Louise Damen spoke to Matt Long and David Lowes about the psychology associated with cross country running

In the March 13, 2014, issue of Athletics Weekly, Brian Hanley, a senior lecturer in biomechanics, presented the findings of his research into 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 across 10 races.

More recently, with the insight of former national cross country champion Keith Gerrard, we explored Hanley’s findings on the physiology of the unique surface.

Specifically, we firstly examined the assertion that starting too quickly can be detrimental to the end result and, secondly, the evidence that cross-country running provides an excellent training stimulus.

In this second in a series of articles, we turn to the psychology of the event with the assistance of 2011 and 2013 women’s National cross country champion Louise Damen.

Finding 1: Be realistic about your finishing position

Hanley found that even at the highest level at the world cross country championships, nearly all athletes followed the lead pace from the gun. The psychological pressure to do this often resulted in athletes experiencing fatigue in the early stages of the race.

Damen, who bagged her National titles over considerably muddy terrain in Sunderland and Alton Towers along with a junior title in 2003 at Parliament Hill, says: “Setting goals for cross-country races can be slightly more difficult than for road or track races as you are predominantly basing your target on finishing positions rather than time and you cannot control what your competitors do.

“Personally, I have been competing on the domestic cross-country scene for a number of years. This experience generally enables me to be pretty realistic about where I aim to finish in domestic races.”

This being said, the woman who placed 37th in the IAAF World Cross in Bydgoszcz last year, acknowledges that the international stage is much more challenging. She adds: “When it comes to international competition, it becomes slightly more tricky to set targets in terms of finishing positions that are both realistic and yet challenging. I have found that many factors can affect my goal finishing position, which can include previous accomplishments, current form and my level of confidence, and to a certain extent, the nature of the course.”

As for the significance of biomechanics, she notes: “Although as a cross-country runner you should aspire to be as versatile as possible, there are certain courses and types of terrain that suit some runners and running gaits more than others and this should be taken into account.”

The Winchester athlete, who achieved a fine domestic double in also taking the Inter-Counties title last year, stresses: “I have also found that it is better to set a firm, specific goal in relation to a finishing position rather than a vague one. My highest finishing position at the European Cross was when I came ninth in Brussels back in 2008, and that came after I set myself the firm goal of finishing in the top 10. This meant that I was committed to achieving this goal from the outset of the race.

“On other occasions at the same event I told myself that a top-10 finish would be nice. The vague nature of this meant that I wasn’t as focused to achieve it as I perhaps should have been – I finished 11th in Budapest in 2012, for example.”

Finding 2: Feeling good doesn’t mean your pace is sensible

Research by Borg (1983) explored the correlation between an athlete’s rating of perceived exertion and their heart rate, lactate levels, %VO2 max and breathing rate. More recently Hanley found that one reason athletes start at a quicker pace than they can ever hope to maintain is because their RPE is low.

The World Cross runners he studied were found to be relatively fresh and excited about competing and so based their pace on psychological feelings at that early point in the race, rather than how they would have expected to feel some miles or kilometres later. For many, the correct pace to start with was often ignored because athletes wrongly perceived that they would be going too slowly.

Damen, who is coached by 1993 World Marathon Cup winner, Richard Nerurkar, ruefully admits to having got it wrong earlier in her career. She recalls: “In my first year as a senior at the National Cross at Leeds in 2004, I fell over and badly grazed my knees while on my way to the start. Initially, I benefitted from the additional adrenaline, I felt great and led the race for the first half. However, my ambitious early pace caught up with me during the second half of the event and I was overtaken. I managed to hold on for second, but those last few kilometres were certainly very painful!”

For Damen, who was seventh in the Commonwealth marathon this summer with 2:32:59, the building of her aerobic endurance capacity through preparation for the classic distance has in turn facilitated a more cultured approach to her exploits over the country.

She says: “Since moving up to the marathon, I have found that I often start more conservatively in cross-country races, particularly in international competition. This may be partly due to the differences in the nature of my training compared to some of the shorter-distance, track-based athletes. I am unlikely to be as sharp as those athletes who have come off an indoor season, for example.

“It may also be that my perception of pace has changed slightly as a result of the marathon and I am able to spread my effort a little more evenly throughout the duration of the race. I have found that whenever I start a little more conservatively I am able to achieve a solid, respectable result. I think this is because many cross-country courses are deceptively challenging and not all athletes adjust their pace for this.”

The third and final article in this series will consider the tactical considerations of running over the country.

» Dr Matt Long has lectured on sports psychology at the National Sports Centre, Bisham Abbey. David Lowes is AW Performance Editor and a former international athlete