59. So do you think am burned out? Thanks.

Hello Jeremy,

Judging from your times, I would say you are. Usually if the fitness is there, you should be able to put down some good times. There is a lot more to running well than just running a lot of mileage.

Are you getting enough rest? Is your school work and personal life in order? What do your legs feel like in workouts? What is your diet like during the week and the day before and day of a race?

It is impossible for me to find the answer for you because I don't know how you are dealing with all these other important aspects that have a big affect on your races.

My best suggestion to you is to get as much rest as possible. Don't run on off days. When you have a race coming up, don't shoot for a time that is totally out of reach. Start off a little more relaxed at your next race and then push the pace in the middle and the end of the race.

My junior year of CC, I put together a string of terrible races. I was burnt out. I was playing fall baseball, running cross country, and not getting enough rest. I backed off on the baseball later in the season, made a point of eating healthier, and finally on our last race, which was at State, I ripped off my fastest time of the year.

Stay positive, and see if you can control some of these other overlooked issues. You have the aerobic base. Now hopefully, you will break through in a race.

Also I suggest that you look at this race strategy article and run a smart race next time. That could help as well.

Happy Trails - Coach Tief

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Struggling Runner

Hey Coach,
There is a runner on our high school team who is struggling in his running.
We just finished our State Sectional Meet. He finished with a 1 minute time difference from his time 3years ago. He has been running for the team for 4 years. He is one of our top two runners and he starts out with a 5 1/2 minute mile but finished this last race with a 19 min finish time. I have cut back on some of his workout and added some cycling mileage. He has a good diet, I would say the best on the team about eating the right foods and drinks. This is his last year to run for us and I feel like we have failed him. After the race he tells me that he feels like the last mile is where he struggles to get to the finish line.

Here are this seasons race times
18:16 1st race,19:23 2nd race, 19:05 3rd race, 18:50 4th race 18:17 5th race, 18:26 6th race, 18:55 7th race 19:05 State Sectional Race, 18:16 Season PR, 18:17.42 Time Ran at State Meet Last Year.

Do you have any advice?
Thanks, Coach Andrew

Hello Coach,

Yes, I think I can help. There are two big things that you can do going into this final race. Since there is no more racing, you can cut back dramatically on his training this week. Have him do the minimum amount of running possible, but keep the snap in his legs by doing strides or something that "touches speed" each day before the big race.

My Junior year as a HS runner was brutal. It almost mirrors what you have written down for this runner. I started off well, had a terrible time at it all season, and then finally broke through and ran a very good race at state. My coach backed off on the training the last week, and we worked on mental imagery.

This is where I would mentally rehearse the race over and over in my race. My big focus was sticking with the pace. I wanted to instead of reacting to how I was tired, I was proactive and actually looked a the one mile mark and two mile mark as totally new races. When I was at the mile mark, I told myself that it was okay to be tired, but I have to focus on running a "fast and relaxed" second mile. The third mile was more of the same. I should expect to be tired, but once again, I mentally had to reset myself. It was like a one mile race again.

We did this mental rehearsal often, and I always would replay the races where I ran really well. I wanted to feel loose and fast, not tight and nervous.

I hope these tips help. Stay positive. It only takes one great race to make a whole season a success. One more thing. Tell him to get lots of sleep if you can.

Take care - Coach Tief

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This article was written by David Tiefenthaler, the founder and main contributor for In addition to running, he's also an author, and a full time teacher.

You can follow David on Twitter @Tiefsa or visit his blog



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