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Race Strategy: Maintain Contact or Run Your Pace?

Debunking the myth that you are broken if you don't maintain contact with your competitors in a race.

For years I’ve heard coaches and commentators talk about the necessity of maintaining contact with your rivals, whether in the lead pack or whatever part of the pack you’re in. If you lose contact, they say, you are broken and defeated.

I don’t buy it. My experience is that those who are running away from you fall into two groups: Some are simply faster than you. They are irrelevant. You aren’t going to beat them no matter what you do.

Others are going out too fast. They too are irrelevant unless you make the same mistake. If you run your own race and pace yourself appropriately, they will come back, in due time.

You are only broken when you decide you are broken. And the “lose contact and you are done” theory, by increasing self-doubt, actually increases the chances of your being broken sooner than necessary.

The Tokyo Olympics served up two good examples of this, one of an athlete truly being broken, and one of an athlete who appeared to be broken, but wasn’t.

A Look Back and a Lurker

The first example came from Sifan Hassan in the women’s 1500m. She was competitive for much of the race, out front or right with the leaders, but in the final 200m, Faith Kipyegon of Kenya began pulling away. Then, with about 130 meters to go, Britain’s Laura Muir also caught her on the outside, then pulled ahead by a half step.

Was Hassan broken at that point? Not by any objective standard, though being outkicked that late in a race wasn’t her norm. But the moment Muir passed her, Hassan looked back, checking to make sure there wasn’t another runner about to knock her out of the medals entirely. At that point, she had given up on dueling Muir for silver and was worried about not losing bronze. At that moment, she herself had decided she was broken.

After Faith Kipyegon and Laura Muir past her in the 1500m final, Sifan Hassan looked back, breaking the connection with the leaders.
After Faith Kipyegon and Laura Muir passed her in the 1500m final, Sifan Hassan looked back, breaking the connection with the leaders. Photo: Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

A few days later, American Molly Seidel found herself unable to maintain pace in the lead pack of the marathon. But unlike Hassan, she didn’t give up, even as the commentators on the network I was listening to were saying she was finished…broken. Instead, she lurked, maybe not “in contact,” but not all that far behind. Hanging on, hoping for a miracle, but not broken. Then she got the break she needed, as one of the three ahead of her suddenly faltered…and walked. As Seidel later put it later, “I was in fourth, and then I was in third.”

Her reaction? She never looked back. Instead, she looked ahead and challenged for silver. She didn’t quite get it, but the point is: even when she fell off to 4th, she wasn’t broken.

Know Yourself, and Believe

Jeff Simons, a sports psychologist at California State University, East Bay, applauds her attitude. “I have always been frustrated with the notion that contact with others was essential in a race,” he says. “People do fabulous time trials in different ways, and lead runners often mis-pace themselves, which makes them very poor guides.”

But you have to believe in this to make it work. If you accept the old canard that you have to maintain contact, “or else,” then, if you lose contact, “doubt and all the sinking emotions of fear, despair and hopelessness take over,” he says. “Suddenly every effort and discomfort is awful and unmanageable. We lose will, purpose, and the beautiful optimism of producing something at the edges of our abilities.”

A good example of how to avoid this, he says, is four-time Olympic gold medalist Michael Johnson (1992, 1996, and 2000). Yes, Simons says, Johnson’s longest distance was the 400m, vastly different from the 1500m, 5K, 10K, or the marathon. “But,” he says, “I remember Johnson and his coach Clyde Hart adamantly calling bullshit to those who claimed it was so important to race the competitors. They said the goal is to know yourself, plan your race, and execute it better and better.”

Simons isn’t the only expert to think that way. Eugene, Oregon, coach Bob Williams uses the same word — “bullshit” — when asked about the “don’t lose contact or you are broken” mentality.

“It’s just not true,” he says. He’s not sure where the idea originally came from—perhaps some old-school macho philosophy that should long ago have been abandoned—but, he says, it doesn’t respect the athlete’s ability to know who they are and how to run their own best race.

Two-time Olympian Kara Goucher agrees. “When I was an elite athlete, the majority of my career was under Alberto [Salazar], and he believed I had to be in the lead pack,” she says. Not leading it, but in contact with the leaders.

“But over time,” she says, “I started to disagree, because Des Linden, time after time, would come out of nowhere and run this race that was right for her, and beat me. I now I believe you have to know what your strengths are and not always follow the leader, because [if you do that], you’re running someone else’s race.”

Mamitu Daska (right) is caught at the top of Heartbreak Hill by Gladys Chesir and eventual winner Desiree Linden (left) at the 2018 Boston Marathon on April 16, 2018.
Des Linden chasing down a pack of runners at the 2018 Boston Marathon. Photo: Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Not that adjusting your race plan to deal with whatever is going on around you isn’t important. Drafting other runners can give you a several-second-per-mile boost (especially if you are using them to hide from a wind), and it’s also true that in a pack you can mentally feed off the emotional energy of those around you. Also, Goucher notes, if the goal is to win — as opposed to run for the best time and likely outcome — there may come times when someone is surging off ahead of you and “you have to roll the dice and say, ‘I’ve got to go with them.’”

Be the Predator

But unless you’re in the chase for a national championship or an Olympic medal, the “don’t lose contact” mentality is both old-school and male machismo. In general, wise pacing — which is usually a slight negative split — combined with the confidence to use it, is better. Someone else may be faster, but you really aren’t broken until you decide that you are.

The way I put it to my runners is to think of yourself as the predator and your rivals as the prey. Are they ahead of you early on? Who cares? The goal is to be positioned to catch them if they falter. If they don’t, sobeit. But if they do, you are there, stalking, and very much not broken.

Unless you think you are.