With many aspects of running, runners and coaches tend to speak in absolutes. High mileage is the best way to train for a marathon; runners need to include yoga to prevent injury; and negative splits are the surefire way to PR in your next race.
Of course, many of these become absolutes because overall these are the best ways to train for most runners in most scenarios. High mileage benefits marathoners significantly more than running only 20 miles per week to prepare for a 26.2 mile race. I’m over here in some weird state of not having done yoga for months and feeling better than ever in my running. And negative splits, believe it or not, may not be a guarantee of a PR in the marathon (and likewise, positive splits do not necessarily indicate a poor race) – especially if you review the statistics found in this Runner’s Connect article on marathon pacing.
You most often read about the benefits of negative splits for long distance races, namely the marathon and half marathon. Several coaches, myself included, swear up and down by negative splits as the tried and true way to run a PR and avoid the wall. For the half marathon, I firmly believe that negative splits are one of the best pacing strategies. For the marathon, however, pacing becomes trickier.
A negative split occurs when you run the second half of your race faster than the first half. Start easy, finish fast. However, negative splits don’t work for everyone; there’s not a single cookie cutter race plan. So let’s examine the pros and cons of negative splits, particularly in the marathon distance:
Pro: Negative splits race strategy decreases your chances of slowing down and suffering later in the race.
Of course, by definition, you don’t slow down later in the race when you run a negative split. Deliberately planning and executing a race strategy for the half or full marathon in which you start slightly slower (emphasis on slightly) than race pace will push off the accumulation of lactate, conserve your glycogen stores, and keep you from getting swept away in the adrenaline of race day. Essentially, the purpose of negative splits is to avoid hitting a wall and avoid trashing your muscles early in the race.
Con: A negative split is difficult to run in the marathon.
Most runners do not run negative splits in the marathon. No matter how well you train, fuel, and pace yourself, the marathon is unpredictable.
Of course, the high likelihood of running a positive split in a marathon does not mean you should run the first half of the race (or even the first few miles) too fast. Start slightly slower or at your goal pace and then hold onto it as long as you can. Banking time early in the race is never a smart strategy, while keeping your pace under control, even if you do run a minor positive split, will set you up for success. Need convincing? Read Run Far Girl’s article on how following a smart pacing plan helped her run a 23 minute PR in the marathon.
If you slow down in the last 10K of a marathon, don’t beat yourself up about it – statistically speaking, most runners slow down over the last half of a marathon. Do not give a few slower miles the power over your race. Trust your training, trust your race plan, and – most of all – trust yourself during the race.
Pro: Negative splits build your confidence.
Falling short of your time goals happens and is part of the journey to becoming a better runner. However, repeatedly missing your goals and suffering at the end of races can be a blow to your confidence. Whether or not you PR or achieve your time goal, a negative split increases your chances of running a consistent and strong race, which builds your confidence. And, let’s be honest – passing other runners in those last few miles, especially those who zoomed ahead of you at the start of a race, will significantly improve your self-perception of your abilities as an athlete.
Con: A negative split does not work on all race courses.
A race that start out downhill and finishes with a climb may result in a positive split, even if you run at an even effort, just by virtue of physics. The same pace requires more energy on the uphill and less energy on the downhill. Think of the Boston Marathon, where you can expect to slow down over the Newton Hills, even if you were smart and did not start out at too fast of a pace.
I do believe negative splits are the best race day strategy for a half marathon, based on my own experience and what I’ve seen in other runners. The marathon, however, is such a beast that there will be pros and cons to any race strategy. Most of all, you must go into the race with a smart plan but the ability to adapt to what the race throws at you.
Whether a negative split strategy works for you in racing or not, most runners will benefit from not starting out faster than their goal pace. You should intentionally take time to warm up, whether you run a few miles before the race or start at a slightly slower pace.
Rather than stressing over exact splits, race by effort. Race pace will feel easier at the start of a race and harder at the end. Whether you run a negative or positive split, being attuned to your effort will help run a successful and enjoyable race. Most of all, find a race strategy that will help you enjoy the race. Because if you’re not enjoying most of the race (arguably no one enjoys the pain of those final miles), why do it?
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Do you try to run negative splits in a race?
What’s your approach to racing a marathon?
What’s one popular piece of training or racing advice that you don’t follow?
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