5k Race Strategy – Start Slow or Go Out Fast?

by Sara on August 13, 2014

If two paths take you to the same exact destination, in the same exact time – is one better than the other?

I found myself thinking about this concept a lot as I reflected on last Saturday’s race.  What I left out is that Ralph and I had totally different racing stratagies that morning.  While I really only mentioned my own race day experience, to get the whole picture you need to hear about Ralph’s too.

In all the years Ralph and I have been running together we have yet to be lucky enough to be in the same place trianing wise.  While one of us is PR’ing left and right the other is climbing back from injury.  Our lives never seem to work in paralell, that is until now.  We are scarily close together in terms of ability, training, and weekly mileage, and I am coming to terms with the fact that I may have just seen the last of the era in which I am faster of the two of us.

Despite coming so close to each other’s times, I have been pretty ambitious in my goal setting this year and felt like I wanted to push a little harder in the race that I think Ralph was ready for.  I didn’t want to see him go out to fast and I didn’t want to regret not pushing as hard as I could so we both agreed to run our own race and see each other at the end.  I started out a little fast, Ralph started a little more conservatively, and in the end on that final stretch he caught up to me when I was loosing steam.  Loosing steam is actually just a nice way for me to say “trying not to vomit up my breakfast” because in this current situation that is what was holding me back.  I have struggled with this for a few years now and am still working out exactly what causes my stomach to reject it’s contents in full, but that’s another post for another time.  So we went into the race with separate plans, but in the end Ralph caught up to me and we ended up with finish times a mere 6 seconds apart.

Now there are so many questions I have asked myself about our different races.  Was one of us wrong and the other right? Were both of us doing what was right for us?  Would I have been able to do better if I had started off a little slower?  Does Ralph just have a much better finishing kick that me {something I have long speculated}?  Do I just need to deal with my stomach issues, whatever they are, and I’d be able to finish just as strong?  Or are my stomach issues caused

We have talked about it a lot.  OK fine, I have talked about it a lot.  It’s boggling my mind and I want to figure it out and dial down on a plan for my next race.

Interestingly enough, one night the Monday after the race I was flipping through Runner’s World before bed {I made it through about 6 pages before passing out}, and happened across an article about speed training.  I was pretty taken aback at the advice in the article for running a 5k race and the advice was to start out 10-15 seconds faster than goal pace.  In a 5k, that 10-15 seconds is a BIG deal.  Usually I’m all for as even splits {or effort if you’re on a hilly course} but starting out so fast and “hanging on as long as you can”, I cannot imagine starting out any faster that I did and I was dying at the end.

Then, as interesting as that first article, a few nights ago I was flipping through another Runner’s World issue, {I basically keep them in a giant stack by my bed and read as many pages as I can each night before I fall asleep}, and found an article that said runners that have the patience to start off slightly slower than goal race page net faster overall times than those that go too fast.

So which is it Runner’s World?  Faster than goal pace or slower?  Conservative or aggressive?

I think I’m going to have to disagree with Runner’s World article #1 and agree with Runner’s World article #2, in that if you have the patience to start slightly slower than goal, you will net a faster time in the end.  How do I know this? Experience.  Some of my best races, in terms of fastest and strongest finishes have been ones where I start out slightly more conservative and then push with everything I have left at the end.  Of course then when I do that the next race after the fact I always try to push a little bit harder and it doesn’t end up so well.  But live and learn and that’s what racing is all about.  You learn from your mistakes, or experiences, and change your game plan for the next one.  What works for me might not work for someone else, and vice versa what works for someone else might not work for me.

There are probably endless reasons why Ralph was able to pass me in those last few seconds of the race and beat me.  Maybe he’s just faster because he’s a guy, maybe he was really determined because he just wanted to beat me at something.  There are a lot of maybes.  I do think there is a benefit to starting out slightly more conservative.  I do think that I have a lot of practice to go before I am good at racing 5ks, they seem all short and innocent but they are anything but.

I do think I am going to be better next time, and you better watch out Ralph because I’m not so sure I’m going to let you beat me again.

Any 5k runners have any race strategy advice? Help a girl out here!

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