If you could determine the one bit of running advice dispensed and received more often than any other, it would probably be “Go out slow.”
It would also be the one bit of running advice most frequently ignored.
Here at CompleteRunning.com the most popular article of all-time is 100 Beginner Running Tips, at least five of which have to do with slowing down.
When it comes to other running advice, we usually get the picture after one bad experience. We remember the BodyGlide. We don’t wear brand-new running shoes for our first marathon. We don’t eat fettucini alfredo before a race.
But it seems as though everyone—no matter their experience level—has recurring bouts of going out too fast and then struggling at the end. Mathematically it doesn’t matter if you run the first half of a 10k in 20 minutes and the second half in 25 minutes, or vice versa, but I guarantee it will feel a lot different.
It’s reasonably well-established that for distances greater than 5k, you will average a better speed over the course of a race if you start more slowly than your goal pace, and gradually build up to it. The problem is our bodies naturally want to go faster while we feel fresh and slower when we feel tired. It takes some mental discipline to overrule our physical tendencies. We don’t always manage it.
I took a look at the results of a race with which I’m familiar—the California International Marathon. It wouldn’t be fair to compare the first and second halves of the Boston Marathon or the New York Marathon, both of which are much more challenging in the second half. But the California International Marathon touts its reputation from Runner’s World as “a fast, if not the fastest, course in the country.”
The reason for this is because the first half of the marathon has gently rolling hills, while the second half is almost entirely flat or downhill. Yet an examination of last year’s results show that of the top 25 finishers, only 3 ran the second half faster than the first (“negative splits”). And one of those was only one second faster.
If the top runners in a race built for negative splits can’t fight the need for speed, what chance do the rest of us have?
Only one: use your memory. Resist the urge to bask in how great you feel at the start of a race and how effortless it all is. Instead, remember your last gasping, stumbling finish. Once you experience the thrill of passing mobs of burnt-out bonkers in the latter miles, you won’t want to go back.