Race Strategy For Distance Runners

Race Strategy For Distance Runners

The science and logic behind running performances are complex and contingent on factors such as terrain, distance, weather conditions, number of competitors, and one’s own strengths and weaknesses. One important consideration is finding the right pace. Starting too fast is a common mistake -- you can’t win a long distance race in the first mile, but you can lose it. When someone runs at a pace that is faster than her current capabilities, it's entirely counter-productive. Fatigue will inevitably set in and force the athlete to slow down later. This is unfortunate because the latter portion of the race is the preferred time to be running the fastest!

There are two aspects to running -- the physical and the mental. No matter how fit a runner is, he or she won’t achieve optimal performance without a basic understanding of race tactics and mental preparation. A race starts long before the gun goes off, sometimes even months or years before. The purpose of this article is to discuss anecdotal race strategy advice from outstanding running coaches and the empirical data that supports it, from the warm-up to the warm-down and everything in-between.

Race, Race, Race
By convention, most long-distance races begin with competitors running at or near sprint speed, leaving the novice spectator perplexed. Indeed, many athletes themselves do not understand all of the reason why a fast start is beneficial; it's rarely even talked about. In addition to strategic positioning, like not getting caught behind the slow runners, there is a physiological benefit to starting fast and in front. The body has three basic energy systems: aerobic, anaerobic, and alactic. The aerobic (with oxygen) and anaerobic (without oxygen) energy systems are generally well understood by most coaches. However that third system, the alactic system, provides about eight seconds of energy that, if not used at the beginning of a race, is essentially lost and cannot be used at any other time.

Pace + Positioning
Physiologically, the most efficient way to run a long distance race is at an even pace, with a fast finish. Going out too fast tends to catch up with you in the end and most runners perform at their best when utilizing even paces. However, for tactical reasons, there are times when a distance runner should adjust their pace as a race unfolds.

For example, when approaching a congested corner or a tight trail in a cross country race, it's important to get ahead of as many opponents as possible without inducing too much fatigue. Getting caught behind a slow herd can be a difficult challenge to overcome, even for the most talented of runners. Winding trails also present opportunities for a clever runner to create separation from the pack behind them. Practice accelerating through trails that hide you from your trailing opponents. It can be very discouraging for a runner to learn they lost ground on you in a challenging trail -- particularly when they didn’t feel like they were slowing down!

Distance runners spend a lot of time running against the clock and focusing on their watches. With so much emphasis given to race pace and splits, largely resulting from coaches’ advice, it's easy to forget that you are also racing against opponents! There is nothing wrong with monitoring your watch while running or calculating splits; but there is a difference between being focused on your time and being obsessed with it. A singular focus on race splits can distract runners from optimal tactical performance. For example, when an opponent is challenging to pass you, speed up! An obsession with the clock can distract many runners from actually challenging their opposition.

Running In Packs
There is a benefit to running with a partner or in a group of teammates with comparable ability. As you search for the right pace, it's helpful to identify and run with the group that keeps your desired pace. So, run with the group you're supposed to run with -- running in a pack that is too slow for you will slow you down. But, at the same time, don't move faster than your level of readiness, that will bring certain disaster by the end of the race. Performance peaks when the challenge is appropriate. I find it is helpful to run with a teammate and you'll see this approach in cycling all the time. When particular race leaders approached steep hills in the Tour de France, the team plan was to assemble others in a group to help push him.

Cross Country Race Strategy 

Men’s Cross Country
Where a runner is positioned two-thirds into the race is usually where he will finish. In 8K and 10k races, patience is the key. Run with patience, but also avoid getting out of position. And, although it is important to get out in good position, don’t overdo it. Athletes should be advised to run within themselves. Again, the race is not won in the first mile, but it can be lost. This type of race really begins at the 5K mark—that is where you see a lot of runners “drop off,” so it's wise to be patient for at least the first two miles of the race.

Women’s Cross Country
In shorter distance races, such as the 5K or 6K, patience is still required but a different tactical approach should be employed. This race really starts at about two miles and the last 1.5 miles are key. At women’s cross country national championships, the one mile mark tends to be a reliable indicator of where an athlete will finish. Thus, a better and faster start becomes more important at this distance.

Of course, all distance runners should avoid getting into a pecking order where they are afraid to pass a teammate or opponent. Pecking orders are common in distance running for two reasons; the first of which happens when one runner perceives another runner to be faster. The second belongs to the runner who is afraid to pass a teammate that they will get mad at him -- neither of these mindsets are constructive. If a runner is feeling good, and able to pass another runner, even if it's superior teammate, he or she should be encouraged to do so. There are no guarantees that a so-called better runner is performing up to his typical standards, and there is nothing wrong with challenging yourself within reason to see what you can do!

Running Hills
Running uphill presents challenges and induces fatigue in all levels of runners. Most runners are taught to push harder up the hill. Countless runners, at the direction of their coach, pass multiple people going uphill with an enhanced amount of speed and effort, but then what happens? As they approach the top of the hill they slow down, only to be passed by and never recover. Don’t push as hard as you can up the hills -- a better approach is to maintain your position up the hill at a moderate pace, and explode over the top of the hill.

Unless the major hills are located close to the finish line, don’t go all out in uphill running. Following this approach, you will occasionally be passed by a runner as they sprint up a hill. Don’t worry, they will likely fade at the top of the hill and you'll catch them soon after. What about running downhill? A useful strategy for downhill running is to open up your stride but avoid overdoing it and let the hill and gravity do the work.

Weather Conditions
Race strategy, in part, also depends on current weather conditions. It's always helpful to pay attention to detailed temperature and wind forecasts before a race or practice. On particularly hot days, it's recommended that you run a slightly slower pace at the beginning of the race. Just as cold weather can and does inhibit performance, the same can be said about hot conditions. Extreme heat increases fatigue and hurts performance. By starting a race at a slower pace, you can help ensure that you will have enough energy left to finish strong. After all, it is at the end of the race you should be running your fastest!

Although track surface conditions are rather predictable, cross country terrain is quite variable particularly after heavy rain. A good rule of thumb is to always use the shortest spike you can get away with; there is no need to use a larger spike than is necessary. In sloppy conditions, distance runners should reduce stride length to prevent slippage and increase stride frequency.

Competing On Indoor Tracks
It's not always easy to pass people in large cross country races or on indoor tracks. Thanks to the turns and cramped conditions, strategy is tricky in track running, particularly on indoor tracks which typically have at least twice as many turns as outdoor tracks. Runners must choose precisely the right place to pass, which usually is when they come out of a turn.

Distance runners expected to win an indoor race should be advised to run tactically. This means running in second place on the outside shoulder of the lead runner. Employing a drafting strategy allows the opponent to do all the work. Avoid running right behind the leader, so try running on the outside of their right shoulder and behind them -- this way you won’t get boxed in and can escape when needed.

Finishing Races
Most races are won or lost in the final stages of a race. Therefore, it is imperative that all runners become acquainted with the last 1600, 800, and 400 meters of the course. The last thing any coach wants is for a runner to get passed in the final stages of a race because the runner was not familiar with the course. Runners must time their finishing kick so it comes at just the right moment, it can't be too soon that they tire and slow down, nor so late that they fail to catch an opponent.

In this regard, it's helpful to understand exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are. If you lack great foot speed and/or have a weak kick, you will want to create a lot of separation between yourself and your competition prior to the final states of the race. Once you begin your kick, however, don’t slow it. As mentioned earlier, athletes tend to have different perceptions of their desire and ability to run through pain prior to the race then during it. Resist the urge to slow, and get out of your comfort zone as you accelerate through the finish, it will be worth it!

Warm-Up Routine
Warm-up length, intensity, and timing should all vary based on temperature and the length of the race. A warm-up that is too long in duration will deplete glycogen stores necessary for optimal performance in longer races. An ingredient for success in long distance running is the ability to store and utilize glycogen energy storage. What does this mean? Distance runners should typically initiate the warm-up routine 45 to 50 minutes before the start of the race, generating a light sweat.

The ideal warm-up routine typically begins with a light 10 minute jog, 5 to 10 minutes of stretching, and then 10 more minutes of running, but be sure to avoid warming up at an intensity greater than 70% effort. The warm-up concludes with a few brief sprints starting about 7 to 10 minutes before the race. Once again, the goal is to avoid raising body temperature unnecessarily, but also to get your heart, lungs, and muscles ready for hard work.

Warm-Down Routine
During running training, as much as 90% of circulating blood is directed to the legs, arms, lungs, and working muscles—up from as little as 20% circulating during rest. If you stop moving after exercise, the amount of blood returning to your heart and brain may be insufficient and you may experience dizziness, a drop in blood pressure or other problems. To help restore to normal conditions, move at a slow pace for 5 to 10 minutes as your heart rate and breathing rate slowly return to normal. To enhance recovery, an athlete should begin a warm-down within five minutes of the conclusion of a race.

(Related: Read about some simple form fixes here.)

Huddle Up

Whoa, that was a mouthful, wasn't it? Feel free to pick or choose traits or exercises from this article in order to create and cultivate your personal, unique running form. It won't be easy, but with a little bit of hard work, dedication, and motivation, you can go a far way towards improving your ability on the course! However, if you're still having trouble with any part of this article and it's suggestions, consider booking one of CoachUp's private trainers to help you achieve some new goals. Our experienced team of runners will have you acing your turns, nailing your warm-up, and finishing on a high note in no time. What are you waiting for?

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