Race Tactics – Running at the limit from the start

In a distance race, it is generally considered more efficient to run a negative split, i.e. to run later phases of the race at a faster mile pace than earlier phases. It is also a more conservative strategy because it allows the runner to increase the pace during a race based on physical and mental factors. With kids, there is an additional benefit of helping them build confidence throughout the race and finish strong (I don’t mean a child should run slow and then sprint the last 50 yards of a distance race). Too often I see kids sprint out front at the start of a race and then jog or walk after 1/2 or one mile (and sometimes not finish the race).

Sometimes a race situation develops where a runner shouldn’t run a negative split, i.e. the runner starts out faster than he/she otherwise would and runs at the limit from the start. I describe two examples below with my kids using that tactic and in both cases running a PR (personal record).

Road race example:

At the start of a local 5K road race, my 9 year old son lined up next to an older runner and friend who had out-sprinted him by 2 seconds in a 4 mile race earlier this year. The older kid told my son that he would go out fast, and after wishing each other good luck, the two kids took off at the gun and my son’s friend quickly opened up a 50 yard lead.

Starting fast in a local 5K race

I was running with my son, and the pace felt a little faster than he has run in recent races, but not too much, so I let him set the pace rather than suggesting he slow down. He maintained the 50 yard gap to the runner upfront, and passed the mile mark at 7:10 pace. I could tell that my son wanted to maintain visual contact with his friend and not let him open up more of a gap, so I started encouraging him to maintain the pace. By the 2 mile mark, my son had closed the gap to about 20 yards, and continued to move up (although he slowed his pace a little, the other runner was slowing as well).

With about 1/2 mile to go, my son had caught his friend, who responded and picked up the pace, and after briefly dropping back a few yards, my son pushed past the older runner and started opening up a gap. He continued to the finish, setting a new PR of 22:52 for a 5K (about 7:20 mile pace), more than 20 seconds ahead of his friend.

Finishing strong and setting a new PR

My son ran at his limit from the start so that he could maintain contact with the other runner, hoping that his friend (who proclaimed he would go out fast) would “pull” him to a PR, and – if his friend faded – he would have an opportunity to beat him. If my son had started at a slower pace, the gap could have easily opened up to 100 or 200 yards, in which case my son would have lost visual contact with his friend, and probably not pushed to close the gap late in the race and set a new PR.

Track example:

This spring, my older son wanted to set a PR in the 3200 m (metric 2 mile) at his high school conference championship track meet, the last meet of his freshman season. He ran in the first heat with 12 runners, and the pace from the start was fast and the field quickly spread out, with my son towards the back of the field and in danger of being dropped. He responded with a fast 82 second opening 400 m, which enabled him to stay within 10 yards of another runner, and passed the 800 m mark at 2:45 (a 5:30 mile pace, which would have been a mile PR), now on the heels of the other runner.

Runners on your mark, get set, go!

The pace slowed a bit, and my son ran 5:45 for the 1st mile, maintaining contact with the runner in front of him. He tried to pass him several times, each time the other runner responded and my son stayed with him. It was a battle to the end, with the other runner having a stronger kick, but my son set a huge PR of 10:31 (17 second improvement). And he ran a tactically smart and mentally tough race, which helps build his confidence for future races.

Battling down the home stretch, setting a PR (on the outside)

My son ran at his limit from the start to maintain contact with the runner in front of him, hoping that the other runner would “pull” him to a PR. If my son had been dropped in the first 400 m or 800 m, he would have run the entire 3200 m race by himself, and it is unlikely that he would have set a PR in the last meet of his freshman year.


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