When we race, most of the time our goal is to run as fast of a time as possible. Read on for some basic tips for how to handle pacing for a fast time.
Racing for Time
Most runners, most of the time, are racing for time. They are trying to race as fast as possible, with relatively little concern for what place they finish in the race, or it they beat a certain person. Even when someone has a competitive goal, they often have no real idea who else might run what time in the race, so they try to run the best time they can and hope that will be good enough to win, place in their age group, etc. So what race strategy should be used for achieving the best possible finishing time?
First, when talking about race pacing it is necessary to define a few commonly used terms:
Even Splits - Running a constant a pace throughout the race.
Negative Splits - The second half of the race is run faster than the first.
Positive Splits - The first half of the race is run faster than the second.
The commonly held belief is that even splits are the best way to run a fast time, and this is mostly true. The idea is that you reach the finish line right as you run out of energy. Going too hard early wastes energy, and causes a runner to lose more time in the end than you gained at the start for a variety of physiological and bio-mechanical reasons. Likewise, when a runner has a lot left and is able finish with a fantastic sprint, which is a sign that they probably didn't run as hard as they could have in the bulk of the race and lost time.
This seems simple enough, but there are some details to be aware of. Consider the following graph:
This shows the very general relationship between running too fast during the early part of a race, and its effect on your final finishing time. Basically what this shows is that starting a little too slow in the early part of a race has little or no negative effect on you finishing time. However, starting too fast has a much more dramatic effect. In extreme cases, especially in long races, going much to fast early on can cause the runner to be unable to even finish (the red "X"). The general rule of thumb is that you lose 2 seconds on your overall time for every 1 second you go out too fast, but you only lose 1/2 second for every 1 second you start too slow.
The physiological reasons why this occurs are somewhat complex, but just common sense will tell you if you run too fast, you will have to slow down. In very basic terms, going out too fast results in your body to use up its energy stores and wear out your muscles before the race finishes. Once this occurs, your running deteriorates very quickly as there is simply nothing left to continue. Additionally, as you become tired, your running form becomes less efficient, so it takes more effort to go slower. This causes you to become more tired even quicker, so you get into a downward spiral even if you slow down. Slowing down once you have started too fast may help save your race, but it won't completely undo the damage that has already been done, as some of these negative effects can stay with you until long after the race is done, even if you slow to a jog. Even if you hang on and manage to run an okay time, positive splits are the least enjoyable way to run a race.
One the flip side, starting out too slow gives away time that you may not be able to gain back later simply because you can't run fast enough later in the race without running into other limitations. This can be going anaerobic, or simply hitting the limits of your leg speed. No matter how great you feel, you are not going to run a 3:00 final mile to make up for running too slow up to that point! Also on the plus side, going out too slow doesn't cause the physiological problems that going out too fast does, and in many cases going out slow is helpful as you get warmed up. In spite of how the name sounds, negative splits are a lot more enjoyable than positive splits, and almost always result in faster times.
So, all this is just points out that it is better to go out a little slow than a little fast, since the effects of starting out too fast are much more harmful.
So how do you actually control your pacing in the race? First it is important to note the determining what target pace is for a race is a less than exact science. Even if you are an expert at evaluating your training, or you have done recent races at the same or similar distances, everyone has good and bad days. This is another reason for always wanting to err on the conservative side with your starting pace. If it turns out you underestimated yourself on this particular race, you can run negative splits, finish strong, and still get a pretty good time. If you missed your estimate the other way, you can hopefully maintain the pace, and since you started a little slower than you might have been inclined, you have decreased your odds of fading badly in the later part of the race.
If you are lucky, you will get split times every mile in a road race, or every lap on the track. This give you the opportunity to adjust your pacing early on, but be careful up until you reach the first split time. A lot of people hit the opening mile in a road race in a reasonable time, but are already struggling because they ran way to fast the first couple hundred yards. With the excitement of the race, even if you force yourself to start much slower than it feels like you should, you are probably still going too fast. Distance races aren't won at the start, but they are often lost there. Just relax and the people that go out too fast will come back to you, often in ugly fashion.
As some final notes, there are some situations where even or slightly negative splits are not the best way to go. Course conditions (hills, wind, etc.) require shooting for even effort instead of an even pace. In some situations, especially when running into the wind, it may be better to stick with other runners going a little fast or slow than heading out on your own. Also, in spite of the risk, sometimes you need to go out fast in search of a breakthrough performance. Finally, true competitive racing for place often requires different strategies, geared more towards beating other runners than running a fast time.