Everyone knows that even pacing is a necessity for success in distance running, and that holding back at the beginning of a race is essential for getting the most out of yourself. (For the purposes of this story, we’ll omit strategic considerations affecting runers at the very front of the pack under certain conditions).
Putting this into practice, however, can be a substantial challenge; even very experienced athletes are prone to self-destructively ambitious starts, and some people never get over this racing hurdle.
As with a lot of things in running, implementation requires more than mere awareness and a decision to merely “be smart out there.” It entails rehearsal, commitment and fighting your own impulses.
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1. Be present with yourself.
When you arrive at the race venue, understand what you need to do in the time before your race—hydrate, warm up, change into your racing gear, and so on. Moreover, don’t waste energy, become unfocused or get too excited too soon.
“I think a big thing is consistency,” says Kathy Butler, an Olympian at 5,000 meters (1996) and 10,000 meters (2004) and currently a coach with the Boulder Track Club in Colorado. “The warm-up and pre-race routine should be something you’ve done over and over again before workouts. Even if you don’t have time to do a full warm-up before every workout, make sure to do them as often as possible. This way, as soon as you start your warm-up on race day, it will just be an autopilot thing you can do without worrying.”
Do account for your internal environment; if you know you’re unusually keyed up, ease off the throttle just a little more than usual when the race starts, especially in longer events. Review and trust your training and prepare to execute your race plan as you stride confidently to the line.
2. Don’t overdo your warm-up or get too amped up…or too chill.
Arrive in time to warm up adequately, but don’t wear yourself out trying to dispel nervous energy or testing how you feel with an overly quick warm-up pace. If you’re habitually prone to going out too hard, skip doing strides, and use the first few hundred yards of the race to dial into your sweet spot.
Also, while most runners benefit from trying to calm down in the moments before the gun, some athletes may need to get more fired up. For example, if you’re among those prone to quelling anxiety over a self-test by trying to divorce yourself from the outcome, and have told yourself at the start that a race isn’t really important in the grand scheme of life, allowing yourself to become emotionally invested in the outcome may be better than attempting to shake free of nervous energy. If you tell yourself the result is irrelevant, you may be more reckless about early pacing, and then it won’t matter if you care or not because you’ll have blown it already.
3. Ignore the pre-race noise.
Try to ignore the starting-line noise. Most people are nervous and inclined to either joke around or spew nonsense, and you may hear something that throws you off. Anyone who’s been on a plane knows how contagious nervous energy can be. Once the race starts, look at the ground or the people around you (assuming a decent-sized field) rather than as far forward as you can—save that for once you’re settled in.
“Knowing where to find your place on the start line is key,” notes Butler. “This varies based on the size of race. Often, you need to start quickly just to get out of trouble with the crowds at the start, pick a point ahead of time where you consciously end that fast start and settle into your pace.” That point, she says, can be a physical spot—say, 150 to 200 meters (about a tenth to an eighth of a mile) into the race, or it can be a time on your watch, such as 30 seconds. In big races, a crowded start may mean you start more slowly and have to pick it up. You need to be okay with this and accept that space will open up around you soon enough, even in a mega-event.
4. Don’t be a slave to your splits.
Even if your whole plan revolves around a sensibly determined pace, you can’t and shouldn’t force that outcome, even if the course is dead flat and the weather’s perfect. Thoughts like, “6:00 first mile….keep it right at 6, no faster…90-second 400s” is more likely to lead to early overexertion than, “Hold back…rhythm and relaxation.” Remind yourself that almost no one ever suffers for going out too slow in a race.
Hand in hand with being flexible about precise split times, says Butler, is respecting the course conditions, including hills, wind and heat. A lot of runners intend to account for these, but once the race starts, a rigid pace schedule may prevail instead. “Be ready for rough patches, especially in longer races,” Butler advises. “It’s normal to go through a rough patch and come out on the other side able to get right back on pace, or even go faster.”
Also, don’t rely on a GPS device to avoid starting too fast in races. Even the best GPS watches are not 100 percent reliable under all conditions, such as when hundreds or thousands of other people are trying to do the same thing and cityscapes are in the way. Plus, when you’re running in even a loose pack of bodies, looking too often at your watch can actually be dangerous to you and those around you. GPS feedback can be a useful adjunct once you’ve tackled the pacing matter from within, but don’t rely on it for race day.