As we head into the last few weeks of our half-marathon training, us Spark runners are starting to discuss the logistics of the upcoming Flying Pig. Alongside the details of where to park, what to wear and what to bring comes the exciting, if slightly scary, realization that the race is no longer just a fanciful "what if" idea. It's really happening.
Although each of us has a personal goal for the race, the ultimate mark of success will be finishing strong—and that will depend largely on the decisions we make along the course. Two things can make or break a race: pacing and fueling. Coming up short or going overboard with either one can cause a runner to hit that proverbial "wall," crumbling his or her race goals. Ideally, we'll find the sweet spot that will enable us to cruise through mile 13 and beyond, feeling like the rock stars that we knew we could be.
Finding Your Race Pace
Each runner has a preferred pace—a tempo that feels comfortable and sustainable, the one to which you default when you're not thinking about speed. Then there's the "race pace"—that elusive pace you should target during the main event. Don't let the term scare you; we're not talking all-out sprints from start to finish. Your race pace is simply the pace you'll need to maintain in order to achieve your goals.
So how do you calculate it? Start by identifying your goal time, then figure out how fast you'll need to run each mile to achieve it. For example, if I want to complete the half marathon in two hours, I'll need to maintain an average race pace of 9 minutes, 10 seconds per mile. That's not to say I'll run every single mile at that pace—it's just an average. Some miles will be faster and some will be slower.
Once you have your race pace, you'll need to plan a strategy based on the distance you're running. For a half-marathon race, elite marathoner Jeff Gaudette* recommends keeping a comfortable, conservative pace for the first three miles, perhaps five to 10 seconds slower than your race pace. It can be tough to hold back, especially with the adrenaline and excitement at the starting line, but the surge of energy you'll pick up toward the end will be well worth the early restraint.
"One of the most common mistakes runners make is to run the first mile or two too fast," Gaudette says. "Remember that it will feel slow, and you might be getting passed by people you want to beat. While it is mentally difficult, this is the most effective way to run a race, and you'll tear by those people during the last mile when you're fresh and they are dying."
Between miles three and 11, Gaudette says it's best to pick up the pace a bit until you're at your target race pace. This will feel relatively easy at first, but as the miles peel away and your muscles start to fatigue, that tempo will require more effort to maintain. To help you stick to your goal pace, Gaudette recommends finding a group that is running at your desired speed and stay near them. This will also provide you with a little mental break, so you can cruise along on autopilot and save your strategic moves for the last couple of miles, when you'll go all-out to the finish.
This type of pacing is known as running negative splits, which is when the second half of a race is run faster than the first. Gaudette points out that every record-setting runner has used this strategy.
Ultramarathoner Beth Weinstein, owner of athletic apparel store Only Atoms, isn't a stickler for pacing—she usually advises runners to ditch the watch, listen to their bodies and just do their best. "I'm very in tune with my body, training and pace, and I usually know what works for me," she says. "At long distances, I keep steady pacing based on my goal time, and speed up the last few miles if I have it in me." For people running their first marathons, Weinstein's single most important piece of advice is to not start out too fast.
Fueling the Body for a Strong Finish
Once you've calculated your race pace and speed strategy, it's time to plan your race menu. Below are some fueling tips for optimal performance.
My Training Update:
Roughly a month out from race day, my training has been relatively smooth and uneventful. My weekend long runs are hovering right around 10 miles, with shorter, faster runs and cross-training (TRX, boot camps and spinning) throughout the week. I'm loving the cool spring temperatures and greener scenery. My only mild concern is a tricky knee that will feel perfectly fine for several runs before suddenly sending up some warning twinges of discomfort. After resting it with a couple of walk days, the pain goes away, I ramp up the mileage again and the cycle repeats. I need to start doing some knee stretches and strengthening exercises to help keep the pain at bay and prevent future injuries.
What are your favorite ways to maintain your target pace and/or stay fueled during a race?
Join us every other Tuesday as we update you on our Flying Pig half marathon training, and help you get prepared for a big race. Follow along on our journey on Instagram using the hashtag #runsparkrun.
*Expert information sourced from http://www.active.com/running/articles/half-marathon-pacing-strategies with permission from the author.
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