Competition General Sports Psychology

Pacing Strategies: What Runner Type are You?

It’s competition time. The hard training weeks are behind you. Now, it is important to recover well and to turn your training into results. One decisive factor in order to succeed is your strategy for the race. Competitions are all about finding the right pace.

So how can you do that? There are three different basic strategies:

  1. The hoping principle
  2. The clockwork strategy
  3. The negative split

The hoping principle

This tactic is based on a fast starting phase. Runners following the hoping principle normally don’t have any specific idea of how fast they can run and they don’t control their pace with help of a GPS watch, that is, split times. Instead, they orient to other runners, listen to their own body and feeling, while maybe aiming at some utopian ideal time. People applying this tactic are not aware of the fact that most competitors usually start too fast, especially on longer distances, and that in the beginning of a race a high pace often feels relatively easy. People who consciously start (too) fast normally do this because they hope that the good split times in the beginning might motivate them additionally and that they would somehow manage to keep that pace all the way by sheer will power. However, experience proves this to be a very hazardous strategy which practically never works (unless you’ve picked a really lucky day). This is what normally happens: After a great start, running turns into torture already before half of the race is completed and the pace slowly drops. Furthermore, while suffering and realising that one is not able to keep to the pace anymore and that people keep running past, the will slowly breaks too.

Runner type: All levels. Especially unexperienced, ambitious or over-motivated people, or runners over-estimating their own abilities.

Conclusion: Not recommendable.

Did she start out to fast?

The clockwork strategy

The goal with the clockwork strategy is to run as regularly and precisely as possible. Thus, you should start strictly according to your predicted finishing time (calculated by running.COACH for example), which should be your own (realistic) goal at the same time. Controlling your pace with help of technical devices (GPS) and split times is a must, as your own feeling can be treacherous on competition days. Because the spectators as well as adrenaline can have a euphorigenic effect and make you forget all your good resolutions. Running at a steady pace is easier on flat than hilly courses, as there are fewer rhythm breakers and it is easier to check how steadily you are going. However, perfect realisation of a steady pace is utterly difficult. This especially applies to less experienced runners who are not yet able to estimate their own abilities appropriatly. It is really difficult to choose a speed one is able to keep all the way to the finish.

Runner type: perfectionists, experienced runners, top athletes aiming at certain times (instead of postitions)

Conclusion: recommendable, but demanding.

Running with a watch

The negative split

Negative split means running the second half of the race faster than the first half. This requires a controlled, rather defensive start. The difficulty with this tactic is that you have to be able to handle both your own doubts (“I am feeling great, shouldn’t I be running faster?”) and supposedly slower competitors who start off really fast. Those who are able to deal with this will get their reward already after a few kilometers: while they still feel good themselves, they will run past those who started too fast. All the way to the finish the negative split- runner only looks ahead and is able to constantly run past people – a huge mental advantage. Even if this tactic can hardly be observed on the top level in road running, there are some examples of top athletes managing a negative split. One example is the Swiss Christian Kreienbühl who did the limit for the Olympic Games this way at the Berlin marathon last year.

Runner type: relaxed, self-controlled, experienced

Conclusion: very recommendable, requires self-confidence

What does that imply for training? It is important to apply your preferred tactic even in training. That is, especially in your key sessions (intervals, long runs, medium pace), but also base runs should be consciously run very regularly (for the clockwork types) or run at a gradually increasing pace (for the negative split- types). That way, the hoping principle, involving really fast starts and extremely tough second halves, will not be able to find its way into the subconscious. Those who are able to keep their pace on the second half or to even increase it will be rewarded with a much better running feeling not only in competitions but also in training.

What are your experiences with different pacing strategies? What runner type are you?

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