Learning to race well is a skill. No matter how hard you train and how thoroughly you prepare for your race distance, if you don’t execute well on race day it can mean the difference between a personal best and disappointment.
While fine-tuning your racing strategy comes with time and experience, the fundamentals of racing well are not complex. Anyone can improve his or her race times by employing specific strategies tailored to different distances.
If you’re a recreational runner, even a competitive one, your training will never look exactly like that of an elite runner. But since they’re the ones who set world records in all the race distances, it makes sense to mimic their pacing strategy. Whether you’re running a 4:50 mile or a 9:50 mile, the strategy of when to be patient and when to push remains the same.
When it comes to pacing, learning to run by feel and nailing down your race-day pace is essential before you ever step foot on the starting line. A coach or personalized training plan can help you determine an appropriate goal and use race-specific workouts to help you learn how that pacing feels.
While GPS watches are incredible tools to help with your pacing, there are times when they may fail you. Big city marathons with tall buildings may have an erratic GPS signal, and twisty trail races may cause your pace per mile to vary dramatically. As much as possible during your race preparation, train yourself to pace by feel. Learn how your breathing feels at marathon goal pace or how your arms and legs feel at 5K effort.
In longer races, small variations in pacing can cause major issues. Use a combination of running by feel and monitoring your splits to determine if you’re on track. Now let’s look at strategies for specific distances:
5K & 10K: START SPEEDY
Short races like the 5K and 10K require more aggressive pacing than the half- or full-marathon distance. While even splits may earn you a PR at this distance, it also pays to go out even faster than goal pace, but only to a point. Starting 3–6% faster is ideal, while going out faster than this may lead to a deterioration in performance.
For example, a 25-minute 5K equates to an average pace of 8:03 per mile. Starting 3–6% faster would mean running the first mile somewhere between 7:34 and 7:48. For a 20-minute 5K runner (6:26 average pace), this would mean starting at 6:03–6:14 pace. After the faster first mile, settle into your goal pace for the next mile and a half, then use what you have left for a kick during the final half-mile.
10-MILER & HALF-MARATHON: AIM FOR EVEN SPLITS
As the races get longer, it no longer pays to go out faster than goal pace. The elites demonstrate that it’s better to keep your splits as even as possible. For most of us, easing in over the first mile or two can help you settle into race pace. Monitor how you feel as the race progresses and try to have something left in the tank to finish strong!
As with shorter races, there’s a fine line of how much to “ease in” during your first 1–2 miles. Don’t start too slow or you may find yourself working too hard in the later miles to make up time. Keep your first couple miles only 5–15 seconds slower than goal pace, then maintain even splits. For a two-hour half-marathoner with a race pace of 9:09 per mile, this means starting no slower than 9:14–9:24.
MARATHON: EASE IN TO FINISH STRONG
Similar to 10 milers and half-marathons, you’ll want work gradually into race pace and then aim to run even or negative splits. At this distance, remember there is no such thing as “putting time in the bank” in the early miles, and going out too fast only comes back to haunt you. Running faster than goal pace early on fatigues your legs and burns through your carbohydrate stores, leading to the dreaded “bonk.”
Most marathoners should ease in over the first 2–3 miles. As with the half, don’t start so slowly that you put yourself too far behind your goal time — 5–10 seconds per mile slower than goal pace is ideal. Once you have settled in, maintain a steady effort at goal pace for the next 15–19 miles. Stay on top of fueling to adequately supply your body’s carbohydrate demands. Finally, try to have a little left in the tank to push for the final 5–6 miles.
Training to race well takes planning and practice. Learn to run by feel and listen to your body to further refine your racing technique. Practice your pacing, know when to race hard, and go get those new PRs!