by Russ Ebbets
One of the ways to teach a technical element or technique style of a sport is to use word cues that the athlete can associate with desired actions. The cues might serve as reminders to the athlete to assure proper sequencing of movement patterns for the foot, leg, arms or body. This, in turn, promotes body postures that are biomechanically critical to an action and may improve balance, force production, speed of movement, enhance endurance or optimize the effectiveness of an offensive or defensive stance. Due to the dynamic nature of sport, there is often a combination of several of these factors. This should explain the time-tested coaching adage that words cue action.
Running actions and racing tactics can also be directed with the use of cue words or phrases. The problem with this whole idea is determining who gives the word cues. Attend any meet and the list of “important others” who have come to cheer on their son/daughter, friend/neighbor, boyfriend/girlfriend create a disjointed chorus that can leave the laboring athlete with a fourth struggle added to already formidable challenges of the competition, the course and the self.
Tactical commands are one of the coach’s jobs. If you think about this for a second, it makes sense. You don’t see the cheerleaders at a basketball game in the timeout huddle waving their pom-poms and chanting “Let’s go team!” They may make noise from the sideline, but they pretty much stay there. Moral support (You look great! Keep it up!) therefore needs to be seen as significantly different from tactical commands.
Over the years there were a number of incidents where the “help” of well-meaning parents or others led to less than desirable results. The lack of awareness of a race plan or even awareness of a general race strategy by these important others eventually led to a written list of words or phrases I would use during a competition to create, change or refresh the athlete’s thought and subsequent racing actions to generate the desired efforts and results. Possibly the biggest change here was that only me, the coach, was to be listened to, not mom or dad, grandpa or grandma, or even a well-meaning teammate, for that matter. Words do cue action and from this fact we developed what came to be known as The Code of Tactical Commands.
Tactics are dependent on physical ability. To expect a newbie struggling with completion of his or her first 5k to be able to execute mid-race surges is unrealistic. A host of factors, not the least of which are physiology, physical strength, will power or perceptual awareness, all need to be developed to a higher level before even rudimentary tactical variations can be considered. Therefore, it is a truism that the limiting factor in tactical maneuvers is physical ability.
The most basic race tactic learned by my 14-year-old freshmen was how to lead or follow. Initially that might seem pretty simple, but it became more complicated once environmental race factors such as wind and weather, race bottlenecks or turns were added to the mix. Very quickly the 14-year-old could see that it was not a good idea to be leading into the wind, or that running a tight corner in a big race usually forced one to chop steps, necessitating unwanted race surges that precluded running at an even pace. But slowly, race by race, the runner’s tactical inventory grew until by junior or senior year their tactical sense matched their physical abilities, and come the end of a race this could create a winning advantage.
Ultimately, learning how master things like a 10-step acceleration, how to surge off the top of a hill, downhill running, or how to modify leg actions for the final sprint, produced a complete runner who was a relentless rival and who competed fearlessly to the bitter end of a race.
In setting up the Code of Tactical Commands it was necessary to remember that the commands must meet two criteria. First, the meaning of the command should be clear. Secondly, the “cue” should be short. In the heat of the battle I wanted commands that could be enacted with no need for interpretation and instantaneously. Listed below are several cues we used with great effectiveness.
Knee-up, Toe-up – If pressed I would say this is the most important cue discussed. It is a practice cue, but once this action is automated it becomes an important part of sprinting, surging and closing efforts. When one runs fast or sprints, the thigh approaches ground parallel and the foot is dorsiflexed (toe is raised towards the shin). Biomechanically this creates several changes within the body that are advantageous to the sprint action.
Firstly, this leg action creates a short lever of the lower limb. One needs to remember that biomechanically a short lever is a fast lever. Secondly, the toe-up position of the foot puts the foot in a supinated position that essentially locks together all the small bones of the foot. The toe-up position creates a rigid lever of the foot for the coming foot strike. The shock of ground contact is shifted up the limb to the larger muscles of the thigh and buttocks that initially help absorb shock.
A third advantage of the knee-up, toe-up position is that this leg position pre-stretches the calf muscle, activating the stretch reflex of the calf so that upon footstrike of the supinated foot there can be a reflexive and more powerful contraction of the calf muscle, once again, promoting a faster forward movement.
Finally, the “learning” of the knee-up, toe-up leg and foot posture better positions the leg and foot to manage the forces of ground contact. Over time the subconscious application of this pattern can help prevent overuse injuries to the foot, shin and knee.
The knee-up, toe-up position can be practiced as part of an active warm-up with walking or skipping drills and practiced when one does strides as a warm-up action or at the end of practice.
You got all that? Pretty complicated, I know, but if all one can do is “knee-up, toe-up” and assume the position, that will work too.
Lead or Follow – Obviously, if you are racing with the possibility of winning a race, when to break away from the lead pack can be a critical decision. When does one kick? How much effort needs to be used or how far out from the finish should one kick? These are legitimate questions that usually are answered with trial and effort. Maybe the best suggestion is to start with something short and expand from there.
If one’s talent is such that the competition can be dominated with little trouble it is recommended to lead from the start, guaranteeing a clear running path and avoidance of potential mishaps. If the outcome of the race is in doubt, patiently waiting to assume the lead until the second half of the race may be the wiser choice.
But what if you are a middle-packer with no designs on winning a race? I would still contend that leading is a critical skill. There are still “packs” of runners that one races against and one can tactically outmaneuver. One might consider leading into a turn to clearly see the terrain or out of a turn to accelerate and get some separation as the followers chop their stride. Leading to avoid being jostled through a bottleneck can also be a benefit.
Following might be the better tactic for the first half of a race, on a windy day or to decrease wind resistance as Kipchoge recently did in his sub 2-hour marathon effort. In following one allows the leader to “do the work” by cutting the wind and setting the pace. Following also offers one the element of surprise as far as initiation of one’s kick.
Turn, turn, turn – Turn, turn, turn was a cryptic expression used that meant “set yourself up for the coming turn.” Many large races have sharp 90° turns that can present a traffic jam for anyone not leading the pack into the turn. Those close to the corner can get “picked” by a boundary pole and can be forced to chop their stride. Worse case scenarios may include pushing and shoving and the real possibility of falling. “Set yourself up for the turn” necessitates forethought of possibly 10-15 seconds before the turn happens. By surveying the course beforehand one can negotiate the turns with a full running stride and avoid unwanted slowdowns. For the more talented, adding a late race surge coming out of a turn can be an effective tactic that may prove disheartening to those following.
10 Step – The 10-step is a more difficult tactic to employ, but if one is able to use it diligently it can weaken an opponent’s kick or erode their resolve to battle on. Almost everyone is familiar with the idea of “surging” where one picks up the pace for a lap or along a certain distance of a cross country course. The 10-step differs in a few ways from the traditional surge.
The biggest difference is that the 10-step requires one to consciously change running mechanics for 10 steps. The elbow angle is closed (less than 90 degrees) and one steps over the knee (employing the knee-up, toe-up) for 10 steps. This biomechanical shift quickens one’s pace with seemingly little extra effort, especially for the well-trained athlete.
The 10-step disrupts a sluggish physiology that has been functioning at the same pace for an extended period of time. If one has ever raced a 10K on the track, the lap after lap monotony is challenged and broken up. But for one’s competition, laboring with the same body mechanics, remaining “in contact” becomes difficult as their sense of even pace is disrupted.
Bang-bang – Team running is where your pair up with a teammate and work together to pick off runners ahead of you. Even if you are in a road race by yourself you can find a partner and use the “bang-bang” cue to work your way through runners ahead of you. This was a race tactic one could expect to hear in the later portions of a race where the pair works together to systematically move up through the pack. At any given time the stronger runner “leads” the pair to get the next runner. Leading duties can be alternated, or the weaker runner can tag along as long as he or she is able. Coincidentally the 10-step is used to initiate the bang-bang.
All you – “All you” was used at the end of a race to communicate that there were no challengers within striking distance and the runner could essentially coast home. While that may seem contrary to the general race effort when examined from the “always giving 100%” there is a sound reason here. Trying to end with a blazing kick or a long, sustained drive over the last 400-600m begs the question – what is the point? If the race has already been “won” and one’s nearest rival has been defeated one’s mission has been accomplished.
One must remember that late race efforts are astronomically more taxing on the body’s systems and will require a longer recovery time. Coasting in when the race is in hand saves energies for another day. It should be noted this would not be a tactical command if one were trying to achieve a qualification time.
Tune ‘em up – This was a command that it was “time to go” and to start the finishing kick or long drive home. This was usually (hopefully) followed up by a “say good-bye” meaning that the surge has been successful and that the opponent is not responding and there will be no further challenges to come from that athlete.
Quick feet – Quick feet was one of the final cues used, reserved for the sprint finish of a race. The cue refers to the fact that one can only apply force when the foot is on the ground. The quicker the foot gets back on the ground the more frequently force can be applied. This cue fights the urge to lengthen the stride and essentially “float” during the final burst to the finish. While the longer strides may feel more comfortable, getting the feet on the ground is what will allow one to finish quicker.
Line, line, line – Line, line, line is short for “don’t form a line.” Watch any large cross country meet or road race and note that 50-80 meters from the finish the runners start to line up one behind the next, some even slowing down to do so. The implied action of “line-line-line” is to “pull out and pass.” Runners can easily pick up 2-3 spots in the last 50 meters while their competitors are blocked from responding. The ability to shift to sprint mechanics here, with the knee-up, toe-up, should underscore the importance of automating that technique.
See the ground – This is another “end of race” command that was given to re-focus the finishing effort. The athlete was expected to go “eyes wide” and consciously evaluate coming footsteps. Several things were to be evaluated – the straight line to the finish, recognition of any pre-determined landmarks of the finish line, the quality of the ground of the finish stretch (i.e. – bumps, muddy, puddles, green patches of grass that mask holes, etc.) with a readiness to shift to sprint mechanics, use quick feet and not form a line at the finish if necessary.
There is an old basketball study that found athletes only hear about 65% of what a coach says in a timeout. Much can go wrong 35% of the time. With the Code of Tactical Commands both the athlete and coach are on the same page. I pressed for 100% of my message to get through.
The use of cueing is poetic in nature. Different coaches will develop different cues depending on the points they want to emphasize and what is consistent with their coaching philosophy. Cues should be simple and something that cannot be confused. As mentioned above, athletes were given a hard copy of the Code of Tactical Commands and cue-words were practiced frequently throughout the week so that their application could be effectively and decisively applied as one’s physical abilities allowed.
It bears repeating that words cue action and that one’s tactical skills can only be proportional to one’s level of fitness. Rome was not built in a day and neither can one create a tactical inventory overnight. But with a long-term plan, faithful practice and diligent application, a coach can develop a team of fearsome competitors that is difficult to beat.
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Ebbets’ new book can be ordered on Amazon.
“A Runner's Guide blends local flavor with a personal touch to address universal themes all runners and athletes face. Russ Ebbets draws on a lifetime of experiences detailed through selected essays from 30+ years of training columns in the Hudson Mohawk Road Runners Club's Pace Setter Magazine. Whether it be thoughts on training and competition, growth and development or health and history, Ebbets creates a rich mosaic of the sport that offers something for everyone, be they athlete, coach, spectator or parent.”
Russ Ebbets, DC is a USATF Level 3 Coach and lectures nationally on sport and health related topics. He serves as editor of Track Coach, the technical journal for USATF. He is author of the novel Supernova on the famed running program at Villanova University and the sequel Time and Chance. A Runner’s Guide, a collection of training tips and running advice was published in November of 2019. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.