If you were to ask most runners what their 5k race strategy is, you may get all kinds of answers such as: run an even pace, negative split, try not to go out too hard so as not to fade in the last half and survive or die trying. Unless you are well experienced, you may have never developed a racing plan. Forming a racing strategy helps you plan, prepare and execute your race. I have created a plan that I use and share with my athletes. You can use this plan or create your own. If you have a plan, it is important to mentally practice it. Think of it as a dress rehearsal. Then, when you are on the starting line, you will have confidence not only in your training, but also in your racing strategy.
It’s ideal to break up the race into three sections. Throughout your time trial or race it is really important to stay relaxed, especially your face, shoulders and hands. Other important considerations to plan for are temperature, wind, hills, curves, turns, surfaces etc. Whether or not you decide to wear a watch is up to you. If you do, avoid constantly checking it. It is better to trust your instinct. The plan below is basic and can be adapted accordingly.
The first section would be mile one. When you start, get out hard for the first 45 seconds to one minute. You will have a surge of adrenaline at the start and if you don’t use it, you will lose it. So take advantage of it and just let your adrenaline take you out. Then it is important to immediately settle into race pace or race pace effort for the rest of the first mile. You can err on the side of caution and run slightly slower than race pace if you feel the need. This is where I like to tell my athletes to run the first mile with their mind. Be smart about that first mile and run no faster than race pace or race pace effort if you are not wearing a watch. You should feel relatively good at this point and your breathing should be well controlled. If you are breathing too hard, slow it down a little.
For the second mile, this is the next portion of your race where you will run with your body. This is where the work begins. Most people will slow down in the second mile, so it is important to know you should not feel comfortable. Stay focused and concentrate on the task at hand. The temptation is to focus internally. Instead, shift the focus on what is going on around you. Ideally you’ll have people around you, or if you are leading or it is a virtual race or time trial, take in your position and the environment. In other words, be hyper aware of everything that is going on around you. Use all your senses. This will keep you focused. About midway through the race, it is a good idea to throw in a few 10 second surges to break it up and better your position.
During the third mile, which is the final section, this is where you will run with your heart. You should be starting to hurt, yet your breathing should remain controlled. It is really important to stay relaxed. If you start to feel tense, shrug your shoulders and give your wrists and hands a good fling. You may be tempted to slow down when you are feeling the pain. This is where your heart will need to decide to embrace the pain. I like to think of it as climbing on board the pain train. The temptation to alleviate the pain by slowing down will be strong. If you are tempted, be aware of the lollipop of mediocrity that will dangle in front of you and remind yourself, if you lick it, you will suck forever. That last 400 to 600 meters of your race, your breathing will be much more labored. This is where you will dig deep and use whatever is left in your tank. If you are able to ride that pain train, it will take you all the way into pain town, which is the last 200 meters or so. Your breathing may be out of control at this point and that is okay because you only have a short distance to go. Once you cross that line, there is nothing more satisfying than finishing knowing you have given it your all.
Coach Laurie has had her fair share of racing and implementing her 5k race strategy. She didn’t start running until the age of 40, when she wanted to make sure her daughter would be safe preparing for her first Cross Country season. She was immediately hooked once she started racing herself, and as an elite Masters runner at the age of 47, she just missed qualifying for the Olympic Trails for the Marathon in 2008 by a little over two minutes with a time of 2:49:29. To learn more about Laurie or work with her as a coach, check out her coaching page.