Racing Strategy for 5k runners

It’s cross-country season for thousands of high school and collegiate runners out there! I can still remember those early mornings riding on the yellow bus to our cross-country meets in high school or the 15 passenger vans in college. We’d arrive with enough time to set up camp, jog the course, stretch a little, and then it was usually close to time to race or watch the girls race. In this blog I go over some of the strategies I developed that helped me in being a successful racer in cross-country 5k’s and 8k’s.

Every runner should have a realistic goal time to shoot for. Be aware that runners of all kinds of ability levels are running different paces on the course. For the most part, you will want to figure out a realistic goal time while knowing what type of splits you will need to stay on track to hit your goal. A safe place to start on race day is on pace and not going out faster or slower.

Running pace is important because a lot of runners end up going out way to fast and fall way off pace midway through the race. The idea of banking time in the first mile usually doesn’t work too well for most runners. It is usually better to negative split a race meaning your second half of the race is run faster than your first half. The starts are usually fast so you’ll have to exercise a lot of self control. Some runners are called rabbits in that they get out fast but then drastically slow down and fall to the back of the pack. Some teams might intentionally have a runner do this to see if they can draw some runners out too fast while their other runners smartly go out at a wise pace.

Things to consider when factoring a goal time is the course. Some courses are slower than others because of the number of turns or the degree of difficulty in those turns. Tight turns will slow you down. So, even if a course is flat doesn’t mean it is really fast if it has a bunch of tight turns. Another factor are hills. If a course is really hilly then you will generally see slower times as runners use more energy trying to get up the hills. Hills can take a lot out of your legs if you are not use to training on hills. Another thing to consider is the type of footing you will have. Sand, mud, gravel, tall thick grass, and snow may slow you down quite a bit depending on how much of it there is. You’ll also have to deal with roots, rocks, and ruts in the ground. All of these things make running more difficult and can affect your time. Obviously running on a flat smooth surface like a track or paved road is fast but cross-country courses present more challenges so don’t just assume because you can run a 17:00 flat road 5k that you can also run the same time on a cross-country course with other elements to contend with.

When you walk and jog the course, take note of where problematic areas can be. Are there windy areas you are running against the wind or maybe you are aided by the wind? Are there water crossings or obstacles to jump over? Will the race temperature factor in on racing performance? Certain areas are good places for surges to pass people and other spots are not good areas to pass (narrow trails) or pick up the pace (sandy soil). Gradual down hill or long flat straights are good spots to pick up the pace a little. Surging after certain turns or after clearing the top of a hill could also be advantageous to put some distance between you and the runners coming behind you. However, for the most part, try to find a nice steady pace and don’t throw in too many surges because they require a lot of energy each time you do it.

Understanding the last mile is very important. Pick out a few spots as potential places you will kick it in depending upon how much you have left in the tank. Sometimes I’ll even run the last quarter of a mile backwards from the finish line to cement in my mind spots where I want to be pushing myself to faster and faster speeds. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a teammate say, “I didn’t realize it but the finish came up on me fast and I didn’t really have time to kick as much as I wanted”. Know the last part of race well and you won’t have to leave a meet wishing you had started your finishing kick sooner.

Other strategies to consider include, are you going to run with a teammate, group of teammates, or with a runner(s) you know that are in your ability level for the first part of the race? Do you need to get out fast enough to be in the right pack of runners who are running at your ability level? Meaning, some of the more elite runners surge at the beginning to get clear of the slower runners so that they don’t have to pass as many people over the course of the first mile. How many runners are in this race? In smaller meets you don’t have to worry about crowds of runners and you might be able to go out slower and right on pace verses at a big meet where you might want to get out a little bit faster the first half mile to stay in the race and position yourself in a spot to finish well.

Obviously as a coach, my advice and strategy for runners would vary a lot depending upon their ability, their strengths and mentality as a runner, and the course stuff mentioned in this blog. Sometimes as coaches we don’t talk much about strategy in races but there really is a lot to consider and plan for. How you choose to run a particular race and tackle the different elements can be the difference between a new PR, hitting your goal, and finishing well verses having a really disappointing race. Lastly, when you come up with a race strategy, also incorporate back up plans. A lot of times things will not go as planned but it also good to have rehearsed in your mind what you would do in situations when things have changed. A lot of racing is staying calm, relaxed, not to over react, stay focused, stay positive, and believe in yourself. Even a great racing strategy is never enough if you don’t have a strong mind. Sometimes the runner who deals the best with the challenges of race day comes out on top. Don’t let your mind or anything else take you out of the race!

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