How to Run a Cross Country Meet: Tactics and Strategy

Before the Race (T-minus 24 hours)

  • Sleep: Get a good night's rest for a couple of days leading up to the meet.
  • Water: Drink plenty of water. Failure to do so will lead to nausea and dehydration, which can be dangerous. Carry a water bottle around with you and drink throughout the day.
  • Diet: Don't eat a big lunch the day of the race, which can lead to stomach cramps. Small snacks throughout the day are much safer. Salad and other vegetables can also lead to digestive problems while running.
  • Practice: Any practicing you do within this time period should be light. The day before the race, stretch well and do some easy running.
  • Psych Yourself!: Imagine yourself running like never before, completing the race with ease. A little confidence can't hurt.
  • Pre-race Warmup: Stretch and do some jogging before the race. Keep loose.

The Race

  • The Start: There are essentially two ways of starting a cross country meet. The one you apply to your race will determine your strategy for the duration of the meet and impact your final standing tremendously. It depends greatly upon the sort of person you are, and that is something you have to know long before you hear the gun.
    1. Sprinters: Sprinters take off as fast as they can at the start to gain valuable ground on their opponents. They have an obvious advantage at the beginning of the race, but lose a lot of energy vying for position at the front with other sprinters. The strategy involves taking a good position at the beginning and holding it as competitors attempt to pass them. Pacing can become difficult to maintain with this strategy, but if done carefully a sprinting-type strategy can work out quite well.
    2. Backrunners: A backrunner runs the start at the same (or a slightly faster) pace as the rest of the race. A backrunner hopes to save energy at the beginning in order to pick his opponents off one by one later in the race when the sprint they indulged in at the start catches up to them. Backrunners are of course at a significant disadvantage in the early race. They must not only make up the significant distance between themselves and the frontrunners, but also pass each runner separating them from their target. Given that runners tend to clump into groups in the early race, backrunners may be advised to save energy and wait for these clumps to dissipate, should they encounter a substantial one. Although they begin in a unenviable position, backrunners are more than capable of making up their lost ground with patience and good pacing.

  • Hills
    • Uphill: On a hill of any significant steepness, it is advisable to shorten your stride a bit, while keeping the rate of turnover constant. It is very easy to kill yourself in this situation. You do not want to feel your legs burning upon reaching the top of a hill! If you feel the burn coming on, back off a bit. If a guy you were running near passes you, accelerate by him when you get to the top of the hill. His legs will be burning, and it will be a psychological blow to see you whizzing by like that hill was nothing.
    • Downhill: Free speed! Open up your stride as much as you can, and let gravity do the work.
  • Cornering
    • Wide Corners: On a nice, gradual turn, keep to the inside and accelerate. These will probably comprise the majority of the corners you will come across.
      • Passing Around a Wide Corner : If you're on a straightaway heading toward a wide corner, and the guy in front of you just won't die, here's a great way to make him run a bit farther. First, draw level with him. Accelerate past him on the inside so that you are slightly farther ahead than he is. Make sure he can't cut in behind you without slowing down or tripping you (which the referee should penalize him for). Then, keep him in that spot for the duration of the turn. He'll either slow down to get behind you or be forced to run a wider corner than he would otherwise have to. Regardless, you gain ground.
    • Tight Corners: These are a bit less intuitive. If you take a 150 degree turn on the inside, you will practically have to stop to turn when you reach the bend. Accelerate, and take these in a nice wide arc on the outside. Sure, you'll run a little farther, but it "flows" a lot more easily and you'll lose less speed than the guy trying to cut his distance.
    • Blind Corners: If someone is following you around a "blind" corner (one where he can't see the other side), accelerate dramatically as soon as you're out of sight. When he gets around the corner and sees what a lead you've gained, he'll lose the fighting spirit quickly.
  • The Finish: Begin increasing your speed about half a mile from the finish line. By the time you get there, hopefully you will be at a dead sprint or some reasonable approximation thereof. There are no backrunners when it comes to the home stretch, so don't hold back! After the Race
    • Cool Down: When you get your breath back, go for a jog and stretch, in that order.
    • Don't Sit Down!: It's terrible for your legs, and will make you cramp up, especially if you sit "Indian style".
    • Think: What can you do better next time? What were your mistakes? Learn from them while they're fresh in your mind.

    Update: Serjeant's Muse has informed me that "Your advice on wide corners, unless you KNOW you are a superior racer, is incorrect. The person on the outside has the advantage. On anything but the elite level two runners will generally pull even with each other on a gradual turn, coming out of that turn, if they both maintain the same speed, the person who was on the outside will start to pull ahead. for a better example, imagine someone passing to the outside on a track, if they pull even at the height of the turn, they'll appear to take off down the straightaway." My thanks go out to him for correcting me.