At an event like the Olympic Trials, there’s really only one goal: Be one of the top three finishers. In that case, “the strategy is to do as little work as you possibly can while maintaining one of those top three positions,” says distance runner Kellyn Taylor.
For the average recreational runner, that goal is a liiiittle out of reach. But that strategy—doing as little work as you possibly can in pursuit of your goal, whether that’s to finish or finish in a certain position—still applies.
It’s not a cop-out, it’s about efficiency. That’s why one of the golden rules of racing is aiming for negative splits (AKA running the second half of a race faster than the first). Nearly every world record—from the 1500 meters to the marathon—is a result of running negative splits, according to research published in The International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.
The point of conserving your energy in the first half of a race is so you can hit the gas pedal in the second half, where it really counts. Of course, that’s easier said than done. “I’m not content with how I’ve run all my half marathons so far—I just feel like it was too painful far too early,” says distance runner Alice Wright. “I talked to Kellyn, Steph [Bruce], and Aliphine [Tuliamuk], and they all told me, ‘Oh, we just chill for the first half of the race.’ That is literally never the case for me—I’m still trying to lock in my half marathon pace.’”
That’s a familiar struggle for a lot of runners, which is why it’s so important in training to know yourself and be honest with yourself about your fitness, says Ben Rosario, head coach and founder of the HOKA NAZ Elite team. “You can’t will yourself to do something you’re not physically capable of,” he explains. “It’s a fool’s errand to set out at a pace that’s over your head, because you’ll end up running slower than if you had just simply started out at the right pace.”
It is hard not to get caught up in the hype and the energy at a start line, but being confident enough to hold back in the beginning can be a really bold way to race. “If I’m training for a 2:24:00 marathon and I’m running those paces in practice, my coach isn’t going to say, why don’t you go off at 2:22:00 pace and just see what happens?” says distance runner Stephanie Bruce. “I think that can sometimes occur in our sport, because you want to just believe something is possible. But part of belief is also accepting where your fitness is at the moment.”
And your fitness may be different depending on the race. You might, for example, be able to crush a personal record on the World’s Fastest Marathon course, which drops 6,358 feet from the start to finish, but your finishing time is going to look a lot different at the Big Sur Marathon, with it’s nearly 2,200 feet of elevation gain.
“Every race is different. Some races you’re just trying to run as fast as you can. Other races, certain variables come into play: The course comes into play. The weather comes into play,” says Rosario. “Each race requires its own plan—one that is realistic for what you’re capable of on the day and sets you up to maximize your fitness.”
Some runners like to set A, B, and C goals—one may be the secret “reach” goal they’re aiming for, another the goal they share with others, and the final goal one they’ll still be happy with if things don’t go as planned. That’s definitely an option, but “our coach doesn’t really like having A, B, and C plans, because he’s like, this is your A plan, execute that. Sometimes when you have a B and C plan, that can be an out.”
Even when you’re not looking for an out, races don’t always go as planned. You can’t just quit halfway through because you’re off goal pace. “If you’re not having your best day, my personal mantra or belief has always been to get the most out of yourself on the day, regardless of how you’re feeling,” says Bruce.
You might actually gain more from sticking it out in a race that you want to quit. “I’ve had marathons where that’s been the case, where you basically just go to a dark place mentally and have to suck it up, shut out the noise and the pain, and just finish,” says Taylor. “I may not have hit it out of the ballpark, but every time I’ve done that, it’s still ended up being an OK race.”
And those races that don’t go as planned? Let them be fuel for the next one. “It is important to acknowledge any feelings of disappointment, but don’t hold on to them,” says Taylor. “You can’t rewrite history, so find something else to focus on; set new goals and hit those. There’s always another opportunity to do something that could be pretty special.