I’ve been asked before if I have a race strategy. The first time I was asked I thought it sounded really exciting. The second time I was asked I thought I wasn’t good enough to have a strategy – I just wanted to not die en route. By the third race though I started to understand the importance of a race strategy. The weeks of training that you put in may prepare your body, but a race strategy is all about preparing your mind. It is about knowing what pace you want to run at and when, knowing what speed your body can sustain and for how long, knowing how often (if at all) you will need to take on water or energy supplements. Having a race strategy allows you to make the most of all the super-awesome fitness you have built up through your training.
There are 3 main types of strategy (with variations in between): positive splits, negative splits, and even pacing.
Don’t be fooled by the optimistic name – postive splits are not very good. A positive split is running as fast as you can for as long as you can. This inevitably means that the earlier part of your race is going to be much faster than the later part. It is also almost certain that you will feel like a bag of crap during the later stages. This kind of race strategy is a bit silly and is likely to leave you taken ill on the sidelines.
A negative split is the oposite to above: start slow and finish faster. In half marathons this is recommended as running slightly below your threshold pace for the first 8-10 miles and then pushing your pace in the last few as much as you can.
This seems to always be the most popular tactic. – running at the same speed the whole way through. Check your times every mile/kilometer/5km and adjust your pace accordingly. If you’re planning to run at an even pace it is always worth checking out the route beforehand and taking into account any hills or other obstacles that may slow you down. If there are lots of hills your mile/km splits are going to be all over the place and so choosing longer splits, such as 5km in a half marathon, will give a much better idea of your average pace.
Up until now my race strategy has always been to run an even pace. However this didn’t quite work during the Cardiff Half Marathon. A very long and subtle incline between miles 8 and 10 along a dual carriageway knocked me for six and I lost a few minutes and never managed to recover them, dampening my spirit for the rest of the run. This highlights the importance of making you strategy race specific.
Berlin is flat – pancake flat. It barely rises 5m throughout the entire course. This means that an even pacing approach should be a good approach.
However I am seriously considering trying a negative split. In my previous half marathons I have always gone out too fast, which can be detrimental in the later stages. Despite my best efforts to reign in the excitement I set off at an 8:45min/mile in Cardiff, which felt absolutely wonderful for the first 5 or 6 miles, but it cost me valuable minutes in the end. Apparently for every single second you run too fast in the first half of a 10km race you run almost 10 seconds slower in the second half, so imagine how much you would slow down in a half marathon if you went out too fast in the first few miles…
Up until a few weeks ago I was running an 8 mile route with my club at 9min/mile. This is my goal HM pace and I hope that all of this practice means that I will find it easier to ‘find’ that pace in Berlin. I am going to be really strict with myself and slow my pace down as soon as I find myself creeping much faster. Cardiff has taught me that that extra 15secs each mile can ruin the race. However, if at 10 miles I am still feeling strong I can try and squeeze my pace just a little bit… After all, after the 10 mile marker it’s just a parkrun left, right?!*
The 10 mile marker is going to be my focus during this race. I have never managed to maintain my pace beyond 10 miles. That marker is always my wall, but this time I want to break through it.
After considering the profile of the course (it’s uphills, downhills and terrain) the next big thing to integrate into your strategy is your fuel. What will you have for breakfast? What will you drink beforehand, and when will your last drink and toilet trip be before the race starts? What will you drink during the race? Will you take any energy supplements to help you get round?
There are 4 water stations along the Berlin course spread pretty evenly along the course. This should be plenty. I have never taken any gels during a race and I personally don’t want to. However I did drink a bottle of Lucozade before the Bath Half Marathon in 2011 and that remains my PB race, so I’m probably going to down a litre of that beforehand. And then go to the toilet. And then run.
I feel pretty good for having a proper race strategy for the first time. There are so many things that could happen on Sunday that I can neither predict nor control, but I feel like I have done the best that I can. I have trained hard, I have stuck to my plans, I have prepared and planned for the day, and I have a great bunch of friends running and cheering on the day. Here we go people – I’m off to race in Berlin!
*Almost every parkrunner I know measures their races by parkruns (a.k.a. 5kms) when they start to find it tough, picturing landmarks from their favourite Saturday morning haunt when racing unfamiliar routes. Give it a try.