We’re told over and over again that a negative split is preferable when it comes to racing, and yet, over and over again we start out too fast – and, finish too slow. So why, when we know it’s better to keep a conservative pace at the start of a race, do we often run our first miles faster than our last?
I think there are several reasons actually:
1. Performance Anxiety – leads to a rush of adrenaline and in worst-case scenarios, seriously impaired performance. If the anxiety is minimal, an athlete might still be capable of running well but he or she may make a few minor mistakes, one of which is losing focus and taking off from the start line at too fast a pace.
So, how do runners control feelings of anxiety? A few strategies include:
- Visualization – sometimes it can help to spend a few minutes actually visualizing yourself running your race and keeping a well-controlled pace from start to finish. I often practice this the day before and the day of the race; it helps me to stay calm.
- Deep Breathing – this is crucial for anxious runners. It works best when you momentarily remove yourself from the “stressful” environment, so if you’re at the race grounds already, try and find a solitary spot, or if that’s not possible just close your eyes. Take calm, deep breaths, inhaling at a count of 4 or 5 seconds, and then holding for a few seconds before slowly exhaling at a count of approximately 7 seconds (repeat 10 times). http://www.calmclinic.com/anxiety/treatment/breathing-exercises
- Focus on the things within your control – forget about all the stuff that you can’t control, for example, the weather, or the performance of other runners. Get your mind focused on “you,” and remind yourself that no matter how nervous or anxious you are feeling, you have trained hard and your body is physically prepared to run a good race.
2. Fear of not being able to pick up the pace later on; I admit that I am guilty of this one. I often convince myself that if I take it too slow to start with, I won’t have what it takes to pick up the speed later on. It seems more logical to start out at a fast but controllable pace, and then try to hold that pace for the remainder of the race (which, by the way, is not a bad strategy either; even-pacing can get good results too). But if you start with a pace that’s too fast, you’re likely to either end up with stomach cramps that will slow you down, or you’ll eventually “hit the wall” and finish miserably.
There’s really only one way to convince yourself that you don’t need to take off like a bat out of hell, and that’s by simulating your pacing strategy during training runs. A lot of runners for example, incorporate progression runs into their long runs; a progression run is where you deliberately start our your run at a comfortable pace but finish the last miles at a faster pace. If you already know what it feels like to start out conservatively and finish strong, then you’ll go into your race with enough confidence to know that you don’t need to reach your peak pace within the first few miles.
3.You’re just wired to always be one of the “rabbits” – you just can’t help yourself. The race environment gets you so pumped up that you can almost see the adrenaline bursting through your veins; as soon as you hear the starter gun there is no holding you back. The problem though, is that the rabbit almost always burns himself out before reaching the finish line.
If you’re a rabbit, here’s what you should do:
- Move back to a slower starting corral, if that’s possible. Or, if there are no corrals, just move to the middle or back of the crowd. You’ll be less tempted to fly across the starting line if you’re not lined up with all the other rabbits (plus, it’s hard to run fast when you’re sandwiched between hundreds of other runners)
- Set a pace alert on your garmin, and make a pact with yourself to slow down every time you hear your garmin beeping. Or, check your time after the first mile and if you need to adjust your pace, then do so.
- Don’t negotiate with yourself; one of the reasons that rabbits often hit the wall is because they mistakenly assume (while running their early miles faster than planned), that since they feel really strong, that they’ll continue to feel that way throughout the entire race.
Those are all the tips I have, but one final piece of advice – picture in your mind the image below and determine not to be that guy (or girl).