Improve your time with a speed strategy

A good friend of mine recently had a breakthrough time on a three-mile run.

Like most runners, this only whetted his appetite to keep improving. He emailed me for some advice on pacing.

“When you run for time/distance,” he asked, “do you run at the same pace the entire time or do you sprint for sections of the run?”

The larger question here is how and when should you step it up and get outside your comfort zone. Even if you’re not the fastest person, there are key parts of the race where an infusion of speed can help your overall time.

Here are three strategies you can use in your next race.

1) Negative or even splits

This means you’re running the same pace (even splits) or finishing faster (negative split) than how you started. Generally this approach is best for longer races like the marathon, where you don’t want to go out too fast and get yourself into trouble with miles and miles to go. It’s a conservative tactic, because you deliberately hold yourself back quite a bit at the start. The key is to consistently keep or pick up your pace throughout the race. You don’t want to leave too much in the tank, but it can help you finish strong while everyone else is fading.

2) Starting fast and holding on

Obviously, this is the opposite. I’ve seen studies showing that this tactic produces the most PRs for shorter races like the 5K. But it can also be a disaster if you start too fast, get in over your head and crash and burn. I’ve had both. My fastest races and most miserable races have come when I went out faster (or significantly faster) than I felt comfortable. I also feel less in control of my race than when I’m doing even or negative splits. But sometimes if you’ve put the training in, you just have to go for it and see what happens.

3) Surges

I never go for an all-out sprint until the end of the race, but there are parts of races where you pick up your pace for 100-400 meters or so. That’s called a surge. It’s usually done if you’re trying to drop a competitor, but if you’re running by yourself you can do it at the top of a hill, a clearing in a trail race where there aren’t roots to trip you up, etc. The key is you again don’t want to go too fast, because at about 75-80% of your max heart rate — your anaerobic threshold — your body starts pumping out lactic acid to slow you down, and you’ll hit a wall. But if you stay below that zone, it can actually help you because you’re switching up using fast twitch (speed) muscles, which will keep your slow twitch (endurance) muscles fresh.


Every run and race is a little different, and it’s good to experiment and see in what circumstances each of these strategies works for you. Some may seem like common sense, but it’s good to be aware of them so you have a plan when you approach a race.

When used strategically, you may find you have more speed than you think.

Photo credit: Lululemon Athletica on Flickr. 

About TheBeerRunner

You may know Tim Cigelske as the Beer Runner, but he is also a coach entering his fifth season training runners for the half and full marathon. In this blog he will chronicle the journey of his first season coaching runners with DetermiNation Milwaukee, a team that raises money for the American Cancer Society while preparing for the Madison Marathon on May 27. For more, check out his Beer Runner blog!
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