Personal best training program

Moderate starts, consistent pacing, and negative splits can carry you to new PBs

On August 22, Daniel Komen set a new world record for the 5K with an incredible time of 12:39.74 (that’s a dizzying pace of 60.76 seconds per 400 metres – and 4:05 per mile). On the same day, Paul Tergat put up an amazing new world mark for 10,000 metres – 26:27.85, which is 63.5 seconds per 400 metres and 4:16 per mile. A close inspection of these two supreme performances can boost your running, cycling, or swimming, regardless of your performance capacity.

How can Komen and Tergat help you? For one thing, they’ve shown you the negative splits! Both of their superlative efforts involved negative splitting – covering the second half of the race faster than the first. In Tergat’s case, the negativity was almost unbelievable; after an initial 13:17 5K, he closed with a 13:10 for the last five kilometres, which meant that very few of the world’s elite runners could have kept pace with him, even if they had waited until the half-way point of the race to begin running!

Mr. Komen, meanwhile, was a fine negative-splitter and a model of consistency. His 1-K splits were 2:32.7, 2:32.7, 2:31.8, 2:31.3, and 2:31.2, an almost perfectly even pace. Both strategies – negative splitting and even pacing – can have a dramatic impact on your performances, whether you’re a front-runner or a ‘back-of-the-packer’.

The scientific foundation for negative splitting was firmly laid earlier this decade at the Sinai Samaritan Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Carl Foster and his colleagues put nine well-trained cyclists through their paces (‘Effect of Pacing Strategy on Cycle Time Trial Performance,’ Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, vol. 25(3), pp. 383-388, 1993).

In Foster’s work, the athletes took part in five different 2-K time trials, completing the first kilometre of the tests at different percentages of their 2-K PRs. They tried covering the initial kilometre at 56, 53, 51, 50, and 48 per cent of their 2-K PBs (of course, the 56-, 53-, and 51-per cent beginnings represented slow starts, the 50-per cent start represented rather even pacing, and the 48-per cent outburst was a fast start). In all cases, the second kilometre of the trial was completed as quickly as possible, and the overall times were compared after all of the tests were performed.

As it turned out, the moderately slow start – the 51-per cent strategy – produced negative splits for the 2-K trials and the best average performance times, beating the other techniques by about 2 per cent. In addition, out of nine new 2-K PBs set during the tests, five were associated with the 51-per cent beginning, and none were the result of a fast start (48 per cent), even though rapid starts are extremely popular among endurance athletes. Even (50-50) or negative splitting was decisively superior to positive splitting (covering the first half more quickly than the second).

While starting a bit slowly was great, overly slow beginnings were not so good. Beginning the time trial at 53 or 56 per cent of the PB clocking often produced mediocre times (although no worse than the 48-per cent start), because it was just too difficult to make up the time ‘lost’ during the first half of the trial. Slightly slow (51-per cent of PB) starts were best – far better than the rapid (48-per cent) ones. Both Mr. Komen and Mr. Tergat employed the slightly slow-start, negative-split strategy: Komen’s first two kilometres were each more than a second slower than his last two, and the first 5K of Tergat’s effort took 50.2 per cent of the total race time, while the last 5K required 49.8 per cent.

The trouble with fast starts
Why do fast starts work rather abysmally? No one knows for certain, but a logical theory is that very intense running, cycling, or swimming at the beginning of a race or workout – carried out before the cardiovascular system has a chance to flood the muscles with oxygen – enhances ‘anaerobic’ metabolismand may lower the pH inside leg-muscle cells enough to heighten fatigue and harm performance. This early fatigue seems to have a lingering effect which persists into the final portion of a competition or workout, even if an athlete slows down appreciably. In contrast, slower beginnings allow muscle cells to warm up and take huge volumes of oxygen on board before the really hard work begins, attenuating anaerobic metabolism and spiking fatigue-resisting aerobic energy production.

The undesirability of fast starting was demonstrated by Sid Robinson’s classic research back in the 1950s. Sid asked a group of experienced runners to cover 1245 metres in two different ways. In one case they ran at a sizzling pace of 13.9 miles per hour (4:18 per mile) from the outset, simply holding that pace until the 1245-metre point was reached – in a time of about 3:20. On a different occasion, the runners started more cautiously, cruising along at only 13.5 mph (4:27 per mile) before turning on the jets and running at 14.9 mph to reach the 1245-metre finish line in the same time – 3:20. Although the times were the same, the slower-start strategy produced two key advantages – reduced average blood-lactatelevels and diminished total oxygen consumption (better economy). Had the runners been able to compete with themselves, using the slow vs. fast starts in races lasting 1500 to 3000 metres or so, the lower lactate and improved economy would have given the slow starters faster times (the reduced lactate and enhanced economy would have permitted them to continue running at a fast pace for a longer period of time).

On yet another occasion, Robinson let his runners start at 14.9 mph and then slow to 13.5 (remember that he had also tried the reverse – a 13.5 start, followed by an upswing to 14.9). This fast-starting scheme led to real disaster, with oxygen consumption and lactic acid going through the roof and performances plummeting (‘Influence of Fatigue on the Efficiency of Men during Exhausting Runs,’ Journal of Applied Physiology, vol. 12, pp. 197-201, 1958).

Why are fast starts so popular, then? Endurance athletes lack confidence in themselves – and their abilities to sustain quality paces to the very ends of their races, so they try to save time at the beginnings of their competitions, when they are feeling fresh. It’s an appealing way to race (you exercise very intensely while you’re still feeling great), but it produces less-than-optimal performances. Fortunately, the ability to start a race moderately, move up to goal pace and hold it steadfastly, and then surge at the finish can be effectively developed simply by carrying out the proper training. The results will be neatly negative-split races – and a collection of new PBs.

The training plan
So how should you train? Let’s say, for example, that you’re a runner who has just run a 10-K PB of 40:21 (a pace of around 6:30 per mile), and you would like to set a new 10-K goal and train appropriately to reach that goal. Furthermore, you want to utilize the principles of moderately slow starting, even pacing, and negative splitting to attain your new objective.

As you set your new goal, it’s no time to be greedy. Remember that you build confidence as an athlete by having realistic ambitions and putting up targets you can actually hit, rather than setting up pie-in-the-sky pipe-dreams. So, it’s wise to establish a goal which is just about four seconds per mile (one second per 400) faster than your current PB – and let that be your near-term destination. In the case of the 10K, that would be an improvement of 25 seconds for the race; in our example, it would be an upgrade from 40:21 to about 39:56.

Once you have your new goal, what are you going to do? Well, you have to work on all of the usual things – strength, power, flexibility, VO2max, economy, and lactate threshold. Those are the physiological factors which – when upgraded – will improve your overall performances.

However, you also need to work on being able to handle that 39:56 (96 seconds per 400) pace evenly and economically – and on your ability to to start your 10K conservatively and negative-split the race. A good workout to begin with is simply (6 to 8) x 800 in 3:12 each (96-second 400s), with 2-minute recoveries. If there’s no problem with that, the following week you can move on to (4 to 5) x 1200 in 4:48 each (96 secs per 400 again), with 3-minute recoveries.

After those two workouts are under your belt, it’s time for a real test of your ability to judge your 10-K PB pace (remember, the idea is to ‘own’ this pace – so that you can fall into it smoothly and efficiently when race day rolls around). A classic pace-judgment session would be (12 to 16) x 400 at goal pace, with only 60-second recoveries. The beauty of this session is that you must internally gauge your goal pace up to 16 different times in one bout of work and do it while experiencing significantly increasing fatigue – as you would during a real race. Every 96 seconds or so, you get instant feedback as to whether you were moving too fast or too slowly, allowing you to adjust your speed for the quickly approaching, subsequent interval. Do this workout twice, and you will know your goal pace intimately.

Up to goal speed
Of course, you’re then ready to graduate to the ‘big ones’ – the sessions which will raise you to a level at which you can handle goal speed for the whole race. The big workouts include – in ascending order of bigness – (1) 4 x 1600 at goal pace, with three-minute recoveries, (2) 3 x 2000 at goal speed, with 3-minute recoveries, and – the big daddy – (3) 3 x 3000 at goal, with four- to five-minute recoveries. If you haven’t run your PB by the time you get to the third workout, you will do so shortly thereafter.

Roughly in the middle of all this preparation, you can also carry out the following session, which will make you strong enough to run at goal speed with a piano on your back. Simply warm up with 10 minutes of light jogging, and then:
1. Run 800 metres at your goal 10-K pace
2. Do 10 squat thrusts with jumps (burpees)
3. Complete 5 chin-ups
4. Do 30 body-weight squats (fast)
5. Perform 20 push-ups
6. Complete 30 ab crunches
7. Run 800 metres at goal pace again
8. Do 10 squat and dumbbell presses
9. Complete 12 feet-elevated push-ups
10. Do 15 lunges with each leg
11. Perform 20 bench dips
12. Complete 25 low-back extensions
13. Run 800 metres at 10-K pace yet again
14. Repeat steps 2-13 one more time, but the second time you get to step 13 run 1600 metres at goal pace, not 800 metres, and then finish the workout with two miles of cool-down ambling.

Overall, the idea is to develop the ability to run at goal 10-K tempo when you’re tired, when you’re cranky, when you’ve just had a fight with your boss, when you’re rested, when it’s warm, when it’s cold, when your muscles are aching, and when it’s whatever; it becomes a pace that you know very, very well – one that you can ‘fall into’ with confidence and efficiency.

What about the somewhat slow start we promised you? On race day, that will just be a matter of backing off your well-practised pace a little for the first mile. If you’ve been aiming for (and practising) 6:24, about 6:30 tempo will work well for the first mile. Just ease back on the throttle a bit, and – even though you will be feeling great – relax and run modestly for that first mile, a little slower than your familiar goal speed (about five to eight seconds slower). You can then settle right in on your well-rehearsed goal speed and sustain it until there’s about a mile to go. You should feel strong and comfortable at this familiar rate, so much so that you will be absolutely ready to ‘go for broke’, accelerating rather dramatically over the last mile. If you follow the plan, you will have a comfortable, fatigue-resisting start, an evenly run race from about the one-mile mark to a little after the five-mile point, a tremendous surge to the finish line, a negative-split race, and – best of all – a nice new PB!

Owen Anderson

Share this

Follow us