Analyzing Work Sessions for the Cross Country Athlete

Posted by Scott Christensen

Cross country coaches need to be prolific note takers because not only is there much data associated with the sport, things are happening so quickly that unless a few notes are scribbled down as they occur, thoughts will be forgotten.  Analyzing work sessions, or the day’s workout, gives a picture of where the runners are now, how fast they are capable of racing, and what to proceed with in the future. 

Usually, small notebooks can be seen in coach’s hands at meets with pens moving feverishly as the action rolls past.  These same notebooks are seen at practice each day as well.  Within the pages are notes on kids, what to do later, random items to remember, and data from the day’s workout.  Many notes are later discarded, but key workouts are studied, scrutinized, analyzed, compared, and carefully stored for future reference.

Let’s prescribe an aerobic power work session done in the following scenario: it is the fifth week of the cross country season, the athletes are training in the early portion of the pre-competitive period of the macrocycle; this particular work session is the third day of a nine-day microcycle (the next race is on the eighth day).  The day before this session was a ten-mile long run and the day after will be an a short-hill session of six times a 250 meter (4% grade) hill.  The work session itself is a vVO2 max session done at their individual present day (date pace) two-mile pace.  It is 4 x 1600 meters on a hard, flat trail along a road.  Two repeats out and two repeats back.  The recovery interval is 5:00 for the group between each repeat.

The notes harvested from the workout are shown in Figure 1.   

What can a coach gain from analyzing the results of this workout and was the main objective reached?  Aerobic power development is the single most important physiological objective in training 5k runners.  The benefit derived from this type of training modality mainly occurs over the last half of the workout so it is critical that enough of a recovery interval is prescribed so that the times do not tail off over repeats #3 & #4. 

In this case, the mile repeat times stayed pretty constant for all of the top runners, indicating the workout was done properly, they all had an accurate date pace, and they had done enough of this type of work previously to understand the proper pace through kinematic feel from the start.


* Training Resource: Speed Development for Distance Runners



The data notes also show that one of the runners (EV) was unable to even get close to his first mile value on his second repeat and was then sent home.  Cause unknown at this point but he will have to be watched over the coming days. 

For most of the runners, maintaining the second repeat is the crux of the workout.  The second mile is the psychological tough one as it ends at the furthest point out and the grind has started. Mile repeat numbers 3 & 4 are returning in the opposite direction and are much easier on the mind. This matches the mindset of racing 5k.

Because the desired work pace is date pace two-mile time cut in half, the first mile has to be a “hold back and be patient” mentality. Certainly, everybody can run one mile faster than two miles so they should all finish that first mile pretty spry. However, the combination of doing four repeats with five minutes recovery time between each bout of work necessitates a mindset of running repeat #4 as hard as one can go.  They should finish, and basically drop to their knees from exhaustion on #4, while still running a time that closely matches the first repeat mile. 

A coach should examine data from miles #1 & #4 and then the average time for all four repeats.  Are all three values within 4-5 seconds of each other?  If so, aerobic power development is coming along nicely for the athletes that have that correlation.  

In Figure 1, above, one runner (JR) did not have this 4-5 second correlation.  Why?  A year ago, he was the top runner on this team, but injuries over the summer cost him most of his summer miles as well as all the summer aerobic power work sessions.  His vVO2 max is inconsistent because his VO2 max development was interrupted by inactivity.  He needs more sessions like this then the rest of the team needs right now.  JR will be doing another similar work session alone in three days.

Can a coach predict present and future 5k cross country racing times from the data of an aerobic power session done on an asphalt trail?  The answer is yes if one keeps longitudinal data on common workouts over a runner’s career. 

Seniors on this team have probably done this identical workout 35-40 times.  That would be, four times each track and cross country season for four years, plus twice each summer and winter. A coach can chart career progress with such data and instantly detect developmental problems and performance plateaus.  A few rest days can be prescribed before an athlete realizes they even need a rest day. 


* Coaching Resource: Advanced Topics Symposium in Cross Country


As far as numerical predictions, this is all anecdotal, but a good projection would be: take the runners average time for this workout, triple it, and add 90 seconds.  Both coach and athlete now have a date pace goal time for the next 5k cross country race.                      




Scott Christensen - Scott Christensen’s teams have been ranked in the national top 10 eight times. He won the 1997 High School National Championship and his squads have captured multiple Minnesota State Championships. Scott has coached 13 Minnesota State Championship-winning teams and 27 individual Minnesota State Champions. He was the USTFCCCA Endurance Specialist School junior team leader for the World Cross Country Team in 2003 and the senior team leader in 2008. Scott is a 14-year USATF Level II endurance lead instructor.

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