From the Archives: On Running Hard in Dual Meets


[The beginning of cross country practices and the post-Labor Day surge at work has made it  difficult for me to think clearly, let alone sit down and write. So with apologies for the re-posting, here’s something from the archives: a consideration of whether high school runners should “train through” dual meets with (often) much weaker opponents. Originally published September 24th, 2009]

Recently, there was a big discussion on DyeStat’s Bay State league thread about running hard in dual meets. The discussion flared when posters speculated on how hard one team was running at a specific meet, which led to a series of posts on the value (physical and moral) of running “all-out” in dual meets, and whether doing anything less was disrespecting one’s opponents.

It’s an age-old question, and one that’s likely to generate strong opinions on both sides.

But one thing that was never mentioned was the unspoken assumption that high school kids with limited racing experience always know when they are going all out. Maybe I’ve been away from the highly competitive BSL too long, but it seems to me that most of the kids that I coach aren’t self-aware enough as runners to even come close to what I would consider the limits of their fitness. Any run that’s faster than their normal training pace, feels really hard. I have come to believe that one of the best reasons to run dual meets, no matter how lopsided, is to become more familiar with increasingly levels of effort.

We had our first meet of the season yesterday, and I can say with certainty that barring injury, every kid on the team will improve A LOT in the next eight weeks. Some of that improvement will come from physical training, but a significant amount will come from being able to take better advantage of capabilities they already have. When you aren’t used to racing 5K, the physical sensation of fatigue is unfamiliar and daunting. You don’t know how to relax when going fast. You think you’re going to die if you go faster. But after several races, you learn how to manage the discomfort and run closer to your potential.

As a coach, when I see someone suddenly slice a minute off their best time, one explanation is that they were slacking off in earlier races; another is that they suddenly got a lot fitter; but I think a very likely reason is that something clicked in that mysterious mind-body connection and they figured out how to be in the physical and mental state that enabled them to maintain a sustained effort for much longer. They figured out how to go all-out.

In every race, if you take it seriously, you learn something. With luck, you learn how to rewire your brain to reach the emotional/mental state that allows you to do your best. And if you run a race and DON’T take it seriously — for instance, if you jog through a race against a weak team and still win easily — then you’ll probably feel good about yourself for a few minutes, but perhaps less certain about what will happen when you face a stronger opponent.

When their teams are facing weak opponents, many coaches will try to arrange things so that their athletes have other goals, and aren’t as prone to mental slacking off. Some coaches will ask their runners to hit specific splits, run the race like a tempo run or fartlek workout, or compete with their own teammates. Other coaches will schedule hard days right before an easy meet, or add miles or strides after such a meet, or “rest” their top runners. Some coaches might even instruct their team to run at 80%, or whatever effort is needed to secure the win.

I don’t know. Maybe when you’re an experienced runner with several seasons of highly competitive racing behind you, you can “race” at 80% and not have it affect your head for the important races. In my opinion, most of the runners I coach aren’t at the point where I trust that running races as workouts is a good thing. And as for myself, I’ve tried doing races as workouts, and I don’t like it. It messes up my mental routine for races I really do care about.

I guess what it comes down to — for me — is that I believe that workouts are workouts (and not races), and races are races (and not workouts). Learning to keep these two straight is a lesson worth learning.

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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