at the races Is it better to go out hard and hang on or to...

Is it better to go out hard and hang on or to run an even pace and shoot for a negative split?

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Malindi Elmore is the fastest Canadian female marathon runner of all-time. At 41 years old, she broke Natasha Wodak’s record and finished in 2:24:50, and set the record. The top Canadian female Olympic marathon finisher this summer, Elmore says its better to run an even pace than go out hard and try and hang on. 

“I would aim to negative split,” says the mother of two, based in Kelowna, BC. “It always gets hard at the end and if you can get as far into the race as possible before starting to hurt, then you can finish strong. For a marathon, I like to go as evenly paced as possible, but really control the first end knowing that there is a lot of distance to cover and it really needs to feel cruise-y to start off.”

Elmore says that for 5 and 10K races, she goes out super hard, knowing that the suffering is going to occur. For the marathon, however, and even the half, that strategy rarely works. 

“I used to always go all out, but too many painful fades and blow ups have taught me some patience,” Elmore told iRun. “I have become wiser in my old age.” 

Elmore hasn’t only become wiser, she’s become faster, too. So now that the fall race season is basically over—the New York Marathon is November 7, but most Canadians will have already finished their goal runs—it’s time to think about hitting a spring PB.

What race will you choose? What distance? And, importantly, what strategy will you employ? 

“The damage you can do by going out 5sec/km too quick in the first half of a long race can magnify itself like crazy at the end, where minutes can disappear in no time,” says Evan Dunfee, Olympic bronze medalist in the 50K speed walk and an infamous running race closer. In Rio, Dunfee was 18 seconds back of Hirooki at 45K and closed him down with 1km to go. In Doha, he was several minutes outside of a medal with 5K to go, and he stormed home. In Tokyo, he was 22 seconds out of a medal with 1K to go—and he brought it home. He says that closing hard, if nothing else, is more exciting, and makes you feel better, than simply fading out. 

“Race strategy depends on your readiness for that specific race, as well as what the cost of blowing up is (which gets bigger as the distance gets longer),” Dunfee says. “If you are super fit and have a really good idea of what you’re capable of, then go out even and try to bring it home earlier, towards the end of the race.” Dunfee, however, does present a warning: “If you’re trying to fake your fitness over the shorter stuff, go out hard and hold on, but if you’re going long distance and want a strong finish—take it out a bit easier and bring it home hard.”

The trick for scoring a PB, says Reid Coolsaet, is running with a pacer. Coolsaet told iRun that most of the world records have been scored with even or negative splits. The problem is, what pace should you try and hold? If you’re going for a PB, obviously it’s a pace that you’ve never completed before. “The best gauge for your pace is shorter race results and then going to an online calculator,” says Coolsaet, and here’s one we found. John Stanton, the founder of the Running Room, thinks, based on my shorter race finishing times, I can break 2:50. My PB is 2:59. My half PB is 1:22, but it was almost 10 years ago. Is John Stanton right? Is he insane? In September, I tried to beat 2:59 and finished in 3:16. I was in the best shape of my life. Coolsaet says finding your pace time is the million dollar question. “If you’re doing the marathon, long runs and long workouts will determine your proper pace,” says the two-time Olympian and run coach. “As the race gets longer, however, the proper pace becomes harder to predict.”

 

At the risk of going on for too long—but we’re talking about long distance racing, so hear me out—I spoke with more expert racers. Trevor Hofbauer, Olympian and all-around rebel (he qualified for the Olympics without wearing a watch), says: “Creating a plan that allows for a negative split or equal split is the best approach. Of course, you could dive deeper and take a look at other variables (weather conditions, course route and elevation change, race distance), which could offer other advice, but overall, I think a structured plan with a negative split or equal split is the best approach.”

He also added: “When I’ve PB’d, it’s always been negative splits.”

Kathryn Drew, in July, ran a 100-mile race in 100-degree heat in California. The 34-year-old, as tough as they come, agreed also with the even split approach to racing. “I think it’s best to try and run evenly throughout your race and not go too hot out the gate,” she says. “For the most part, I think people tend to crash and burn when they do that. You can still have a bold goal, but don’t get caught up in a quicker pace at the beginning.”

Kat Drew has advice for runners thinking about their races this spring. All of us have big race plans. Here’s what Kat Drew does when chasing her goals: “I stick to what I have trained for and if I happen to have a ton of gas left at the end, then I will lay down the hammer.”