Most mistakes in a race are made within the first two minutes, perhaps in the very first minute." -Jack Daniels
One of the most common mistakes an athlete can during a race is to either inadvertently or purposefully go out too fast at the beginning. This tragedy, however, is avoidable. Starting out too fast is simple to do, but every time you do, you cheat yourself out of a good performance by making a mistake that is easily preventable.
Almost every distance running world record, world best, or national best has been the result of a negative split. This is when the athlete performs the first half of the race at a slower pace than the last half. Between 1966 and 2004, 12 of the 13 men's 5,000 meter world records were negative split performances. The difference between the first and second half of the race? .06%. We are not talking drastic differences. While a small number, it is significant.
The longer an event, the more important a negative split. If a runner goes out too fast for a 5k, there may be enough time "put into the bank" for a successful finish. However during a marathon or longer race, the mistake of going out too fast now has potentially hours to express itself. For long events, an athlete will almost always be forced to pay back the time saved with added interest in the form of pain and suffering.
Now we know why slowing down at the beginning is important but how does one actually achieve this? Here are some strategies to implement at your races.
Use a speed limit If your goal is a 4 hour marathon (9:10 pace), it would be inadvisable to run the first half in 1:45. To prevent this, use a GPS, footpod, or the courses mile markers to prevent going out too fast. For this example, take 240 minutes multiplied by .51, resulting in a pace of 9:20 for the first half. If you are properly trained for the distance, going out at 10 to 20 seconds slower per mile than the required pace should leave you feeling fresh enough to speed up during the second half of the race. You can even use distance tracking device to alarm you if you exceed 9:20 per mile for the first half of the event.
An issue with speed is it fluctuates based on terrain. If the course is flat overall, this strategy can work well.
Use a heart rate limit This will help on the flats and on the hills. If during training you perform your long runs at an average heart rate of 145, maybe set a 140 beats per minute limit for the first section of the race.
The main issue with using HR for pacing during a race is that at the beginning of an event your HR will be elevated due to excitement. During the later stages of a very long race, your HR will also fluctuate due to cardiac drift. During training you can use HR and use your training paces to determine race pace.
Avoid caffeine Caffeine is an excellent stimulant and its performance enhancing abilities are well documented. However in the early stages of an event you are still feeling strong and likely regulating your speed a bit to save energy for the last part of the race. There is little need for caffeine early on when things are going well. However once you reach half way, take a caffeine pill or some type of sports fuel with caffeine.
Avoid music Michael Phelps is always seen jamming out on the pool deck prior to an event, and for good reason. As with caffeine, music is another great stimulus for enhanced performance. Early on in an event when you are feeling great, bank on that feeling for as long as possible. When things start to go sour, start utilizing different methods to keep you going, music being one of those.
Breath through your nose If the race is long, such as an ultra, breathing through your nose may be a good method of reducing your speed in the early sections of a race to save your legs for later. This is simple and easy as it does not require any gear.
There are five options and some tips you can utilize on race day to help your race be as successful as possible.
What other methods have you used to hold the speed back during the beginning of an event?