Cross-Country Running: Racing Tips for Slower Runners

Dick Moss, Editor, PE

Every cross-country running coach has a number (or maybe an entire team) of slower runners who usually finish in the middle or back of the pack.

These runners seldom count in the scoring, receive less attention than the stars, and may have a hard time judging how well they performed in a race.

Typical Race Pattern for Slower Runners
Such runners often employ the following race pattern:

  1. Start out fast, while pumped up by adrenaline and surrounded by spectators.
  2. Settle into cruise-control while out on the course and not under public  scrutiny. Running, but not really racing. Not too concerned about passing or being passed.
  3. Race hard when approaching the finish, the coaches, and fans.

    With this in mind, here's how to get your mid-packers focused and aggressive throughout the race.

Attack or Defend
The fact is, it can be discouraging to look ahead at a long line of runners disappearing down the course. So instruct your mid-packers to focus only on the runner directly ahead or behind of them.

Once they've completed their customary start, they should dedicate the rest of the race to either attacking or defending their position…one competitor at a time.

When attacking, they should attempt to catch up to the runner just ahead of them, then put on a slight surge to pass. Once safely ahead, they can settle down to a more sustainable pace and focus on the next runner. Tell your mid-packers to employ the same tactics they would use if they were in the lead pack: surging, passing on hills, etc. Each runner your mid-packer passes is a little victory for them that should buoy their spirits for the next attack.

There may come a point in the race where your runners simply can't attack anymore, and instead find themselves in danger of being passed. In such situations, they should change their mind-set from “attack” to “hang on.”

Tell them to pretend they're leading the race and must defend their lead from attacking opponents. Instruct them to match pace, as long as they can, with each runner who tries to pass them.

This might be five strides, or fifty. They may or may not be able to hold off the challenge. But each time they try, their pace will increase, resulting in a faster race.

The Key
The key to making this strategy work with your mid-packers is a post-race debriefing. Instead of a standard, “Way to go, Josh,” or “How'd it go, Sarah?” ask for specific details on who they passed, who they held off, and how and where they did it.

This will provide you with some feedback as to whether they truly did race. If they did, they'll be able to give you a detailed account of their run. However, if they fell into their old pattern, they probably dissociated from the race and their memory of what happened will be hazy.

They'll enjoy the extra attention, and knowing they're going to be quizzed on the specifics of their race is a great motivator the next time they toe the start line.

One of the benefits of this strategy  is that it keeps your runners focused on racing and tactics instead of their normal feelings of discomfort.

It also gives them a specific plan for the middle of the race, which will improve their confidence, running speed and enjoyment of the sport. After all, they'll be employing exactly the same tactics as the leaders…just at a slower speed.

1. Dr. Randall W. Crist (Murray State U.), “Life in the middle of the pack.” Coach & Athletic Director, September 1996.
2. Jason Karp, 101 Developmental Concepts & Workouts for Cross Country Runners, Coaches Choice, 2010.

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© 2012, Physical Education,

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