Train your body to start slow so you can finish faster (and happier!) at your next race

By Karla Bruning
November 24, 2014

Every runner wants to PR. (For non-runners, that's race-speak for beating your personal record.) But all too often, fast-paced attempts turn into painful races instead of broken records. What's the key to pacing a perfect half-marathon? Being negative-that is, running a negative split. For races longer than 15 minutes, negative splits-running the second half of a race faster than the first-will turn out speedier times. Aim to run the first half up to two percent slower than the second half.

"It should become second nature to race this way," says Greg McMillan, renowned author, exercise scientist, and coach at McMillan Running. "I like the training mantra ‘last mile, best mile.'" (For more inspiring mottos, check out 16 top trainers' motivational mantras that get results!) Why? "It's much easier to start slower and end faster than the other way around!" says Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner, coach, and founder of Strength Running. Typically, runners set out too fast, trying to "bank" time-a strategy many use to give themselves a cushion at the end of a race. It's risky business, and one that positions you to crash and burn in later miles, having used up all of your available energy stores.

Aiming for a negative split is almost always the better strategy. No matter what your goals are, pacing to run a faster second half will help you achieve them. Forget "banking" time-and you'll save yourself from the "crash and burn." Here's how you can train to run "negative" to have a positive experience on race day.

Practice Running Negative Splits in Training

Completing weekly progression runs with negative splits will help acclimate your body to running faster while fatigued and drill the practice into your legs and lungs. McMillan suggests completing the first 75 percent of a training run at an easy, conversational pace, then picking it up to your 10K race pace or faster for the last quarter. Another option is to break your workout into thirds. If you're running for 30 minutes, jog the first 10 minutes at a very slow pace, the middle 10 at a medium-fast pace, and the last 10 quickly. "This workout helps teach you where your ‘red line' is," McMillan says.

You can even practice progression on easy long runs. Start slow and settle into a comfortable pace. "The last few miles you can gradually speed up if you're feeling good, finishing on the fast end of your easy pace range," Fitzgerald says. (Need a training schedule? Find the half marathon training plan that's right for you!)

Every other week, make your long run a "fast-finish," completing the last few miles at your goal race pace. If you're running for 90 minutes, run the first 60 to 75 minutes at your normal training pace, but speed up progressively over the last 15 to 30 minutes of the run. "It's an exhilarating way to finish!" says McMillan. In any training cycle, limit your fast-finish long runs to three to five total, since they're especially taxing.

Run Negative Splits in a Tune-Up Race

"Tune-up races are incredibly valuable not only for overcoming race-day jitters, but also for practicing race preparation, getting an accurate estimate your fitness level, and helping to fine-tune the skill of racing," Fitzgerald says. If your goal race is a half-marathon, pick a 10K to 10-mile race three to four weeks before the big day. If you're racing a marathon, schedule a half-marathon four to six weeks before you plan to run 26.2. (And prepping your body is only half the battle-you'll need this mental marathon training plan too.)

"The goal for these tune-up races has nothing to do with finish time," says McMillan. "Instead, focus on how you run the race." Meaning: Practice starting slow among the throng of other runners, spectators cheering you on, and all the other excitement that race day brings. If you're racing a 10K, McMillan says, run the first four miles at goal half-marathon pace, then speed up over the last 2.2 miles to finish strong. You'll have a better chance of nailing both your goal pace and negative split on the big day.

Go on to the next page for three more expert tips!

Set a Realistic Goal

"If your goal pace is faster than what you're able to run, it'll be nearly impossible to run a negative split," Fitzgerald says. Use a race equivalency calculator to set a goal that's based on your tune-up race or hard training run at a shorter distance. Something like McMillan's Running Calculator online or the McRun app for iOS and Android will help you plug in previous race times to pick a realistic goal.

In training, do some goal pace workouts-like three to six miles at goal half-marathon race pace-to drill the tempo into your body. "Being very in tune with your goal pace helps you avoid starting too fast due to the excitement of race day," McMillan says.

Start Slow on Race Day

When the starting gun goes off, resist the temptation to surge. Start at a pace that's about 10 to 20 seconds slower than your goal tempo. Think of it as a warm-up. After one or two miles, settle into your goal pace. "Races should feel easy for the first quarter, medium-hard in the middle, and very hard in the last quarter," McMillan says. So if you're aiming for a 2:15 half-marathon-a 10:18 pace-run up to the first three miles at a 10:30 pace, then progress to your 10:18 pace for the middle miles. "This leaves ample opportunity to speed up during the last one to three miles, because you won't burn through too much energy and fuel early in the race," Fitzgerald says.

If you need help, start farther back in the pack or with a slower pace group than you normally would to force yourself to go slower. But remember: "Racing is more about the mind than the body," McMillan says. "You must remember that you are in control."

Get Your Game Face On

"Finishing fast is largely mental," Fitzgerald says. "It's important to trust the training you've done and accept the feeling of running fast on tired, sore legs."

Ending a race faster than you started it isn't easy. But it's what you'll have trained for, and it's a lot less painful than the alternative. Trust what science shows-that starting just a little bit slower actually helps you go faster in the end. Inspired to hit the pavement? Sign up for the one of the top 10 women's races in the country!