It’s Championships time in cross country. We’ve already seen some amazing performances,
I think of the Championships phase as just one of five within a cross country season. But it’s unique in that it’s the one phase we remember, and often the one phase by which success or failure is ultimately judged (at least by most bloggers and bystanders). But if you’re to have a successful Championships, you need to approach all five phases effectively. And they all differ in objective. As we’ve finally entered Championships season, I thought I’d take a look back at how we got here.
Objective: Fitness & Confidence
Technically, cross country started in August. But really, it started in June. It’s just that runners spent the first two months of the season training on their own. A summer spent distracted or without discipline has a direct correlation to under-performing throughout the rest of the season. A runner is as strong as his off-season.
This applies to the mental side of running, too. When you’re fit, you know it. But you don’t have to put in a perfect summer to benefit mentally. One of the key activities happens before you leave for the summer: setting a realistic plan. Setting a plan you can’t carry out will just lead to self-doubt, frustration, and a negative evaluation of the work you did put in. Coming out of the summer on a positive is important!
2. The Gathering
Objective: Fitness & Cohesion
The phase I call “The Gathering” is that time of year when the team regroups after their summer adventures and starts training together again. While most phases don’t include killing teammates to assume their powers Highlander-style, it can happen in this phase, if you do The Workout.
Even if your team doesn’t do a training camp in the mountains, you usually get at least a few weeks of high mileage training together before school starts. This is a time of hard workouts, but it’s also a time of card games, Madden football (or Super Tecmo Bowl if you’re old school), and a lot of speculation about how good your team can be if everything goes well. In many ways, this is the most enjoyable part of the season.
In its own weird way, cross country is a team sport. And whatever team you’re going to have is going to be made during this phase of your season.
Objective: Balance & Discipline
After the team has come together, practiced together, camped together and maybe even raced a bit together, the period of Transition sets in. I call this phase “Transition” because the routine that everyone’s developed changes with the start of classes (and homework), moving into new dorm rooms or apartments, and the influx of new people into everyone’s lives. It is the first serious battle with distraction that most runners face.
Some athletes do a great job at minimizing these challenges, while others invite future problems by completely ignoring pesky things like classes at the beginning of the semester. Freshmen often struggle here, precisely because so much of what they are doing is new. One thing is certain about this phase, however. The athletes who manage their routine and balance their effort across all their responsibilities tend to maintain the best.
4. The Plateau
Objective: Discipline & Execution
The Plateau is the period in the season where performances and motivation tend to level off. Athletes feel like they are working just as hard as ever, but the workouts aren’t as sharp, the legs aren’t as responsive, and race times seem to stay flat (this is more obvious for high school runners, who race more than collegiates). I have another friend who calls this “The Grind”.
I wrote extensively about the Plateau here. The key thing from an athlete’s perspective is understanding that the Plateau happens to everyone. If you expect it, you can focus on maintaining discipline and executing each workout to the best of your ability on that day. Just because it feels like a grind doesn’t mean it’s not effective.
Objective: Execution & Confidence
Ah, the Championship season. You’ve trained all summer, grown as a team, managed your schedule, and made it through the Plateau. Now it’s time to ease off the throttle and start feeling good again. You drop your mileage, gear up for your final races of the year, and do workouts that focus on sharpness rather than fitness.
This is when runners have the combination of both fitness and freshness to do great things. When the pressure of the situation causes an athlete to push himself to another level, to exceed beyond expectations, and sometimes, to create a performance that will be remembered long after they are gone.
Breaking it down
When you break down the elements of success in running, they come down to a few key things: confidence, cohesion, balance, self-discipline, and execution, not to mention being in really good shape! The relative success of your cross country season will be dependent to some extent on how these variables are emphasized in each phase.
So here are some tips and trends (you know, for next year):
- The Gathering and Championships phases are naturally highly effective phases. With runners coming together and preparing for championship races, athletes tend to be very high on all variables.
- The Transition and Plateau phases are typically ineffective phases. Numerous distractions, tired legs, and the inevitable decline in motivation are all to be expected. All too often, however, the result is also a decrease in other variables, like preparation, self-discipline and execution. If you want to reach a higher level, managing these two phases is vitally important.
- Finally, the Summer phase is the big wild card. If it’s productive, runners will set the stage for big improvements throughout the season. If it isn’t, the season is almost guaranteed to be a struggle. More than any other stage, improvements relative to your competition are made here.
But again, that’s for next year. For now, you have to go out there and do with what you've done, so to speak. As for me, I’m going to enjoy this year’s Championships, and another exciting end to a long and effort-filled season.