Tactics & Pacing II

The following article regarding pacing should be kept in context. It would be good to read my first post for some other critical information. There are exceptions at all levels. What I address here, is what should be the rule, not the exception. Specific race strategies may be employed depending on the competition, strengths and weaknesses of you and your opponents and psychological factors as well as your own current conditioning.

Two things are clear:
1. Whether you are pacing in races, time trials; trying to set personal records or beat your arch-rivals, you have to know your pace.
2. Unless you are clearly a superior runner, even pacing with a slightly faster second half than first half is the best strategy.

Research indicates, through careful analysis of split times of record and championship races, that the optimal race pacing strategy is to use 51% of your total projected time in the first half of the race and 49% of your time in the last half. That means you run faster in the last half – also called running “negative splits”. Virtually every distance from 1500 meters and longer are optimally run with the negative split strategy.

Just to check this out, I reviewed some results from the recent past couple years and found the following.

  • In the World Cup Marathon Championships the top 6 men and top 5 women had negative splits. All those slower than those places did not. Furthermore, those top 6 men and 5 women went through the halfway marks together in their respective races. In the end, 58 seconds separated those men, and 1:30 separated those women. The winners pulled away mostly in the final miles.

As you can see in the marathon splits, it takes endurance (the ability to run a long distance), stamina (the ability to sustain a specific pace over a specific distance) and speed. Yes, SPEED! It was the runner who could run fast at the end who won. They all could run the distance (endurance). The all maintained fast paces for the distance (stamina). But, the runners who broke away to win had the ability to pick up the pace and run faster while they were fatigued. They were not just hanging on or trying “not to slow down” or trying to outlast the other runners.

  • Even in the IAAF 10k track championship races the top three in both the men’s and women’s races ran negative splits. The pattern was the same. All went through halfway together. But, it was the one who finished fast. Eleven seconds in the men’s 10k and 3 seconds in the women’s – all made up in the last laps. These were not slow tactical races set up for a sprint. The men’s times ranged from 26:49-27:01 and the women ranged 30:04-30:07. These are some of the fastest times ever run.
  • Meb Keflezighi recently won the US Olympic Trials 10k. 13 of his 25 laps were less than one second off his average pace. Other than a slow 2nd lap and very fast last lap, all laps were within 2 seconds of his overall average.
  • Deena Drossin in winning the women’s Olympic Trials 10k had 18 of her 25 laps within a second of each other.
  • Daniel Komen ran a negative split and was consistent. His 1-K splits were 2:32.7, 2:32.7, 2:31.8, 2:31.3, and 2:31.2. How much better can you get?
  • While running his 10k WR, Paul Tergat’s ran a 13:17 for the first 5k then turned around and ran 13:10. Aside from a negative split, few world class 5k runners can run a 13:10… nevermind doing it as the last half of a 10k!

Compare these efforts to both your track workouts and your recent races. Do you follow the same pattern that the most successful runners do? Even pacing is the most energy conserving approach to racing. Going out slightly slower in the first half both conserves energy while not losing insurmountable time. Making surges to pass someone wastes energy. Charging up hills wastes energy. Charging down hills pound your legs and may leave you fried for the rest of the run (just ask those downhill marathon race veterans). The research indicated that the worst results came from fast starts.

And for cyclist, the same holds true! Research indicates that even pacing yields faster overall cycling times/speeds with the even pace strategy.

It is easier said than done. When you are fresh, you have the energy to burn. You want to go out and attack. Sometimes, we suffer under the delusion that “it just might be my day and I will sustain this pace to the end – it’ll be my big break through!” The physical consequences are worst in an event like the marathon. But, the results and disappointments are just as real for the 5k.
So, how do you prepare yourself?

  • Run at your goal pace so that you can pick it out anywhere and anytime.
  • For marathoners and half-marathoners – run your goal paced work at both beginnings and ends of long runs. Running at the beginning allows you to know your pace while fresh. Running it at the end allows you to know how to run those goal paces while fatigued. It is not the same. 
  • Run speed work, it separates the better runners.
  • Run quality workouts with your fastest running towards the end.
  • Know your course and train for it specifically.

Here’s a fun game to play. Run on a track. For each 400 meters (lap) check your time. When you can keep all your laps within ONE second – you’re getting good. Add your total time deviance from your goal time. If your goal is 90 seconds, whether you run 89 or 91 seconds, you are a second off. Keep adding those variances (89 and 91 do not cancel each other out!). Now, your goal is over time to reduce your cumulative deviation from your goal. Do this as part of your track workout or for a goal paced distance run on the track. It’s a great way to learn your goal pace.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - trailrunningclub.com. I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for Running-Advice.com. I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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One Response to Tactics & Pacing II

  1. Pingback: Tactics & Pacing V « The Runner’s World According to Dean

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