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Racing Tips for New Cross Country Runners

Cross country is a pretty simple sport. It can be summed up by one easy directive: Run the course faster than everyone else. As with any simple sport, however, wins and losses can be decided by subtleties. Chances are most of your time spent training boils down to conditioning. You want to be in the best shape possible to run faster than your competition. But if you’re new to the sport, you’ll soon realize that once race day comes, there will be other challenges to navigate through. The tips in this guide will help you make the most out of your fitness on race day.

Run the Tangents

Cross country courses are usually winding. When a race is very crowded, negotiating a turn can be a challenge. When it isn’t crowded, you should focus on running the tangents.

Running the tangents means running a series of turns in a way that covers the least distance possible. This is a pretty intuitive concept on a track and simply requires you to stay in lane one.

Amazingly True Story

In 1981, Alberto Salazar set a world record at the New York City Marathon with a time of 2:08:13. He followed what is known as the blue line — a line painted on the course to mark how the course was measured.

He was stripped of the record when officials ruled that the course had not been measured correctly because the blue line had not followed the tangents through the twisting streets of Central Park. This caused the entire course to be a few meters short.

In 1983, with the course re-measured, Rod Dixon capitalized on running the tangents. The early leader of the race, Geoff Smith, gained the lead by running in the middle of the road. Dixon gradually caught up to him by running the tangents. Dixon passed Smith at the 26-mile mark, winning by nine seconds.

However, on a cross country course, you aren’t given those markers. Not only are there no lanes to remind you to hug the turns, but a left turn is often follow by a right turn (or vice versa). In such cases, you’ll be best served by hugging both turns and bee-lining the shortest path between them. A strategy would be to end the first turn as soon as possible, and then cut directly to the apex of the second turn.

On a course with a lot of turns, running the tangents can save you tens or even hundreds of meters. The real trick, though, is remembering to do it each and every turn. It’s easy to let your mind drift.

Sharp Turns

Sharp turns are the exception to the rule. When running a very sharp turn, running the tangent is no longer the best approach. It’s better to swing wide on the turn than to slow down to save distance. You’ll waste more time and energy accelerating back up to speed than you would by running the extra steps.

Racing in the Mud

If you’ve ever tried to run through a patch of mud, you know it isn’t easy. It’s also a slightly different skill than running on dry ground, requiring adjustments in balance and the transfer of power from your foot to the ground.

Shorten Your Stride

Many coaches advise shortening your stride length (simultaneously increasing your stride rate) in the mud. This is effective because each stride will have to transfer less force into the mud and you’ll slip less with each step. It can also become very tiring. This strategy typically works best when there are only patches of mud, rather than a completely muddy course.

Smooth Your Stride

You’ll also run more effectively in the mud if you can distribute the transfer of force from your foot to the ground more evenly over each stride. This, however, is easier described than taught.

One helpful cue is to keep your core and torso stable, limiting any extraneous torso movement. This will automatically help your stride even out.

One of the best ways to even the power transfer of each stride is to practice running in the mud — and to practice fast. Not only will you be able to try different techniques to see what works best for you, but your body will naturally learn how to be more efficient in the mud.

Racing in Cold Weather

If you live in a cold-weather environment, chances are you’re used to running in the cold. But racing can present different challenges. For one, it’s an all-out effort. While you are speeding up to create more body heat, you’ll want to avoid weighing yourself down with extra clothing. Below are a few simple tips that can go a long way.

Gloves, Hats, & Layers

Your hands and head lose more than their fair share of body heat, which is why gloves and hats are so useful. Wearing these while you are running will ensure that you retain most of your body heat as you race. There is also a second advantage: Each is easily removable should you find that you’re getting too hot in the middle of the race.

If gloves and a cap won’t do it, you’ll want to put on secondary layers underneath your shorts and singlet. Something thin can go a long way. A variety of tights, half-tights, sleeves, and undershirts are all available for runners.

Small Races

More often than not, the races you’ll find yourself in as a new cross country runner will be on the smaller side — under 100 runners with varying levels of ability. These smaller races are great places to hone your skills.

One of the main things you’ll want to be careful of during smaller races it to avoid the situation known as “no man’s land.” This is when a large gap separates you from the nearest runner both in front of and behind you. It is typically much easier psychologically (and is generally more fun) to race in a group than by yourself. So in the early stages of the race, allow yourself to slow down or speed up slightly if it means you’ll stay close to other runners.

Large Races

If you find yourself in a large race, remembering two things will help you quite a bit:

  1. Stay out of danger.
  2. Stay relaxed.

Staying out of Danger

Danger in a large cross country race is present during two situations:

  • The beginning of the race where the course narrows and the field must funnel into a drastically narrower space
  • During sharp turns

However, each potential danger is easily avoided. Getting out quickly will usually help you stay out of the mad rush when the course narrows. If you don’t get out fast enough, be patient. Don’t worry about letting a handful of runners in front of you. Just focus on staying on your feet. When the pack settles down, you can calmly begin moving up through the field.

When approaching a sharp turn, the best place to be is on the outside. Runners on the inside often get pushed, spiked, or pinched off the course by the outside runners who don’t want to swing too wide on the turn. On the outside, you’ll be less likely to come into contact with other runners and you’ll be able to keep your momentum through the turn.

Staying Relaxed

Staying relaxed is especially important in a large race, but it’s a crucial element in the small races, too. It’s because of this notion that the Yerkes-Dodson law is so relevant for runners, especially in cross country where performance is largely guided by how you feel during the race. The law is a psychological principal stating that performance improves with arousal, but only to a point, past which performance starts to decline. In other words, if you are too nervous when the gun goes off, you’ll most likely underperform.

You need to know how to relax to perform at your optimal level. Strategies for relaxing before a race include listening to mellow music, meditation, talking with friends, or doing something non-race-related. So stay relaxed, have fun, and race well!

Cross country racing might be simple, but it has its subtleties. If you're new to cross country, these simple tips will get you started racing towards your potential.
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