From the Archives: Should H.S. XC Runners Race 5K?

[Originally published 9/5/2007]

After four days of practice with my cross-country team, we are making plans for our first “practice” race. I have already had several discussions about how far it should be, how fast, and even what to call it. One of my colleagues has a mild objection to the phrase “time trial” as that could be intimidating to new runners, creating unneeded stress for kids who still don’t have a feel for running, let alone racing, 3 miles.

This reminds me of a point that [former Newton North coach] Peter Martin made frequently: 5K is not a good racing distance for many H.S. runners, especially girls. Specifically, it takes too long, leading to a kind of defensive approach to racing in which the runner doesn’t really get a chance to run quickly or think strategically.

I find myself thinking the same thing as I try to plan the early season runs and workouts for my team. The biggest challenge is to create conditions under which my runners feel positive about running at a faster-than-normal-training-run pace. I want them to form an association between running fast and feeling satisfied with the level of effort. For many of my less experienced runners, 5K is far too long to really run fast. If they try at the beginning, they’ll be staggering in the middle.

Ideally, I’d like them to race for about 14-15 minutes. That seems like long enough to really test the aerobic capacity, but not so long that it fosters bad habits of slowing dramatically in the middle of a race.

I know the argument that XC isn’t track, and the longer distance gives some kids a chance to shine that they wouldn’t otherwise have. But as i think about it, that really only applies to pretty good runners who don’t quite have enough speed to excel in the 2-Mile. For pretty good runners, 5K is fine, and I have no objection. But for all the beginners, 5K — 25-30 minutes is overdoing it.

Postscript (9/8/14):

When I first wrote this post, I received comments from two experienced high school coaches agreeing that shorter races were preferable for younger runners. One, Brookline’s Bill Callahan, pointed out that the standardization of high school cross country courses at 5k was a relatively recent phenomenon. He speculated that the standardization was driven by an insatiable (my word) need to compare results and compile lists of the top runners in the conference, division, or region.

Back when I was in high school, none of our courses were as long as 5K. It was much more common to have courses be 2.5-2.8 miles.

I raced a 5k cross country race yesterday, and I thought again about how the length of time one expects to be racing affects one’s mental approach to the race. A few weeks ago, I did a race where I expected to be running for about a half an hour. That seemed like a very long time and I tried to be VERY conservative. Yesterday, I expected to be running for under twenty minutes, and it felt like a completely different experience, requiring a completely different attitude.

I’ve run a zillion races in my life, and I still need short races (under 20 minutes) to prepare for the demands of actually racing. Imagine kids who have never raced before — have never done continuous run over 4 miles — setting out on a run they expect to take 25-30 minutes. They might as well be running a marathon.

Middle school has it right; races are short enough that the fastest runners finish in 11-14 minutes, and almost everyone finishes in under 20 minutes. Moving up to high school, the good runners can handle 5k, but new runners should be racing at shorter distances.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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