With all of the racing happening this weekend, I thought I would spend a little time talking about a training (and racing) strategy that often yields positive results. Negative splitting is based on the idea that the last miles of a run or a race should be run faster than the first miles. A slower start and a faster finish to a race often leads to a better race time, whether we’re talking about a casual runner or the world’s fastest marathoner. In fact, when the current marathon world record of 2:02:57 was set in 2014, Kenya’s Dennis Kimetto, the world record holder, ran the second half of the race faster than the first half (61:45 then 61:12). Ethiopia’s Haile Gebrselassie did the same thing in 2007 when he set a marathon world record of 2:04:26 (62:05 then 61:54).

This strategy has also worked for track athletes. Kenenisa Bekele set the 10,000m world outdoor track record of 26:17:53 by running a faster second 5K than his first 5K (13:09:19 then 13:08:34). Galen Rupp also ran negative splits when he set the American 5K indoor record; his mile splits were 4:14, 4:12 and 4:04. In almost every type of race, negative splitting has proved to be the ideal racing strategy.

Running negative splits is easier said than done, which is why most runners don’t do it. According to data collected by Strava, only 13% of marathoners in recent years have actually run their races in negative splits. Of seven major marathons surveyed in 2015 (see chart below) less than 9% of the runners in each race had run negative splits. In sharp contrast, over 80% of the runners in each race had run positive splits.

There could be a number of reasons why runners don’t succeed at running negative splits. Sometimes this is indeed the plan before the race, but then excitement takes over, runners feel good and get carried away, and the plan goes right out the window. Early race excitement can be hard to control and it takes a level of discipline to remain focused, especially in the early miles, which can mean the difference between running a great race and completely blowing up. Sometimes, as two-time Olympic marathoner Reid Coolsaet puts it, “some athletes pick over-ambitious goals, as their fitness over shorter distances points to marathon performances they don’t actually have the endurance for.” This goes back to my earlier post about setting realistic running goals and being brutally honest with yourself. Sometimes runners believe they can “bank” time by running faster early on, then having a cushion to work with in the later miles, especially if things start to fall apart. This almost never works because you risk getting into an anaerobic state too quickly, depleting your glycogen stores and not being able to sustain the desired pace for the full length of the race. In short, hitting the proverbial wall!

It is much easier to run negative splits on race day when you put it into practice during your training days to ensure that you know the feeling of how to run this way. Here are a couple of training tips to help you along, courtesy of Jason Fitzgerald from Competitor.com:

Training tip #1: Negative split easy runs

Easy runs should be negative splits all the time, anyway. Start slow to help you transition to running and allow your body to warm up properly. After a few miles, you can settle into your “normal” pace.

If you’re a more advanced runner or are just feeling great, then you can run the last 1-2 miles of easy runs at a moderate effort. This will surely guarantee a negative split run, helping your body and mind remember what it’s like to finish a run faster than when you started.

Training tip #2: Negative split workouts

The absolute best way to practice negative splits is to run them during a structured workout. This strategy forces you to run harder when you’re fatigued—exactly what’s needed during a race to finish with negative splits. Just be sure not to turn the workout into a race and still run within your means.

Like anything else, running negative splits requires practice and a little patience, but the results speak for themselves when it comes to the potential to perform well and run your best times. Michelle Meyer, a 2012 U.S. Olympic trials marathon qualifier, sums it up best when she says, “It takes mental willpower to run a controlled, smart first half and mental toughness to pick up the pace in the latter half.” I couldn’t agree more!

Strava has also come up with an exciting challenge to help you run your fall marathon this way. They’ve designed a Back Half Challenge where you can qualify to win a free pair of shoes simply by running the second half of a qualified marathon faster than the first half. Are you up for the challenge??

Run Better. Run Smarter. Run for Life.

Coach Mwangi