The simple reality is that it’s easier for coaches to evaluate track performances than cross country performances. This is important for recruits because it is the reason PRs from the junior year of outdoor track are so important. What follows is a list of reasons why this is true.
1. Track performances can be compared from state to state. Many recruits will be looking at schools out of their home state. A coach doesn’t have to do much research to see that a 5:20 1,600m performance by a young woman is accurate thanks to the internet. She sends the coach the performance, the date and name of the meet she ran it, and the coach looks it up.
2. Track PRs at distances from 400m to 3,200m give a coach an idea of the strengths and weaknesses of a recruit. For instance, a girl who has run 5:10 in the 1,600m but has run 2:14 in the 800m and has split 59 in the 400m is a recruit that most college coaches would say they can develop into a collegiate 1,500m runner. Here, the 1,600m PR isn’t as good as the 2:14, but this recruit shows that she has good anaerobic ability and that she has a good ratio of fast twitch to slow twitch fiber based on the 400m time. Good college coaches have a system to develop the aerobic metabolism and would be confident that this athlete has the ability to be competitive in the 1,500m in college, even though her 5:10 1,600m PR is be a bit slower than the average recruit the coach has in mind.
3. Tracks are never short or long. While most high school coaches take great pride in measuring their cross country courses, most high school runners will go through their season having run on at least one course that is short. That’s a problem because they use that PR when they reach out to coaches, yet this athlete will likely fail to run a comparable 1,600m or 3,200m performances in the spring.
4. While it’s important for college coaches to bring in recruits with good cross country credentials, the reality is that any good high school cross country runner can and will run good track performances in the spring. The physiology here is simple. When you look at the metabolic contributions of the aerobic and anaerobic metabolisms that fuel the 5k, the 3,200m and the 1,600m, the 5k is 95% aerobic, the 3,200m is over 90% aerobic and the 1,600m is over 75% aerobic. So an athlete who ran great in cross country is using the same “aerobic engine” in track. A high school coach only has to tweak a few workouts for a fit 5k runner to run a comparable 3,200m.
A more telling example is when a cross country coach has a 1,600m time trial at the end of the cross-country season. The majority of the team will run a 1,600m PR off 5k training because these athletes are so aerobically fit. What they lack in neuromuscular specificity and anaerobic training, they more than make up for in aerobic fitness.
5. Weather conditions, while an important consideration for both track and cross country performances, are less of an issue when evaluating track performances. Simple concept here. If it rains the night before a track meet, the track may be wet, but that will only impact a 3,200m race by a second or two. If a 5k cross country course is rained on the night before and your daughter or son races the fifth race of the day on that course, it could be twenty or thirty seconds slower than normal. Obviously, you can inform college coaches of the slower performances of all competitors from that day, but neither you, the college coach or your daughter or son’s high school coach, can say with certainty how much slower the course was.
If your daughter or son is stronger in cross country than as a track runner, do some work and create a document of other performances on that same course. Say, if your son ran 17:00 on a course in the fall of their junior year, but failed to run a comparable time in track their junior year, go back and see how his peers, who ran 17:00 in the fall, ran that spring on the track. The reality is that some coaches are better at coaching cross country than track. And it is becoming more common that the cross country coach does not coach during the track season. Your daughter or son might have had a very capable coach during the summer and fall, but during the winter were left on their own to train, so when spring came, they were coached by a less capable coach.
Two final points
A college coach would like to see good performances at 1,600m because they are confident that they can take a runner who has run a good 1,600m and make them a good 5,000m runner in college. The capable 3,200m runner should be able to run 6k cross country and 8k/10k cross country in college.
A college coach will be happy to look at a short, one page summary of courses ran in a given cross country season and what the conditions were on each day. While there are some courses that have a wealth of historical data — The Woodbridge Invitational and the Mt. Sac meet, both in California, come to mind — there are many courses that need some explanation. As of this writing, the state cross country meet in Colorado is contested on a “true cross country course” with hills and sharp turns, as well as a water crossing, that make the course slower than previous state meet courses in Colorado. Thus, athletes in Colorado who are looking to run at out of state college, should probably write a few sentences to the coach about how slow the state course. While you don’t want to say that __x__ performance in cross country automatically means __y__ performance in track, feel free to lead the college coach in that direction and let them connect the dots.
The bottom line is that track performances are easier for a college coach to evaluate than cross country performances, yet with a bit of work, families can create a one-page document that puts their student’s cross country performances in context.