Running is one of the most common and certainly is the oldest form of exercise known to man. No matter what part of the country you find yourself in, you can always find people running regardless of the time of year. Of course, running is more popular in the warmer months, but even in the cold of January and February, you’ll see dedicated runners out and about.
Running is a recreational activity for most, but it can be ultra-competitive for others. Most high schools have cross country teams for both boys and girls. It isn’t the most popular sport, but there’s almost always a handful of boys and girls that enjoy competitive distance running. Maybe the best part of cross country from a school’s perspective is the low maintenance. There’s no equipment and no dedicated space needed to have a team. All they need is a property to run around in and uniforms.
With that, during the warmer months, right after school, you can find cross country runners jogging around every high school in America. I have always found it puzzling that you can reliably see them running together in one group. I’ve often heard them making small talk in their runs. While that’s impressive, it’s never made sense to me. If they’re training, why are they all grouped together? Surely some are faster than others.
I’ve never personally competed in cross country, but I’ve seen a few races, including the NCAA championship. Seeing the start of a competitive race is fascinating to watch. I don’t know how they don’t all trip over each other. A few minutes into the race, though, they quickly spread out. Even in a quick 5k race with 100 runners, the overall leader can finish hundreds of feet in front of second place.
Practice Doesn’t Always Make Perfect
We’ve all heard the saying that practice makes perfect. But we also know that’s not necessarily true. You can spend a lot of time and effort practicing the wrong thing or use poor technique. Working hard but not smart may not lead to good results. This is, unfortunately, what results with cross country athletes sometimes. If the team’s slowest runner is keeping pace with the fastest runner, both athletes may not be doing themselves favors. Of course, it depends on the pace, but the faster runner may not be training hard enough to produce a positive training effect, leading to worse performance during an actual race. On the flip side, the slow runner may also be running at too fast a pace than they can keep up with. This can be disastrous to the training session, as the athlete may run out of steam and could have to stop, forcing the group to either continue on or stop altogether.
However, there are legitimate reasons for running together. The first reason is safety. Running with a group makes the runners very visible to nearby traffic. In addition, someone with horrible intentions is less likely to approach a group of athletes than a solo one. All that is understandable, and many factors go into what is best for safety. If an athlete gets hurt, the group can tend to the injured athlete quickly.
The other reason is the fact that not all miles are race miles. Sometimes a cross country run is simply to get some light-intensity cardio in. In these cases, running as a group is fine.
However, there are definitely a lot of teams who primarily all run together at the same pace. This makes the run easier for the faster runners and harder for the slower ones. This can dramatically decrease performance in the long run.
If you are a cross country athlete, you know there are lots of details behind running performance. Some athletes are good uphill runners, and some excel at downhill or rough terrain. Some perform better when they go fast at the start. Others are great finishers. Then there’s the never-ending variable that some runners are faster or slower some days. Every athlete has their strengths. In a sport as independent as cross country, these athletes have to train their strengths appropriately.
Like any sport, many factors go into effective practices. Safety always needs to take priority. But if the athletes are in a safe environment, there aren’t any legitimate reasons for the athletes to run together on a general basis. The great uphill runners should use their strength and pull away from the group on the hills. The great starters should start accordingly, and the closers should make their move at the end, even in practice.
I played baseball in college. I was always the best distance runner on the team. Most weeks, we had a 3-mile run we had to complete. We never ran side by side together. We were competing against each other. Now, I’m a pretty good downhill runner. That may sound silly, but that’s always where I passed everyone. I always looked forward to that section of our run because that was my strength. The downhill portion pretty much ensured my win every time. All athletes should play to their strengths like this. That is how performance improves.
I think there are a lot of cross-country programs that should take an honest look into this. Many runners aren’t getting what they should out of their practices and training sessions because they often like to have a bit of extra fun and run as a group. While it is necessary at times, many programs do this too much and are doing their athletes a disservice.
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