Running a personal best requires a combination of factors that all must come together on race day:
- Fitness (the most important)
- Race execution
- Outside issues like the course and weather
- Some luck
If you’re like many runners, you may have struggled with how to execute a particular pacing strategy on race day.I’ve heard from countless runners who experience struggles like: “I can’t change paces at the end of a race and always get out-sprinted.” “It’s hard for me to run negative splits, even if I wear a pace band.” “How do you actually run at race pace during the race? I can’t get up to that speed when it’s time to race.”
Over the years, I’ve helped thousands of runners get faster and attain new PRs in distances from the mile to 100-mile ultras. And how you race is an overlooked element of running fast. Whether you’re chasing a sub-3 hour marathon or just hoping to run your first 5K, knowing how to race is a valuable skill that can be applied to all of your future races.
Depending on the distance, there are three approaches that all work well to help you cross the finish line in a new personal best. Let’s go over each one, illustrating how to use each race strategy and more importantly, when it’s most appropriate.
Run Even Splits
When you run a race with “even splits” it means you run at about the same pace for the entire race. If your goal is to run a 5K at 8:00 minutes per mile, then every mile should be about eight minutes. This strategy is best for new or beginner runners who are unsure of what they’re capable of attaining on race day. Learning is more important than competing at this stage, so it’s a valuable approach that will show you what your body is able to accomplish.
It’s also a wise approach for long races like the marathon or even ultramarathons. You might have heard the wise adage, “If you feel good during a marathon, just wait.” The implication is that everyone feels bad during a race of this length so it’s best to be conservative during the early miles and not start too fast.
This is also the most conservative pacing strategy. For those of you who crave more adventure, risk, and even more “race pain,” there’s another approach…
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The “Hold on For Dear Life” Strategy
Being conservative has its place, but sometimes you have to go all in. There comes a time in every runner’s racing career when you have to take a risk, start fast, and see what you’re capable of running. Sometimes, starting a race faster than goal pace and “holding on for dear life” in the later miles is the only way to find out if you’re ready to run a big personal best. After all, race breakthroughs rarely happen if you always run conservatively.
This is an aggressive approach and should only be used when you’re in good shape and think a personal best time is likely. You should also be confident in your abilities and have a certain amount of mental toughness and grit to suffer when the race gets difficult near the end.
It’s recommended to use this strategy for shorter races when the risk of failing miserably is lower. Race distances of 10k or less fit this approach best. If you’re racing 10K with this strategy, run the first 4 miles about 5-15 seconds faster than goal pace and evaluate how you’re feeling at the 4-mile mark. If you’re feeling good, maintain that faster pace until the finish. If you’re suffering, hold on for dear life. Try to slow down as little as possible until the finish.
If you’re racing 5K with this strategy, run the first 2 miles about 10-15 seconds faster than goal pace and evaluate how you’re feeling at the 2-mile mark. If you’re feeling good, maintain this faster pace until the finish and attempt a strong finishing kick. If you’re suffering, you know what to do.
Run Negative Splits
For most runners (even the elites), a negative split race is preferable and is one of the best ways to attempt a personal best. A negative split is simply where you run the second half of the race faster than the first half. Best for mid-distance races from the mile to the half marathon, this approach has you speed up late in a race and employ a long finishing kick. For example, in a 5K race you would attempt to run the last mile as your fastest mile.
This strategy begins just like an even-split race except that you consciously attempt to speed up for the last 10-15 percent of the race, with a strong kick over the last quarter mile. If you find that you always slow down at the end of races, it might be helpful for you to start slower and employ the negative split approach during your next race.
There are, of course, countless ways that you can execute a race strategy, depending on your personality, fitness level, goals, and the race distance. Ask 10 different coaches about race strategy and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. However, these pacing strategies are time-tested and proven to work with beginners, advanced runners, and also elite athletes.
No matter your strategy, trust your training and be confident in your abilities. After all, a race is just a logical extension of your training. If you’re ready to race, you’ll be ready to race fast.