Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Negative splits aren't for me... Yet.

You usually hear that negative splits are the way to go. Run the second half of the race faster than the first half of the race. It's said to be a good strategy when competing with others for a victory, and is the favored strategy for athlete's vying for the top spot on the podium. But seriously... negative splits are not for me - at least not at my current level of fitness.

There's a big difference between being at or near racing fitness, like someone who has been training for years or like an elite, and being just a serious runner. I'm sort of the latter. I have a lot of training to do before I am able to run some truly fast times for my age.  For now, I am relatively fast and having been training for less than two years, I can only be considered moderately trained as a runner, at best.

Many people who are moderately trained or even those who are trained only well enough to basically complete the races they enter, often lament that they can't manage negative splits or that they even struggled to maintain a steady pace over in the events they enter. Sure, some of this is the excitement of the race which leads to fast starts, but many of us also find that even when we can hold back a little in the first half, we still don't have enough gas in the second half to ramp up and achieve a personal best. We look back after races and say, I should have run harder in the first half, or I should have started my move earlier toward the end...

We make mistakes in strategy that are partly volitional and partly due to our physiological limitations. We hold back too long before picking up the pace near the end or we go out too fast (volitional), or we start out a little slower than goal average pace, and then just don't have enough left to pick the pace up in the second half of the race, anyway (physiological limitation). We lack the experience to know more reliably how to pace ourselves strategically, and we lack the level of conditioning required to vary our pace to run negative splits.

So, I don't worry about negative splits.  I go out and just try to settle into a pace that feels hard, but like I can maintain it if I have to.  The two times I have tried to hold back in a race to use some strategy (5K distance), I was still unable to muster the kind of effort needed to bring my average pace down to my goal. When I have just run as fast as I felt I could manage, however, I've most often had positive splits, or something relatively even, and finished with something close to my goal time or a new PR.

Part of the issue is that I'm not competing against any specific "other" runner.  I'm just trying to run "my" best race. I'm trying to beat my previous best time in an all-out effort with a new all-out effort.  If I was so conditioned that further improvement and PR's had become less frequent, and amy goals were to beat some other runner to come in first, rather than always to improve on a my record, negative splits might make a little more sense, because directly racing another is partly psychological.

Indeed, some research has recently been published that suggests novice and moderately trained runners (like most of those in citizen races), might achieve their best times by going out a bit faster than their average goal pace (at least at the 5K distance used in the study).

Elite runners, who have the experience and condition needed to better judge how to pace themselves for peak performance may do better with a negative split approach, but most of the rest of us should probably just go out and run!



  1. Great post!
    I don't think I've ever negative split in a race, maybe even split at best (trying to recall those short HS track races). I have a 4mi race in ~3 wks and that's definitely short enough (my standards for short have changed! 3200m used to be long :p ) for me to attempt it without doing too much potential damage. Hoping for under 30min!

  2. Yeah, I never drive myself crazy trying to negative split. I'm more concerned about not going out too fast and just keeping a steady pace!

  3. Your observations make sense Mark. I think very few runners are capable of running a good race with negative splits and, if they try to do so, they will end up worse off. Some of it depends on the course (for example, it's really foolish to attempt a negative splits strategy at Boston due to the nature of the hills), but in general we just never have as much left in the tank as we'd like to think we will.

  4. I tend to be overly-cautious when I race and hold too much back, then have way too much left in the tank that never gets used. This usually results in a negative split, but then I'm left wondering how well I could have done if I had gone out faster. So I've tried to push it more at the start and relish in positive splits b/c it means I didn't hold back too much. I did one race pretty much wanting to crash and burn because I was sick of holding back... it was less fun than I thought it would be and I was about as stupid about it as possible (went out at like a 7 min/mi pace which is NOT something I can maintain for more than like 50 steps and then tried to dart up a steep hill). Not that I'd recommend this. Well, maybe I'd recommend doing it once, for the learning experience.

  5. Great post Mark. I think it can work in both ways. According to your definition, I'm probably a "highly trained" runner. But I still benefit from running the first half of a race way over my head.

    I used that strategy to PR by 24 seconds in the 3k over the course of a year in college. It also helped me run a PR in the 800. So it can be done for both.

    But ultimately, most of my PR's were done by even or negative splitting. For "highly trained" runners, it's probably easier to use either strategy than for new/intermediate runners.

    Maybe it comes down to, which race strategy do you prefer?

  6. If it comes down to personal preference, I would prefer whatever got me the PR's. At this stage, that would be positive splits, or fast-slow-fast splits. With my aerobic enduranced pushed up for more longer races, I might consider planning to try a negative split strategy on a 5K in the future. Of course, right now I have this little knee injury that will have to resolve first. :)


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