Tips for Racing Wisely

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An excerpt from Racing Wisely: A Practical & Philosophical Guide to Performing at Your Personal Best

Photo by Robin McConnell / Licensed through the Creative Commons.

Editor’s Note: The tips included here are geared at road runners, trail runners, cyclists and triathletes alike. Though trail races often throw more unpredictable terrain at competitors than road races, we found Rountree’s training tips just as pertinent and valuable for trail runners looking to improve their racing strategy, at every distance from 5K to ultras. See pages 4 and 5 of this article for advice on pacing specific race distances. Republished with permission of Sage Rountree from the upcoming book Racing Wisely: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Performing at Your Personal Best.

To learn more about the book, please visit


Time Trial Racing
“In the first half of the race, don’t be an idiot. In the second half, don’t be a wimp.”
 —Scott Douglas

Time trial racing means getting to the finish line in the shortest possible time. But to do that, you may need to go slow, especially at the beginning, so that you have enough energy to carry you all the way through the race. While you might be able to hold an aggressive pace for a tenth of the total race distance, you need to aim for the best average pace you can sustain for the entire race distance. This will feel easy as you begin, then gradually tougher as you continue. Your effort will continue to increase and your pace will hold steady.

This means you should always be operating within comfortable limits. You can’t hold a desperation pace for too long. As I told my daughter Lily before her first triathlon, “If you feel like you’re going to cry or throw up, slow down.” In training, especially in your time trials, you should get to know the feeling of an effort you can sustain. You’ll also get to know the signs that you’re redlining: a cold chill, a drop in your stomach, a loss of your form, a change in your breath. An evenly paced race will flirt with this edge of desperation but not tip you over it until your eyes are on the finish line banner.

There is only one reason to go out at faster than your intended pace when you are racing for time: to position yourself so you can settle in to the appropriate pace as soon as possible. Everything else is ego or ignorance, and both ego and ignorance can be controlled. Gear your training toward memorizing the pace you will hold throughout the race. Get to know it when you are fresh and when you are tired. It is your best ally: it is the best pace to get you to the finish line fast. When you know this pace inside and out, you won’t start too fast, and you won’t fade at the end. You’ll run your personal best.

Negative Split: A Positive Thing
The negative split—running the second half of the race faster than the first—or the evenly paced race is an elusive attainment for many runners. That’s a shame, as for most distances, running an evenly paced race or a slight negative split is the key to bringing your best performance on the day.

Racing a negative split begins in training. As you grow closer to the race, you should practice holding back in your early intervals and in the early part of your tempo runs, then speeding up slightly toward the end of workouts. Make your later intervals the fastest, rather than overdoing the first few and dropping off toward the end. Monitor your workout data after the fact, to be sure you are truly applying your best effort in the second half of the workout, not in the first. Practice this self-restraint until it becomes second nature.

Race pace efforts are also key, especially if you are trying to make a specific time, as for a Boston Marathon qualifier or a personal best. If all your workout pacing is done far slower or faster than your target time, the target pace won’t feel natural on race day. Include efforts at your intended race pace throughout your training, so it becomes a familiar sensation. (Along the training cycle, whether things are going better than planned or injury or illness set you back, you may need to adjust your intended pace and tweak your goals.)

There are many ways to squeeze race pace efforts into the training week. You can bring them in during a long workout, in small chunks, ideally toward the end. For example, slot in 10–30 minutes of half-iron-distance race pace riding toward the end of your long rides, or do the same in long runs.

One workout that’s worked especially well for me and my athletes is the morning-after pace run. If you run your long run on Saturday, for example, Sunday is your pace run. You’ll start at an easy warmup pace, and after a mile or so, find your goal-race pace and hold that. The training cycle can begin with a mile or so of pace and build to four or more. On occasions where you need to run the pace the day before the long run, see if you can hit the right pace straight off the bat. A GPS is obviously very useful here, but you can start your run on the track, then move to the road or trail. Alternatively, run to a track and do a few laps to check your internal pace gauge midrun. The same workout can be useful for time-trail pacing: can you hold your intended pace for a short period the day after a long effort?

Be sure to follow any big blocks of training, including these long/pace back-to-back days, with the appropriate attention to recovery. (See my Athlete’s Guide to Recovery for more.)
 The real secret to the negative split—besides self-control, naturally—is drawing on your natural tendencies toward laziness and stubbornness. Specifically, you need to be lazy in the first half of the race and stubborn in the second. If you can tune in to these qualities, which we usually consider less than glorious, you can wind up with a fantastic finish.
 In the first half of the race, if you are pacing yourself well, you will feel resentful of those springy folks shooting forward off the line and quickly receding into the distance ahead of you. You may feel like you don’t want to put out the effort—good! Be lazy. It’s too soon in the early stages of the race to be suffering. For any distance beyond the 5K, a painfully fast start is going to lead to even more misery later. A common mistake among not just new but seasoned racers is cleaving to the misguided idea that you can bank time in the beginning, saving a few seconds or minutes against the inevitable slowdown at the end. But this is a bad investment. Instead, start as you mean to go on. Your patience will be rewarded when you avoid what you thought was an unavoidable slowing toward the end, and the gratification of finishing feeling like a success, instead of slogging through a death march in the last parts of the race.

If you don’t believe me enough to start at your intended finishing pace per mile in a peak race, try it in a tune-up race, starting farther back than you normally would. Instead of frantically weaving around the other racers, just settle in for a little bit. Let yourself ease into it. Then, around the halfway mark, gradually pick up the pace. The boost you’ll receive from passing those who are slowing will make you feel extra speedy. When I do that, I think of myself as an energy vampire, drawing a little extra speed from each racer I pass. After an exaggerated trial of the negative split, try to start just a hair faster and to make the ramp up to full speed a little less steep—this is how you run an even race.

As you move into the second half, you’ll have to draw on your reserves of stubbornness. The longer you ask your body to maintain your goal pace, the harder it will feel. Fight the urge to slow with every ounce of willpower you can muster. If you find extra will, try speeding up, but do it very gradually. Let the yes of your will be louder than the no of your legs and lungs.

Four Quarters
Breaking the negative or even split down further, divide the race into four quarters. In the first quarter, you’ll establish a reasonable pace. It should feel doable, even a little slow, but familiar from all the times you’ve practiced starting at that pace during training. By the second quarter, you should feel like you’ve settled in. You should be clicking off splits at exactly your target pace, and while it may take some work (sometimes more than you expected in the second quarter), your speed should stay steady.

In the third quarter, things get interesting. The term “third-quarter slump” applies to school years, college semesters, football games—to sustaining attention on almost any subject. And it definitely applies in races. In the first half, you’re relatively fresh; in the fourth quarter, you’re almost there. The third lap of the mile, the third length of the 100 in the pool, the third quarter of the marathon—these are the tough ones. Therefore, prepare yourself to bear down especially hard in the third quarter. Use all your mental skills, remembering intention and goals, checking form and breath. If you can meet the drive to slow in the third quarter with your best effort to stay focused and pushing, the fourth quarter will take care of itself.

In that fourth quarter, you’re almost there. You’ve committed fully to the pace, now you just need to hold on to it. If you are pacing correctly, your perceived effort will increase steadily and your pace will maintain. If you can speed up, do, and you’ve learned to go a little harder overall in the next race. If you are slowing, you’ve learned to go a little lighter overall.

Running in the last mile of the Scream, a downhill half marathon in the Pisgah National Forest in 2012, I came up on a young man who was really applying himself to holding his pace. We chatted in one-phrase dialog for a moment, and he said he was running his first half marathon: “It’s really hard!” I assured him that meant he was doing it right, and that if he was dying to slow down, it meant he ran it well and just needed to keep pushing to the finish line. The fourth quarter should feel very hard.

Racing your four quarters well comes down to building confidence over the course of the race. In the first quarter, you should feel reasonably confident that you can hold the pace—say, 75 percent certain. If you are 100 percent certain you can hold it, you are probably not racing to your personal best. If you are less than 50 percent certain that you can hold it, you are probably starting too fast. As the race progresses, your certainty should grow. Some time in the third quarter, your confidence may flag. Expecting this rough patch is helpful, so when you do hit it, you can know it’s normal. Return to your intention, check your pace, relax your form, and take full breaths. Ask yourself again if you can hold the pace. If your answer is “I wish!,” slow down a touch. If your answer is “I think so,” hang in there. And if you find your answer is “I know I can,” speed up.

Pacing Races of Under an Hour
In short races, you’ll be pushing hard from the very start to get your personal best effort. In fact, a 2006 study at the University of New Hampshire showed that subjects ran their fastest 5K times by starting faster than their overall race pace, and recommended running the first mile at a pace 3 percent to 6 percent faster than the targeted average. You can do the math to figure out your own pace, or know that you can start shorter races a little faster than you intend to go on.

Although the name “sprint” seems ironic for a race that typically lasts around an hour, in a sprint-distance triathlon, you’ll be going very hard almost the whole time. The run, 5K or less, is short enough that it requires little finesse. It’s going to be intense the whole time, so holding back too much on the bike is not going to make it any better.

Pacing Marathons and Half Marathons
To run a time goal in your long-distance race on the road, the best way to get to the finish line as quickly as possible is to run evenly at the maximum pace you can sustain. Any pace changes should deviate as little as possible from the target average pace. In the first half, ask yourself, “Should I slow down?” In the second, ask yourself, “Can I speed up?”

A 2008 Runner’s World article on pace teams by John Hanc contains this great quote from experienced pace team leader Starshine Blackford: “We’re going to run these first 10 miles with our heads, the second 10 miles with our legs, and the last six miles with our hearts. So during this first 10, run smart, run conservatively, run controlled.” The same advice applies to half marathons: control the beginning by employing your rational mind—the one that wrote the race plan and knows the appropriate pace to maintain. Then rely on your physical and, eventually, mental and emotional strength to get you through.

Starting at an appropriately slow pace allows you to ease into the effort, instead of jacking your heart rate and plowing through your glycogen supply.

It’s also likely that crowds at the start of bigger races will force you into a slow start, which is a good thing. Avoid any effort to bank time or to correct a slowdown by suddenly speeding up. Instead, focus on maintaining even effort. Marathons and half marathons are long races. There will be enough time for you to dissociate—for your mind to wander, even to chat with fellow racers.

Periodically, however, cycle your attention through your intention, goals, form, and breath. Focusing on this early in the race can help you avoid a slow slip off of your goals.
 In trail races, the terrain may affect your average pace, meaning you can go a little faster on the flat, open sections, and must necessarily slow for footing or traffic on the more technical parts. Some hills in trail races are best walked, as it gives you a physical and mental break while keeping you moving forward— sometimes faster than you can run. If you know your course will require some walking, be sure to practice it in training. I’ve passed another athlete walking in a trail marathon and heard him wonder out loud, “How are you walking so fast?!?” The answer: first, because I have practiced every weekend while hiking with my husband and our dog, and second, because I am walking on purpose, as part of my race plan, instead of by necessity, after having paced the early miles incorrectly.

Do not let yourself get pulled off your plan by what those around you are doing. Anyone who passes you in the first half is fair game to catch later. Note their distinguishing features—clothing, accessories, hairstyle—because you will likely see them again. In fact, if you aren’t being passed, but instead are flying by others in the first miles, question whether you are going too fast.

Conversely, anyone you pass in the second half of a long race is likely passed for good. If you can control yourself in the first half, you’ll be flying past the competition in the second. Don’t let them tempt you to slow down. Instead, take new sustaining force in from every person you pass.

Pacing Ultramarathons
For all but the fastest runners in shorter ultramarathons, the presumption is that pace will degrade as the race continues and fatigue sets in. The goal is to begin at an effort that is completely easy. If you are working in the first quarter of an ultramarathon, the rest is not likely to be pretty. If you are feeling great, slow down. If you are feeling less than great, slow down—and address any problems that contribute to this crummy feeling before they become devastating. If you are chafing or blistering, adjust your clothes or shoes. If your stomach isn’t settled, consider how to fix the issue: slow down, eat more, eat less, chew some candied ginger.

As the race continues and you grow more tired, focus on staying focused.

There will be hours where your attention wanders, but periodically cycle it back to your intention, your goals, your form, your breath, and your race plan. Whenever possible, keep moving forward—not hurriedly, but deliberately. Spend as little time stopped, and as little time seated, as possible. The longer you stay in one place, the stronger the pull to stop moving entirely. It’s Newton’s First Law of Thermodynamics.

Ultras are unique in allowing outside pacers, usually at the halfway mark. If you are going to use a friend as a pacer, have a very detailed conversation about what you expect from them. Do you want jokes? Encouragement? Quiet company? Similarly, if you use a volunteer pacer, make your needs clear and be grateful for this service.

Sage Rountree of Chapel Hill, North Carolina is an internationally recognized authority in yoga for athletes and in endurance sports coach specializing in athletic recovery. As an experienced registered yoga teacher with Yoga Alliance, she has nationwide workshops that are for athletes, Olympians, NBA and NFL players, as well as some University of North Carolina athletes and coaches. An athlete herself she competes in anything from 400m to the ultramarathon and triathlons from the super sprint to the Iron Man. Since 2008 she has been a member of Power Bar Team Elite and has been an Athleta Featured Athlete and is currently the ambassador for PrAna. This will be her fifth published book for athletes. For more information visit her website:

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