GB international Alex Teuten on how to target the big races this winter
For pretty much everyone in athletics, the opportunity to represent, be it at county, regional or national/international level is a huge, if not ultimate, goal. Of course, once it is achieved then the objective shifts to doing as well as one can in the representation event but the process of qualification is a stressful one and is usually the result of a carefully structured and executed training plan.
The area and school champs for all the counties in the UK will have just been held, and the process of selection for the UK Inter-Counties and English Schools is currently taking place. Some will be left disappointed, but some will be ecstatic that their training has paid off and they can now look forward to pulling on their county vest.
It is of course an honour to represent and is an opportunity to shine and compete against some of the best cross-country runners in the UK at an invitation-only event. There will be pressure, too, and it is important to manage that and channel it into producing the best performance one can. For many, it will be the first time and without the experience of running in a national event the nerves will be jangling metaphorically speaking.
So what advice can I give to those people? From experience, I would ensure you are prepared physically and mentally for the task in hand. Many athletes tend to have a mid-season break; it helps to refocus, evaluate goals and prepares the body for the hard training and racing that is yet to come. During this time, I would sit down with your coach (or put pen to paper if you’re self-coached) and come up with a structured plan for the rest of the season, leading into those championship races.
With so many major events it is so easy (and I’m equally guilty of this!) to spread yourself too thin and target too much. Races can be included as part of the preparation but it’s important that they “fit in” with the objective. I’m a strong advocate for using good races to gain fitness; nothing prepares you better than competing against strong opposition and a well-executed race is always a better physical stimulus than a training session that only mimics it.
Patience is key when it comes to gaining fitness. It can be frustrating for an athlete to not see immediate improvements after they
set their goal. During an intense training block an athlete will likely experience peaks and troughs in energy levels, which are exacerbated by the daily routine. Some sessions will seem like a struggle but this is entirely normal.
Fitness doesn’t come from the work put in, it’s the process by which the body recovers and responds to the effort in training. It is important to listen to your body though, and if a consistent feeling of fatigue in runs and session is experienced then it might be necessary to cut back to restore some freshness.
On a related topic, recovery is an important aspect of any training block – and one I can only scratch the surface of here. I would recommend getting massage frequently, as well as running at a comfortable pace on easy runs. Similarly, I think protein drinks after hard sessions are beneficial. Stretching after a session, in a warm environment if possible, will also be of benefit.
The key time for recovery is in the week before the big race. Ensure you don’t go into the race with any residual tiredness and so a taper is a key part to the race preparation. I would always recommend having a rest day in that week (on Thursday if the race is Saturday), although some feel this causes the legs to become stiff. It is of course personal preference but significantly less mileage on that week is the important aspect.
Athletics – and especially cross-country – has seen a surge in video coverage in recent years, which has led to an increase in popularity. Such videos are a useful tool to athletes, as it can assist in race preparation and tactics. It is therefore a worthwhile pursuit to analyse footage (no pun intended) of previous championship races, especially if specific to your age-group.
For athletes who are representing for the first time it gives an idea as to the scale of the race. I wish I knew what to expect when I lined up against 400 other fresh-faced youngsters at my first English Schools! Mental preparation is really important and one of the ways I prepare for the big occasion is to do races against unfamiliar opposition.
This may not be possible for younger athletes (consider it something to look forward to!) but at senior level there are lots of opportunities to race abroad, most notably with the England team and I would highly recommend them. The experience I have gained from them has undoubtedly been a factor in my progression through the ranks in cross country.
The additional benefit from them has been in competing against excellent athletes, without being able to deduce where you believe you should finish in the field. With the exception of the team, there are rarely athletes you can compare yourself to, and so you won’t be disheartened about finishing behind a rival.
It’s important to get to know and bond with your team-mates, especially in the younger age categories. You will likely race many of them for years to come and, yes, rivalries will form but that needn’t mean friendships can’t be established off the racecourse.
“It’s important to get to know and bond with your team-mates … yes, rivalries will form but that needn’t mean friendships can’t be established off the racecourse”
A great aspect of the championships is that there is a team element and while you are racing each other, your collective positions will determine your team place. Many of my team-mates in the schools champs were also my training partners at my club and this contributed to a feeling of togetherness that undoubtedly augmented our performances. We were all fighting for each other and I’m sure this was a factor in us going on to win the team competition at my last English Schools!
Bonding with team-mates has become even more rewarding and beneficial if anything in the years that followed. Communicating with members of the England and GB team since I have been invited to such events has been utterly inspiring and have both motivated me to set myself even more challenging goals than before, and also helped me overcome obstacles in my running including my diet and training. So talk to your team-mates and managers!
Adding a personal touch to this article, I recently received my first and second GB call-ups at Euro Cross 2017 and Great Edinburgh XCountry this year. While I thoroughly enjoyed both occasions and experienced a huge amount of pride, I didn’t feel I achieved what I am capable of. That was tough to take, but I took consolation from those close to me.
The team managers at GB were quick to point out that I warranted my place through my performance at the trials and also that the road to success is rarely straight. Even the best British athletes didn’t get it right for GB straightaway!
My training group and coach (collectively known as the Rod Squad) in Southampton were also really encouraging and helped me get back on my feet with a new plan and goal for the rest of the winter. The take-home message is that you shouldn’t be disheartened if the big race doesn’t go as you’d like; use it to motivate you for the next time!
As a final point, enjoy the occasion! It is a privilege to represent your county/country. You can only do as well as you can on the day, and as long as you know you gave 100% then you can have no regrets.
If you achieve your target then that’s fantastic, but if not then put it down to experience. Know also that you deserve your place in the team, no matter where you finish. Good luck!
» 2017 BUCS cross country champion Alex Teuten formed part of Great Britain’s bronze medal-winning senior men’s team at the Euro Cross in December and can be found blogging at alexteuten.wordpress.com