It’s competition time. The hard training weeks are behind you. Now it’s time to recover and put your training into practice in the race. The key to success is your race strategy. Because in a competition, a good pacing is half the battle.
But what does ideal pacing look like? Basically, there are three different basic strategies:
- The Hoping Principle
- The Clockwork Strategy
- The Negative Split
1. The Hoping Principle (not recommended)
This tactic assumes a fast start. The runner who starts according to the Hoping Principle usually does not have an exact idea of how fast he or she can run, or is not checking the target pace with a GPS watch or split times. Instead, this tactic is based on the other runners, on one’s own feeling or at best on a utopian desired goal.
The user of this tactic is not aware that the vast majority of opponents start too fast and that, especially with longer distances, a too fast pace feels relatively easy at the beginning. Those who deliberately start (too) fast run according to the assumption that the good times will provide additional motivation and that the great race start can somehow be saved for the finish by willpower.
Experience shows that this is an extremely risky tactic that practically never works (unless you have a great day). As a rule, the following happens: After the euphoric start, running becomes torture before the race is halfway, the pace slowly but surely collapses and the will breaks as soon as you realise that the pace cannot be maintained when you are constantly being overtaken and are just suffering.
Runner type: All ability levels, but especially inexperienced, ambitious, over-motivated and overestimating themselves.
Conclusion: Not recommended.
2. The Clockwork Strategy
The aim of the “clockwork” tactic is to run as reliably and precisely as possible. The start is strictly based on the predicted time (e.g. from the running.COACH time calculator) or the (realistic!) target time. Checking your pace with technical aids (GPS) and split times is essential because your own feeling on race day can be deceptive. After all, spectators and adrenaline can have a euphoric effect and make you throw all your good intentions overboard.
It is easier to run as regularly as possible in flat competitions than on hilly courses, because there are no rhythm changes and it is easy to check the regularity.
However, it is extremely difficult to achieve perfect regularity. This is especially true for less experienced runners who cannot assess their own performance in detail. Choosing the ideal starting pace to maintain all the way to the finish is extremely difficult.
Runner type: Perfectionists, experienced runners, top athletes who run for time (not for rank).
Conclusion: Recommendable, but demanding.
3. The Negative Split
Negative split means running the second half of the race after the split at half time faster than the first half. This requires a controlled, rather defensive start. Many find it difficult to do this in the heat of the moment. In the negative split, you have to endure doubting thoughts (“I feel great, shouldn’t I run much faster?”) and supposedly weaker opponents who sprint off after the start and run far ahead of you.
Those who manage this are rewarded with confirmation after just a few kilometres: the first opponents are overtaken again despite feeling relaxed. Until the finish line, the negative split runner only orients himself to the front and can always overtake opponents – a mental advantage that should not be underestimated. Although this tactic is hardly ever used at the highest level in road races, there are also examples of top athletes who manage a negative split.
Runner type: Calm, controlled, experienced.
Conclusion: Highly recommended, needs self-confidence.
But what does this mean for training?
It is important to practise the preferred race tactics again and again in training. This means that especially the key units (interval, long jog, tempo run), but also the endurance runs should be deliberately run very regularly (for the clockworkers) or slightly increased (for the negative splitters). This way, the hoping principle with over-motivated starts and slower but extremely hard second halves is not grinded into the subconscious. If you manage to maintain or even increase your pace on the second half, you will be rewarded by a much better running feeling not only in competition but especially in training.
What experiences have you had with different pacing strategies? What type of runner are you?