With the start of track season, we find ourselves excited to see what all of our athletes' hard work has accomplished! This brings us to the topic of this article, should we use time trials? I think Coach Banta asked me to write this article specifically because he and I disagree on this topic. If you have read any of the articles he has posted on mo.milesplit.com, you can tell he is very big into using various types of time trials and testing throughout the season. I, on the other hand, hate time trials with a passion and tend to avoid them like the plague. Before going into why I am not a big fan, let's talk about what purpose they serve. Typically, time trials are used to determine training paces (referred to as date pace), providing race experience, comparing yearly improvements or to assess potential. While all of these are good and make sense in certain situations, I feel that given the age of the athletes we coach, the potential benefits don't outweigh the negatives.
First, let's take a look at using time trials to determine training paces. It makes sense that you would want to have an idea on what paces to use for training your athletes. The concept itself goes all the way back to Coaches Dellinger and Bowerman at Oregon and has been used successfully ever since, so there must be validity to it. However, with young athletes, I don't think it's the best way. To start with, it assumes that the athlete runs the best time they are capable of in the time trial. Yet with young athletes, this is seldom the case. In sprints, you can get away with giving the kid 15 minutes to recover and run the 100m time trial again, but it doesn't quite work like that with the distance events. I also think it misses the mark from a psychological perspective because it doesn't incorporate goal setting. What I mean by this is if you spend the first half of a season training date pace it can be hard for an athlete to see how it is helping them reach their end of season goal. While we, as coaches, know it is developing the physiological systems required to attain their goal I'm not sure the average 16-year-old can make that connection. If we take a moment to examining the point of training, it's to take an athlete from where they are at currently to their goal through the use of appropriate stimuli. So instead of using a time trial to determine their starting point you can structure training such that the athlete decides on their goal and that dictates the appropriate starting point. This also gives the athlete input into their training which promotes the development of intrinsic motivation. It also places a focus on what they can do in the future, not on what they can do now, which is helpful when going through the good and bad times everyone encounters in training.
Next, let's take a look at using time trials as a way to provide race experience. I find this reason to make the most sense for high school aged athletes. In teaching, we don't give our students the test and say "good luck" without providing them any instruction. With that being said, I think you can provide appropriate instruction without taking the time to run a time trial. Every time we put athletes through a workout we are also providing them instruction on how to race. Whether it is through cues such as "on your toes" or "elbows" or giving them paces for each interval, we are providing our athletes with instruction on how to run their race. If we are providing this instruction several times a week, then the time trial isn't necessary. I also like that my athletes go into their first race not knowing what to expect. While this may seem counter-intuitive, I feel it allows them to mentally frame the race as "well, who knows what I can do so I'm just going to go out there and race" instead of worrying whether they will run faster than their time trial. It also adds a bit of uncertainty into the race, which is a good thing because it provides an opportunity to teach them how to deal with unknowns. If you have ever read anything about grit or resiliency, one of the key things research has shown is in order to develop it, you must be exposed to situations which require it. In the context of track, if we tell athletes what to do exactly every time they step onto the track and race how they will respond when the plan goes down the drain in the first 100m?
Now let's examine the use of time trials to get an idea of how much an athlete has improved. In this instance, I don't feel like devoting an entire practice to a time trial is worth it. While it's nice for an athlete to see that they have improved from one year to the next, or from early to midseason, I think this can be done other ways. For example, if you are running similar workouts from year to year it is easy to see if the athlete has improved. In addition, since there are a lot of workouts within a season, they will provide more data which gives a more accurate assessment of their improvements.
What about using time trial data to determine what an athlete can run by end of the season? While I think there could be some merit for this with older athletes, since we are training kids who have between 0 and 3 years of experience they are going to improve at dramatically different rates. So while it would be nice to have an idea of what they could do, using a time trial isn't always the best way to find out. For example, I have an athlete on my team who started his freshman year running 26 minute 5ks. However, his goal was to break 22 minutes. If he had done a time trial at the beginning of the season, it would have been ugly. However, I didn't, and instead, I told him there is no crystal ball that can predict what he can do. Instead, it is in his hands to do everything he can, and we will see what happens. By the end of the year, he was running in the 21-minute range. If you have coached long enough, you are bound to have a story like this as well. It's one of the things that makes running great. However, had I used a time trial early on I probably would have made his training to slow, and he would never have run that fast.
As stated above, I think there are equally effective methods to achieve the same things you would get from a time trial. In addition to this, there are some pitfalls associated with time trials that have made me think twice over the years about using them. To begin with, I think they have a higher likelihood of providing us with false rather than valid data. For example, some athletes have a hard time getting motivated for a time trial. They just don't care about it because it's not a race. This then affects their times which, depending on how you use them, can distort a lot of different training parameters. If they have a bad time trial, it can leave them feeling bad about their offseason training and where they are at going into the season. On the other extreme, you have the kids who blast an amazing time and feel great about everything going into the season. Then when they get into races and run slower times due to weather, pacing, etc... they wonder why they aren't getting better. In actuality, they are getting better, but because of their time trial time, they feel they aren't. Lastly, you have the new kids who have no clue what they are doing. Since they are brand new, no matter how well they do or don't do you have to be careful because you don't know if they will be able to sustain it.
With all this being said, I do use time trials twice a year. I know this sounds hypocritical since if you got this far, you just read 5-10 minutes of why I hate time trials. However, the reason I do them has nothing to do with the reason stated above. Instead, both occur at the end of each season, are only for the younger/JV kids, are optional and are just for fun! I like them in these situations because, for a lot of these kids, they didn't get a chance to run fast at the end of a season due to weather, entry restrictions or lack of peaking so it's nice for them to have an opportunity to see what they can do. It also serves as a great teaching opportunity to show them how important xc is to track and vice versa.
Now that I have gone over all the reasons why I avoid using time trials it would only be fair if I provided insights on what I do instead. However, as I am sitting here writing this, it has already gotten quite long. So check back next week for the second part of this article on what you can do during early and midseason to replace time trials.