One of my primary beefs with the current state of professional middle distance running and road racing is the way 99% of races now are set up to be nothing more than glorified time trials.
Each race features 2 or 3 pacers who set up a fast pace, as requested by the most accomplished athlete in the race. These pacers almost always go into the race with no intention of even finishing the race, much less trying to win.
In my opinion, this leads to a boring race where you know essentially what’s going to happen days or even weeks before the race takes place. The pacers lead until the final quarter of the race and then the star will take over and try to set a record or run a particular time. Yawn … It’s like a formulaic action movie where you know that no matter what happens early on, the good guys will come out on top in the end.
Incidentally, there is at least one celebrated time when the pacer or “rabbit” actually hung on to win the race. His name is Tom Byers and he beat the then Olympic 800m champion and former 1500m and mile world record holder Steve Ovett in a classic race that you can find here:
I find the head to head battles that occur in championship races much more interesting. There are no pacers and no featured athletes. Everyone in the race is trying to win and no one is prepared to sacrifice their chances for the benefit of anyone else.
This sets the stage for some interesting tactics that bring a welcome air of uncertainty to the competition. Runners who may not be the fastest can win with guile and cunning and no one has a predetermined advantage. Unfortunately this tactical sense is becoming a lost art among today’s elite runners.
Even for the 99.99% of us who will never run a championship race, tactical knowledge is a useful weapon to have in your arsenal. After all, the ultimate goal of a race is to beat as many runners as you can, whether you finish first or second last. Like most things to do with running, it’s not all that complicated, and a lot of it is a matter of self discovery and trial and error, but there are a few bits of wisdom that can point you in the right direction.
Tactical Tips for Distance Runners
1) Start off at a reasonable pace.
Many, many non-elite runners (even some very good ones) take off like a bat out of hell at the start of a race. This pretty well guarantees that your race will be less than optimal right from the get-go. While you don’t want to lose contact with your main opposition early on, starting considerably faster than your average race pace will give you a slower result in the end. Be patient early on and you’ll reap the rewards at the finish.
2) Don’t bother with surges.
Maintaining an even pace during the race will leave you with more energy at the end. Throwing in a bunch of mid-race surges might work if you’re clearly the fastest in your race, but the vast majority of the time, you’re better off to sit in the pack, bide your time, and put in one big effort at the finish.
3) Stay positive.
The more you can keep the voice inside your head positive, the better you’ll run. Many runners get down on themselves if things aren’t going as well as planned, sometimes even if they are. Talk yourself through the race with positive thoughts and you’ll be more likely to run well.
4) Know your strengths.
Sound tactics require a good deal of self knowledge. For instance, if you’re a runner with excellent speed, but relatively poor endurance, you’ll want to leave your finishing kick as late as possible. On the other hand, the best tactic for a strong runner with less than ideal leg speed is to start their finishing kick from as far out as possible. The more you race, the more you’ll get a sense of your strengths and weaknesses and how best to employ them.
5) Look for weaknesses and exploit them.
Keep an eye on the runners around you and see if you can spot any weaknesses. If the guy or girl beside you seems to be struggling, a fast but relatively brief surge can often get rid of them for good. If they’re hurting and see you pick up the pace, more often than not, they’ll give up and let you go. Once you’ve got a significant gap, you can return to your original pace, secure in the knowledge that you’ve put them behind you.
6) When you start your kick, don’t stop.
Finally, when you begin your finishing drive, keep going all out until you hit the finish line. Don’t sprint for 50 or 100m and then slow down again. Once you’ve made your move, maintain that effort all the way through the line, whether it’s 100m or 1,000m from the finish. Slowing down, even a little, may be just the ray of hope your competitors need to reel you back in.
Good tactics won’t make up for a lack of fitness, but they might just help you beat a runner who’s as fit as you are.