Strategy vs. speed: Fleet feet aren't all there is to cross country

Credit: Victor Sailer/PhotoRun
NASHVILLE ? Put one foot in front of the other. Now do it faster. Now do it for three miles.

That's about all there is to cross-country running. How much more complex can the sport of running be?

Well, cross country can be that simple for some. But those generally are not the ones crossing the finish line at or near the top of the list. The better runners and better teams propose that running is merely the product of a strategic game plan.

"You have three miles and you have to know what to do in each mile," said high-school junior Nina Grude, pausing to catch her breath after a seventh-place showing at the Metro Meet at Percy Warner Park's Steeplechase course in Nashville, Tenn.

"The first mile, I get in the place I want to be," she said. "The second mile I just kind of cruise. And the third mile I decide how I want to pick people off and try to get to the front."

Various runners and teams use various strategies. Coach Bill Delvaux said there are several ways to go, depending on the individual, but there is one goal for which every runner should strive.

"Research shows that a good runner will run the last half of the race faster than the first half," Delvaux said. "That's called a negative split. Most high school kids run a positive split, where their first half is faster. For some students, I think it's difficult conceptually to see how they can pull off a negative split."

Once a runner can strengthen the second half of his or her race, Delvaux said most coaches try to get their runners to follow the pack strategy.

"You place runners of similar ability within 20 seconds or so of each other and send them out together in a pack," he said. "It does not always work because some people would just as soon not have anyone around them when they run. It also does not work if you have two guys that run the same time, but one goes out early and the other holds back until late in the race.

"It does work when you have guys who run the same style of race because the one in front will pull the one in the back up and they will push each other."

High school senior runner Dylan Fitz said his decision to pack-run will differ based on the way he feels.

"If I'm struggling or tired, I look for someone to run with," said Fitz, who took 12th at the Metro Meet in the boys run. "Otherwise, I keep loose (of the pack) and look to pass people."

There are other factors a good cross-country runner should consider, Delvaux said. He said not enough runners take advantage of running downhill and try to hold up because of the pounding it takes on one's body. Delvaux said runners should do the opposite, using such an opportunity to pass people while they have gravity on their side.

Planning ahead plays such a large part on many teams that pre-race meetings are held to discuss each runner's strategy and goals.

"In the meetings we discuss goals for the current race and the next couple of races after that," said senior runner Ashley Weiland. "Strategy plays a pretty huge role in how we run. Instead of winning, our coach wants us to go for bettering our time and building endurance."

It would seem there is more to cross country than meets the eye. There is a mental game as well. And that's where sophomore runner Katie Nesbitt said every race she runs is won or lost.

"My running is 95 percent mental," she said. "Personally, I use more strategy this time of year. I visualize every race in my head before it happens. I visualize the way I'm going to start, how I'm going to keep up ... I even have a strategy as far as my breathing."

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