The physiological matters associated with cross country were discussed with Keith Gerrard who spoke to Matt Long and David Lowes

In a previous Athletics Weekly article (March 13, 2014, edition) Brian Hanley researched the pacing profiles used by senior men at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships by means of a calculation based on the use of lap times from 1273 competitors and across 10 races.

The senior lecturer in sport and exercise biomechanics at Leeds Metropolitan University came to six fundamental conclusions, which can be grouped into (a) physiological (b) psychological and (c) tactical.

In this the first of three pieces throughout the winter, we focus on the physiological factors which Hanley’s research uncovered through reflecting on the experience of two-time National cross country champion, Keith Gerrard.

Finding 1: Starting too quickly can be detrimental

Hanley’s data revealed that 17% of World Cross competitors who dropped out completed the opening lap of the course within four seconds of the leader and then slowed on subsequent circuits to record times of around 35 seconds slower per lap than the eventual winner before their discontinuation. Gerrard, who last won the English National title in Sunderland in 2013 over a veritable mud-bath warns: “Like in any endurance event, pace judgement is key, and starting out quicker than your fitness levels allow you to maintain will usually end badly!”

The man who also took both Inter-Counties cross titles at Birmingham and the English National at Parliament Hill in 2012 continues: “Finding the right balance between starting too fast and starting ‘just right’ is a difficult one in cross country and something even the most experienced competitors can get wrong from time to time.”

Gerrard, who was 20th in the European Cross in Belgrade at the end of last year, enthuses: “I usually like to get out well in the first 30-60 seconds after the gun. However, once I’m in a good position and close to the front, but not usually right at the front, I settle down into a rhythm around the top end of my lactic threshold. For the most part, I like to feel that I have another one or two gears to step up when there is a mid-race surge or a long sprint in to the finish.

“Going into oxygen debt in the first few minutes of a cross country race will inevitably catch up with you and make the race much tougher than it needs to be – I have experienced this numerous times!”

With reference to both his 96th placing at the 2009 World Cross in Amman and a race in November 2010 in Terre Haute, USA, he says: “The World Cross and NCAA championships were difficult ones to get right because there are not really any tactics – it’s more or less 100% the whole way, and losing just a few seconds in those races can mean losing dozens of places. Pace judgement is critical and I often wish I could go back and run those races again! I remember being in the top 10 at the NCAA Champs until around 8km (of a 10km race) when a group of nearly 40 athletes rolled through and swallowed me up like a tidal wave.

“I just hung in by the skin of my teeth for 40th,” he adds, “but I always think if I had run in the main group early on and moved through later, rather than chasing the leaders like a headless chicken, then it could have been a much better day for me.”

The attention of the former St Mary’s University athlete then turns to the physiological stimulus that running over the country provides to other areas of the sport.

Finding 2: Cross country provides an excellent training stimulus

The research referred to above by Hanley found that the training stimulus provided by the challenging and varied nature of cross country courses could help facilitate micro-variations in pace which would be beneficial in assisting performance in track-based races.

Gerrard, who represented Isle of Man in the 10,000m at the Commonwealth Games, said: “Two years ago when I won the National and Inter-Counties titles I went on in the summer to place ninth in the European championships 10,000m in Helsinki. I don’t think it was any coincidence that one of my strongest winters was followed by a successful summer.”

He adds: “I feel most of my success has come at cross country. This being said, I definitely believe that training and racing cross country has transferred into any track success I have had over the years.

“The main benefits of cross country are that it allows me to build up a huge aerobic base over the winter months and enjoy a break from the monotony of going round and round a track. It’s a refreshing change more than anything, and a chance to have fun and challenge myself in different areas. Having a consistent winter of cross country will bring you into the summer months fit and strong, and then you can add specific track work to your huge winter base.”

This being said, Gerrard urges the importance of rest and  recuperation in a periodised programme of training and signs off by advising: “I usually like to take an easy week at the end of a cross-country season, just so I can begin my track campaign feeling fresh as well as strong.”

In the next article we will look at the psychological aspects of cross country running in terms of realism about your prospective finishing position and the idea that feeling good in subjective terms doesn’t always mean that your pace is sensible.

» Dr Matt Long is presently conducting BMC funded research into blood lactate and athletic potentiation. David Lowes is AW Performance editor and a former international athlete