Marathon races in Australia are often mass-participation events, where ‘completers’ outnumber ‘competers’ by huge margins. Cross Country Olympic racing (XCO), on the other hand, usually attracts hard-core racers chasing medals and jerseys. But even if you’re a marathon ‘completer’ when you get out to race, there are lots of reasons to love, watch, and even enter an XCO event. Imogen Smith reflects on her reasons for racing XCO, how it helps her training, and why it’s a great fit with marathon racing.
XCO for high-intensity preparation
A couple of weeks ago I raced the Queensland XCO State Champinships in Mackay in Queensland. Apart from an opportunity to compete for a pretty special maroon and gold jersey, this was a rare off-season chance to get some XCO (Olympic-distance cross country) racing in the legs.
Over the last two years (when I’ve been taking XCM racing more seriously), XCO competition has been important to my preparation for marathon events. Training for marathons, despite what a lot of people think, isn’t about doing lots of long-distance rides. A huge part of my training year is taken up with periods of high-intensity work to build my capacity for riding above threshold. Although marathons are long, and it’s true we race the bulk of them in the tempo range, the important race-winning moves, any kind of hill, and technical features require the capacity to go hard. And do this repeatedly.
It goes without saying that high-intensity training is challenging, so it’s particularly important to have a short-term goal to strive for when the going gets tough! Races like Mackay’s XCO State Champs and Australia’s National Series (which takes place between December and March) give me a carrot to chase (or a whip to flee from) on all those steamy Brisbane mornings spent throwing myself into Mt Coot-tha’s steep side, then coasting back down feeling like I’m going to vomit.
Reverse periodisation with the XCO calendar
Timing of training mesocycles (long-ish periods of specific types of training) is important, too, and it’s something I’ve played around with. Given that XCM racing usually picks up in March, about where XCO racing leaves off, I’ve experimented a bit with with reverse periodisation. Traditional periodisation sees athletes building a base of longer, slower rides and less-intense intervals, then moving through a build period of harder, shorter work, before peaking at very high intensity as racing approaches. Reverse periodisation is – you guessed it – the opposite. So, last year I had a long break in September and did some general preparation in October and November, before jumping into high-intensity work over the XCO season. As XCM season drew closer, I worked more and more on longer, lower intensity intervals that targeted my FTP, and was in great shape by the time the first XCMs started. (Then I got squashed in a crit and had to have a few months off, but my training had been paying off until then.)
XCO racing usually demands a higher skill level than marathon racing, too. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but mostly I think it’s because part of XCO racing is learning and sessioning a course in the days beforehand, while XCM races are, by and large, designed to be raced sight-unseen and by larger fields of participants who want to be challenged to complete the course, not scared out of their minds by drop-offs. Whatever the reason, the fact that I need to prepare for more gnarly features and faster-paced racing helps push my skills in the right direction, too.
I also find that the races themselves push me further. A bit like the fact that we always dig deeper into our fitness when we race, I find I push the limits of my skills harder than ever under race conditions.
In a race like Mackay’s State Champs, on a course overflowing with rock gardens and A- and B-line choices, I find I really do extend my skills. Even though I work on my bike handling in training, it’s difficult to conjure up the same level of adrenalin, the added complexity of racing lots of other competitors, and the mental stress of tactics and strategies that may or may not be working out at same time you hit a rock garden at your max heart rate.
Whether you aim to win your next marathon or finish it, there’s a lot to be gained from participating in as many XCO races as you can find. MTB clubs around the country host events, and MTBA are reviving State Series and State Champs events like my recent race in Mackay. XCO racing, in spite of its speed and intensity, offers the same friendly, welcoming, and supportive environment that we love marathon racing for. It’ll push your fitness, your skills, your nutrition and hydration strategies, and when your marathon finally rolls around, you’ll have a bunch of new skills and strengths to draw on.