I recently had the pleasure of meeting with a few parents and students on the Mountaineer Middle School cross country team as they were getting ready to start their season. I wanted to touch upon a couple questions that were asked because I imagine multiple people, of any age, can gain value from the answers.
One runner asked if there was anything he can do to change the fact that his legs become tired far before his breathing or heart feel fatigued during a race. This typically occurs for him halfway through, but then about 75% of the way in, he is able to overcome the leg fatigue to finish strong. This was especially problematic for him on flat courses.
First off, I expect this to occur to some extent, especially in a younger, less-trained, or less-experienced group of runners. It’s common to feel good and be excited, so you barrel off the line. It happens to everyone from ultra-marathoners all the way down to 400-meter runners. Let’s say we apply an old coaching philosophy: run the first one-third with your head (smarts), the second one-third with the legs (fitness), and the final one-third with your heart (desire).
Sounds like this young man has the final portion down but there’s a good chance his first one-third is faster than ideal. Young runners are notorious for going out too hard, which makes the later stages of the race more uncomfortable. One problem is that in a cross country race these kids almost always have to do this because the area available to run shrinks down to a narrow path where real estate is at a premium.
So let’s just leave the “going out too hard” concept alone for now, because it’s not a road race where you can easily pass people. This student has to go a little harder than ideal in order to be competitive in a 3K race. In order to get through that middle one-third, there will be discomfort, but it’s the point where the person with the most fitness will excel because he can recover on the move from the slightly too quick first third. Plus, there is research at the 5K distance to show that starting out 3-6% faster than average total race pace results in faster overall times. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17149992)
I suggested that this young man focus on his cadence just prior to the point where he feels the leg fatigue. As we fatigue, our cadence tends to slow down. There’s a good chance he ran the first one-quarter to one-half mile with a quicker cadence but then settles into a longer, more loping stride. At the same time, the pace drops a bit. To take some of the stress off of the painful quadriceps and calf muscles you can decrease your stride length and increase your turnover.
One good thing is that cross country around this region generally means terrain changes. Hill climbs are the perfect time to increase cadence. This is easily achieved by pumping the arms more quickly. The legs and arms will always be in sync. If you think about increasing speed of arm movement, the legs must follow. The steeper the incline, the shorter your stride should become. A single leg turnover of 96 per minute going up super steep hills wouldn’t be crazy. A gradual incline might demand something in the range of 88-94 foot strikes per minute.
Even on a flat course you can make the conscious choice to fluctuate your cadence. It’s a nice distraction, if nothing else. Hopefully it is done in a preventative manner prior to the leg muscles feeling highly fatigued, but better late than never. A flat cadence could be more like 84-90 per minute. On downhills it could easily drop into the upper 70s.
One key to all of this is to experiment and train with the cadence fluctuations. It’s not going to come naturally in a race if you’ve never done it before. Instead, it’s just another burden to add stress and you might just forget to do it. Plus you are more likely to waste energy if it’s extremely new. Your nervous system has to practice the quicker turnover in order to make it efficient.
The more recent GPS training watches, like the Garmin Forerunner series, have a cadence measure. It’s worth paying attention to this number while running. And if you upload the data onto the Garmin Connect website or other training sites, you can see where the cadence tended to slow down or speed up during training or racing. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the turnover slow just as the point of heavy leg muscle fatigue approached.
Here’s a fun little experiment. Go find your favorite hill for repeats. Something at least 100 yards long and hopefully more gradual. Run it hard once with your normal turnover rate. Run it again while trying to maintain the same pace but while really trying to stretch your stride out extra long with a slow turnover. Do it a third time while focusing on a super quick turnover, again maintaining the same pace. Now there’s going to be some fatigue by that point, no doubt, but can you feel the difference in the demands that it places on your body?
One parent wanted to know if their child needed to drink a sports drink before their cross country meets. Not that I have a perfect diet, but I’m not a big fan of mainstream sports drinks in the first place because they are often loaded with tons of processed simple sugars.
In shorter races like the 3K or 5K, the runner is primarily relying on stored energy, glycogen, within the muscle fibers. For a short event there should be plenty of that stored glycogen available unless you haven’t eaten for several hours or maybe you exercised really hard in the 1-2 days prior.
Some sports drink sugars, like fructose, are known to cause stomach upset if consumed before, during, or after exercise. That’s not very conducive to performance (or a pleasant child, for that matter.)
A snack or lunch two to three hours prior to the event should be sufficient for topping off the calories needed to get through these shorter events. Drinking water after that point is plenty sufficient.
I’ve seen parents “grasping at straws” when their child has succeeded in the main season and is headed to a big event, like a state meet. Instead of sticking to the same nutritional plan that the runner had used all season, the well-meaning parent has their child drink some new mysterious sports drink 15 minutes before their race. Maybe the runner tolerates it. Maybe they don’t and fail miserably. That’s the equivalent of playing with fire in my mind. Go with what has worked in the past.
The one instance where I can think a sports drink might be appropriate is if the runner had missed their lunch or breakfast for some reason. And that should not be happening. Plus, the runner has hopefully tried the same sports drink on an earlier occasion. It might be smarter to have the individual carry an emergency “real food” snack. That’s a good idea anyway because you should avoid becoming hungry on race day.
Do you have any questions about training, racing, recovery, or injuries? If you do, shoot me an email at email@example.com and you might get to see the answer in a future blog post.