Coaching Youth Middle Distance Runners: Competition
Middle Distance Runners
To some extent, "the differences in variability of race times between types of race, ability groups, age groups, and sexes probably arise from differences in competitive experience and attitude toward competing" (Hopkins & Hewson, 2001, p. 1588). In other words, experience and competitiveness will affect an athlete's race time more than most factors. There can also be no doubt that environmental factors, such as altitude and climate, can significantly affect competition performance (Hollings, Hopkins, & Hume, 2012). Among athletes with similar experience levels and competitiveness, however, oftentimes it is not the fastest runner who wins a championship middle distance race but rather the athlete with the best tactics (Thiel, Foster, Banzer, & De Koning, 2012). Coaches, then, should stress the importance of effective racing strategies.
When deciding appropriate events for individual runners, it important to understand that the term "middle distance" includes a wide range of competitions requiring distinct skills and tactics. Different races utilize various energy systems: The longer the race, the more aerobic energy is required; conversely, the shorter the race, the more the athlete's body relies on anaerobic power (Brandon, 1995; Hill, 1999). Athletes who participate in middle distance races can come from a variety of backgrounds; therefore, not all athletes who are suited for one race may be suited for the other. Additionally, the traditional schedule for many athletics competitions is structured for the organizers' convenience, not the athletes'. Coaches should be aware of the time required to recover between races, especially during meets held in warmer temperatures: "Youth athletes are capable of tolerating the heat and performing reasonably well and safely in a range of hot environments if they prepare well, manage hydration sufficiently, and are provided the opportunity to recover adequately between contests" (Bergeron, 2009, p. 513). Runners who compete in multiple events may prefer to adopt a more conservative race strategy (Brown, 2005).
Although minimizing distance is an important factor in successful middle distance running (Jones & Whipp, 2002), runners can position themselves slightly off the outside shoulder of other athletes during competition to draft off of them. For their master's theses, Corvalán-Grössling (1995), Arnett (2002), and Bailey (2011) measured the psychological and physiological effects of drafting off of other runners at various angles. All three found distinct advantages to the tactic. Not only did it reduce the oxygen need for the following runner, but running at a slight angle on the outside shoulder decreased his or her RPE, even though that method produced no physiological benefit over following directly behind. Even if the drafting runner is clearly better than the person he or she is following, it still makes sense to draft, since it takes away the possibility of the weaker athlete using the same drafting strategy (Pitcher, 2009).
Pacing strategies for elite performances in middle distance running events differ markedly between events, with shorter races requiring faster starts and longer races necessitating more careful control of pace (Tucker, Lambert, & Noakes, 2006). While it is theoretically possible to achieve one's best performance with a simple "all-out" strategy in a middle distance race (Morton, 2009), this is often not the case in practice, and consistent and deliberate pacing is essential for young runners. Runners with an excellent recall and recognition of their own pace fare better in terms of timed performance (Kazuo, 1998). As athletes gain experience, they develop an internal clock that allows them to accurately gauge their speed and predictably run prescribed splits (Green, Sapp, Pritchett, & Bishop, 2010). Even well trained runners tend to slow their pace somewhat in the later stages of a race (Abbiss & Laursen, 2008). Starting with a more conservative pace will allow the athlete to run faster during the critical middle-to-late portions of the race, when other runners tend to tire and slow down (Muehlbauer, Schindler, & Panzer, 2010).
If a runner is struggling with the physical task of shifting his or her running pace during a race, try to focus on form as a means of changing pace. For runners between the ages of five and 12 years old, increased stride length is more closely correlated to faster times than increased stride frequency (Cox & Beller, 2011). Above a certain speed, however, frequency ultimately becomes more important than length (Dorn, Schache, & Pandy, 2012). Runners are more likely to achieve this increased stride frequency by focusing on moving the recovery leg back to active position, rather than trying to "push off" the ground with more force (Kadono, Ae, Suzuki, & Shibayama, 2011).
Physiologically, the 800 m is more similar to the 400 m dash than other middle distance races (Brandon & Boileau, 1992; Hanon & Thomas, 2011), and it requires significant anaerobic capabilities (Deason, Powers, Lawler, Ayers, & Stuart, 1991). In theory, 800 m runners often attempt to run their second lap as fast as their first, but in practice, this usually is not the case; thus, most models of this race prescribe a slightly faster first lap than second (Prendergast, 2002; Reardon, 2013). Even so, runners should be well aware of the physical demands for this event, and pace themselves accordingly.
The 1,500 m, 1,600 m, or full mile run is typically held near the conclusion of a meet. In any case, runners must find a balance during the start: It must be fast, to maximize oxygen intake at early in the race, but not too fast, as to prevent them from being able to surge at around the 1,200 m mark (Hanon, Levêque, Vivier, Thomas, 2007; Hanon, Levêque, Thomas, & Vivier, 2008). Almost inevitably, the third lap will be the slowest (Noakes, Lambert, & Hauman, 2009), but runners should be able to anticipate and plan for that portion of the race.
While experienced runners in shorter races like the 800 m almost always run their second lap slower than the first, the body's need for homeostasis during longer races will require a more thoughtful race pace (Tucker et al., 2006). Though Gosztyla, Edwards, Quinn, and Kenefick (2006) suggested that runners in races 3,000 m and above should hypothetically begin their race at a slightly faster pace than their anticipated race pace, younger athletes are likely to do this anyway, given their inexperience.
Most of the competition strategies mentioned here should apply to male and female athletes. Indeed, a number of the studies cited in this section regard experiments specifically conducted on female subjects. That said, as athletes reach adolescence and males develop more rapidly, the performance gap between genders increases (Malina et al., 2010). In their study on the performance developments of track and field athletes, Tønnessen, Svendsen, Olsen, Guttormsen, & Haugen (2015) found that "the 800 m performance sex difference evolves from 4.8% at the age of 11 to 15.7% at the age of 18" (p. 5). The authors recommend that coaches consider these differences when planning performance goals for athletes.
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