Tactics & Pacing VI

I previously covered an overview of the science of race pacing, the benefits of even pacing, assessing yourself for tactics application, and most recently kicking as a tactic and workouts to improve this ability. Please read these first so you fully understand the context of this post. 

This time I’ll cover some variable paced tactics and how to train for them. (I want to emphasize once again that this is not for everyone. The assessment will tell you if you can handle this.) A variable paced tactic is one that is both mentally and physically demanding in a different way from even pacing or waiting and kicking. It is far harder for you – and of course it’s tough on your competition – which is of course the intent. Only if you have adapted to the demands of this strategy should you use it. Otherwise, you will most certainly fail. The even paced guys and gals behind you will just wait for you to die then pass you and leave you to the coyotes and vultures.

Variable Paced Tactic I: Use surges during the race to break your opponent or put a gap on them. It serves to create a psychological advantage. Surges can vary in distance as well as pace. A good surge should last long enough that your competition backs off; then you need to sustain it just a bit longer. They can last as short as 200 meters at a faster pace or 800 meters at a slightly slower pace – but still well faster than the current racing pace. It may take several of these surges to break your competition. You need to be ready to rest a bit when they catch up to you and then repeat it. If you’ve practiced this, you will be able to handle more surges than your competition. 

Variable Paced Tactic II: Similar to the first tactic, this uses surges but they are inserted in a course using the topography as your cues to surge. So, it could be that you surge uphill; it could be downhill; it could be on the flats; it could be going from pavement to trail. The key to success is that you hold it long enough to dispirit your opponents. For instance, don’t back off just as you crest the hill. Go just that bit further. 

Variable Paced Tactic III: Also similar to the above surges, this one is using the course route to your advantage. It is a real advantage to get a slight lead then as you corner the turns, accelerate. If there are lots of turns or obstructions (such as trees & shrubs that obscure visibility); the goal is to have your trailers lose sight of you. This is a psychological break. Similarly, if you are on a course that doubles back, accelerate at the turnaround to accentuate your lead before they make the turn.

And if you are in a race that perhaps started runners in a stagger (i.e. with age graded timing) you will constantly be catching people in front of you who are slower. A good tactic is to use the same principle of using obstructions to get “lost”.

The point is to gain a psychological advantage. The point is to get your competition to give in and let you go.

You will not succeed at these tactics if you do not practice variable pacing workouts. Here are some variable paced workouts. There are many variations, you’ll get the idea – be creative.

Workout I: Fartlek (speedplay) workouts are the most straightforward staple for variable paced training. Run for 45-60 minutes varying the pace from 99% sprint, to mile pace, to 5k pace, to 10k pace, to short recovery jogs; all over a varying terrain. Of course, the faster your interval the shorter your interval. It might look like this: 10 minutes easy running, 3:00 @ 5k pace; 3:00 @ 10k pace; sprint 20 seconds; easy 3:00; 2:00 @ mile pace; 3:00 @ 5k pace; repeat; easy running last 10 minutes. Millions of variations.

Workout II: Lactate stackers are repeats of 2 or more paces in one repeat. Example: 2×2400; each 2400 is run this way… 400 @ mile pace, 800 @ 5k pace, 1200 @ 10k pace. Jog 5 minutes then do second repeat. You can also work these in reverse, slower to faster sequencing of paces.

Workout III: Do longer repeats with surges. 4×1600 @ 10k pace and insert 50 meters @ mile pace each LAP of the 1600. After the surge, return to 10k pace but not slower. Your final repeat times of course will be faster than the 10k pace because of the surges. The effect is far different than a steady even paced workout.

Workout IV: If your tactic will be surging on hills (up or down) then you must do some workouts with that in mind. Run @ 5k pace for 3:00 then surge a bit faster (it will at least FEEL faster) uphill and hold it for 1:00 after the crest then return to 5k pace for 1:00; recover and repeat. You can go for a longer run with hilly terrain and surge on all uphills (or downhills). I strongly suggest however that you do not just return to your long run pacing but instead do another minute or two at something faster (5k-10k pace). Fast downhill runners have good technique and form for downhill running. Do not take this surge for granted. Get good at it. And learn how to maintain your pace as it levels out again. Too often, your legs will feel dead and you back off too much – losing the advantage you may have gained.

None of these workouts are easy – physically or mentally. They will count as a quality workout for the week. If they don’t seem taxing, you’re most likely going too easy on your paces. These are NOT comfortable. It will take 3-6 weeks to begin to feel more comfortable with these workouts. Remember that the goal is to be able to handle hard paces in the middle of a race pace, recover and do it again while your competitors flail behind you!


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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3 Responses to Tactics & Pacing VI

  1. Here’s a note from one of my runners on this tactic:
    Hi Dean,

    Just read your blog entry today talking about surges. I did some of this on the trail race Saturday and I hadn’t really raced like that before. Since I had saved some energy for the second half of the course (and was feeling strong) I started passing people aggressively with surges. Part of this is the nature of trail running. You get into single file sections and then when it widens up you need to take your shot. But I discovered the washes were also great for this. I could climb out of one quickly to pass somebody and then maintain some of that pace on the flat afterwards to solidify my position. One single file section had five runners in single file and the pace was too slow. I left the trail (just flat desert around, but rockier) and surged past them all. They all folded almost immediately. I never saw them again. When you are right behind someone they push, once you surge past they backoff. The psychology is incredible.

    Having said all of that. Boy do those surges take their toll! By the five mile point I was hurting and was in no position to keep doing that. But if felt good while it lasted.


  2. Tactic II is great. One thing that I have noticed is that most people hold back going down hill. This not only makes them slower, but tired them out. I will push the down hills and maintain effort levels on the up from the flats. This way I do not loose too much going up but coming down it works wonders.

    I do, however, find myself sometimes holding back on the downhills, but this happens when I am tired and loose form. I find the best way to train for this is to actually run down hills fast. Your brain starts to learn that you are in control and will not go tumbling down.

  3. Darrell you are absolutely right! Until you practice going downhill it is NOT easy to keep form and actually take advantage of gravity. I agree with your observation. those holding back indeed are less efficient and use more energy. And yes, the only way to get good at running downhill fast is to run downhills fast as a part of training!

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