The Science Behind Peaking for Cross Country Championship Season

With the season-ending state cross country championship meet, scheduled for Nov. 14 at Hereford, on the horizon, it only makes sense that Quince Orchard and Northwest runners would tack on extra miles to ensure they are fully prepared for the grueling 3.5-mile race, right?

Wrong. It is actually unlikely there will be much long distance running at all in the next week leading up to the fall’s ultimate high school competition. Making sure cross country athletes peak at the right time—championship season, which began with the Montgomery County meet on Oct. 26—is a rather delicate science. It is not uncommon for the county’s individual leaderboards to change drastically—and frequently—from preseason to postseason, as athletes pace themselves.

Quince Orchard and Northwest were scheduled to compete in the Class 4A West Region championship Thursday. Results were too late to be included in this edition of The Town Courier but the best seven teams and top 25 percent of individual finishers advanced to states and both teams were in contention.

“You want to be sharp and not tired (for the postseason),” Quince Orchard coach Seann Pelkey said. “We try to choose our meets wisely, in terms of the invitationals we go to. Planning workouts is a big deal. What types of workouts we do evolve as the season goes on. It’s important to know when to train, when to work out, when to race. It’s much more of a fine-tuning later (in the season) as opposed to strength.”

The only way to truly excel in cross country is by putting in the mileage. But there is a fine line between productivity, overuse and burnout—which can be physical or mental, or both—and a training progression is vital to walking it. Pelkey added that the county’s top runners also must pay mind to their goals for the winter and spring track seasons as well as where they are in the college search process.

Quince Orchard’s Liam Walsh (10th), Christian McCann (23rd) and Maya Jacobson (20th) and Northwest’s Branson Oduor (fourth), Komlan Attiogbe (20th) and Sofia Zarate (ninth) all finished in the top 25 at the county championship and will likely be top contenders for states. These top distance runners all spent the summer gradually building up a strong foundation of fitness, and they dedicated the early portion of the fall season to building a solid base of endurance. This regimen is also quite helpful for those runners who compete in shorter distances during track season.

But while repetition is productive, it is imperative to vary workouts, Pelkey and Northwest coach Robert Youngblood agreed. Both said incorporating strength and core work takes runners to new heights. Pelkey said training toward the latter stages of the season typically focuses on speed intervals and race pacing.

“I literally schedule my season from the end of the season back to the beginning,” Youngblood said. “I don’t start out with, ‘Well, we have to do this to get to that.” I start off with where I want us to be and where I expect us to be and look at the personnel and start backward. It’s less and less (work) at the end. It’s working in reverse, so they’ll peak at the end. My (runners’) times are really dropping drastically at the end of the year.”

By postseason time, if athletes have adhered to their respective training regimens, they’ve done all the work they can and barring serious injury, there is nothing they will be able to do last-minute to prepare their bodies for championship season. At this point, Youngblood said, it is time to focus on staying sharp mentally.

If the season is not gauged right, it is very easy for runners to burn out mentally. And that typically brings down their physicality, Youngblood said.

“You might back off with your training in some regard, we’re not going to be doing a lot of long distance running, but in other aspects, the intensity picks up with speed workouts,” Pelkey said. “There’s that saying, ‘The hay is in the barn.’ The work has been done (throughout the season). Now it’s about staying sharp.”