Greetings XC runners! It’s that time of year again when the excitement and nerves build for the first meet of the season. Weeks and months of summer and early season training are about to finally pay off. But all of that hard work can be easily squandered with a poor race strategy. It’s very important to go into the race with a specific race plan based on individual fitness, race style, meet competition, and course difficulty. One of the most important factors is pacing. As a coach I repeatedly work with and encourage kids to modify and adjust their pacing. More often than not, runners (especially the inexperienced ones) tend to go out too fast and need to work on their pacing. Nothing can ruin a race faster than going out too fast in the first part of the race. Alternatively, when a runner has a race where he feels great and things just click, it’s often because he paced himself well. Below are some ideas, tips, and data that support the benefits to proper pacing.
Once the gun goes off and the race begins, runners are full of energy and take off sprinting. This is all well and good, and there is certainly a benefit to getting a good start, putting yourself in a good position, and using up some of that pent up nervous energy. I’m all for getting a good start for the first 10-20 seconds or so, but soon thereafter, one needs to settle into their pace. The race is certainly not won in the first mile of a race, but it can definitely be lost if runners go out too fast. Athletes need to hold back a little and make sure they feel pretty good at the first mile. With two miles to go, there’s still plenty of time to make up ground and push the pace. Holding back in the first mile is easier said than done. You’re fresh and you feel good with lots of energy. Your competition has likely gone out hard and you want to as well. But you must resist as best you can and run your pace. Experience and data will show that being patient early and staying within your ability will pay big dividends in the end.
The old adage is that one second too fast in the first half of the race will make you 4 seconds slower in the last half of the race. I don’t have any scientific data to support that, but the link to the article below has some quality data that supports the idea of pacing and extrapolates the cost in seconds of going out too fast.
There’s a lot of science going on in this article and the graphs can be difficult to interpret, but here’s what I understand from them. It’s important to note that the data was taken from several top level big time college races: many regional and national 10k races from over the years. So these are some of the best and most experienced runners around, definitely not beginners, yet even they all slow down as the race progress. Those who slow down less who do better in the races, and that’s not all fitness; that’s also pacing. The data in the first 2 graphs takes their average pace for the race based on their final time and compares it to their first 2k. Basically it analyzes if the runners maintained their first 2k pace, slowed down, or sped up. They also grouped the runners into 5 groups (quintiles) based on how they finished. Group 1 is the top runners, group 5 finished in the back. Not surprisingly, the top runners (group 1) slowed down the least and the runners in the back (group 5) slowed down the most when compared to the first 2k of their races. Table 1 actually puts a time cost to going out too fast. For every 1% an athlete slows down after the first 2k, this costs them on average 24 seconds on their finishing time! And most athletes are slowing down more than 1%, with the 5th quintile runners often slowing down 8% (Graph 2 5th quintile data 108%) over the course of the race. An 8% slowdown multiplied by 24 seconds for each 1% is a whopping 3+ min difference in time over a 10k race.
With this in mind, here are some things athletes can do to prevent themselves from going out too fast early in the race. Firstly, go into the race with a game plan, and don’t run on pure emotion early. Don’t just run dumb. Put some thought into your racing strategy and plan out your goal pace for the first mile. It’s also important to get a feel for what that ideal pace is like. Your body needs to know what this feels like. Often the first split runners get for a race is at the mile. And at this point, it could be too late. There’s not much you can do when you get to the mile and realize you’re 45 seconds too fast. You need to be able to feel what a reasonable pace is and gauge how tired you should be at the mile mark knowing that there are still 2 miles yet to race. Think of the pace work we have been doing in practice. Don’t abandon all of this just because we are now in a race. We have worked on pacing quite a bit this season, and you need to keep this in mind come race day.
If you do pace yourself wisely and are patient in during the first mile, this means you will have work to do in miles 2 and 3. You CANNOT relax or let off the throttle. In fact, you will need to work harder just to simply maintain the pace of the first mile. You held back a little in the first mile so you can push harder in the second mile, so make sure you do so! If you paced yourself in the first mile, you will also mean you are farther back in the pack of runners and need to start to passing people who went out too fast. Some runners will just come back to you after they hit the wall, but others who are hanging on better need to be chased down. If you go in to the race with the mindset of pacing early, you also need to have the mindset to actively and aggressively chase runners down later in the race. You need to be a predator on the hunt in miles 2 and 3. Personally, I tend to feed off of passing people in a race and seem to gain more energy with each person I pass. It’s much better to be the one passing people late in the race than trying to hang on and hoping the finish line comes soon.
With all of this being said, it is very likely that your first mile will still be your fastest. Even the elite college runners in the above studies did this, but the more even your splits, the better your overall time will be. Mile splits of 6:50, 7:10, and 7:00 for an overall time of 21 min are fantastic. This runner paced herself well, and I would contend maximized her performance. Conversely if a different runner also runs a 21 min race but has splits of 6:20, 7:30, 7:10 also finished with a time of 21 min but went out way too fast. She probably could have run a faster time, but going out in a 6:20 first mile probably cost her some significant time in the end.
In the end, go into your next race with a plan, resist going out too hard as best you can, try to feel what the pace should be, and be ready to push and chase people down in the 2nd half of the race. As you gain more experience with every race, you should be able to try different paces and strategies and dial in what works best for you. It’s not easy, but if you can do this, you are likely to maximize your race day performance.
Best wishes to all of you who are kicking off the season this weekend! See you out at the course!