Negative Splits Equal Positive Race Results – Usually!

The most commonly recommended method of race pacing is negative splits. Negative splits are when you run the second half of your race faster than the first. Running negative splits provides you with a number of advantages that usually result in superior race performances. The benefits of running negative splits have become so accepted that many coaches and athletes blindly follow that practice in every race no matter what the conditions and circumstances are. I am not saying that negative splits are not a good way to go. I agree that running negative splits is the best strategy in most races, but you really need to analyze each race on its own level and examine your strengths and weaknesses to determine if negative splits are the best way to set your pace.

The Benefits of Negative Splits

  • Negative splits benefit you as a runner in several ways:
  • Your joints become more lubricated. Your muscles increase in warmth and resiliency.
  • You will reach your lactate turn point later in the race allowing for more energy and speed in the last miles
  • Your faster pace at the end of the race will provide psychological advantages. You will feel more confident because you’re passing other runners and your pace will feel stronger.

Training for Negative Splits

If you are going to race using negative splits you should train the same way. There are a number of ways to include negative splits in your training runs:

  • Progressive training runs – start your run at a moderate pace. Throughout your run gradually speed up until you are finishing at faster than your race pace. If you are training for a 10K you may start a 6 mile training run with ½ mile at an easy pace. Then speed up slightly every ½ mile so that you are doing your last ½ mile at 15 to 20 seconds per mile faster than your planned race pace.
  • Compound Sets – Run compound sets in which you run each successive repeat faster than the prior with no rest. For example: run 1 mile at marathon pace, 800 meters at 5K pace and 400 meters at sprint pace with no rest between the repeats. You may do 2 or 3 of these sets with 5 minutes of recovery between each set.
  • Fast Finish Runs – You can add a fast finish to every training run. If you are doing a long run you could do the last 1 or 2 miles at faster than race pace. If you are doing tempo runs do the last 5 minutes at faster than race pace. You can even add sprint finishes to your interval training runs.

The Practice of Negative Splits

Running negative splits in a race can be tricky at times. If you set an improper pace at the beginning your results may not be what you anticipated. Here are some pacing tips:

  • Don’t start out too fast – At the beginning of the race you will feel strong and excited. That combination of physical strength and emotional excitement tends to make us run faster than we should at the beginning of a race. You need to have a very good feel for your pace. Learn what your race pace feels like and try to start out just slightly slower.
  • Don’t start out to slowly – You don’t want to start too fast, but starting too slowly can also affect your race. If you lose too much time in the first mile you will end up struggling to catch up. Again – know your pace! Start the race only very slightly slower than your planned race pace.
  • Progressively speed up in the middle miles – This is where your progressive training runs come in handy. You should try to hit your planned race pace at about the middle of your race. Progressively increase your pace so that you hit your planned pace at the race mid-point and keep accelerating slightly so that you are just slightly faster than race pace in the last quarter of your race.
  • Finish with a kick – The primary benefit of running negative splits is conserving enough energy to finish very strongly. Progressively accelerate through the last part of your race so that you are finishing at near sprint pace.

When Negative Splits May Not Work

Despite the many benefits of running negative splits, there are times when it may not be a good choice. Here are just a few.

  • Marathon Running – I know that most coaches recommend negative splits in a marathon and I do too,  but I believe that running negative splits in a marathon may be very difficult for an average runner. Marathon negative splits are usually reserved for highly competitive runners. A better choice for most of us would be even pacing. Negative splitting in a marathon usually does not happen for several reasons. The marathon is performed at a pace that is well within the “comfort zone” of most runners. The pace does not feel hard. It is very difficult to remain patient and keep your pace down for the first 13 to 15 miles of a race. In addition your pace usually slows in the last half of a marathon due to decreased muscle resiliency, hypoglycemia and neuromuscular fatigue. Studies have shown marathon performances are generally better when a runners pace does not vary by more than 2 to 3 percent during a marathon.
  • Competitive Racing – If you are a competitive runner that is trying to compete for top finishing positions you will need to adjust your pacing strategy according to what your opponents are doing. Negative splits will usually result in your best performance, but if your main competitors have made an early surge you cannot let them build a large gap. You may need to run faster than you would like early in the race to “stay in touch” with your opponents. If you stick to your planned pace you may lose so much ground it will be impossible to catch up.
  • Race Conditions – High heat or high wind conditions can wreak havoc with your pacing plans. If your race day is extremely hot you will have trouble performing negative splits. High heat forces your body to slow down – especially late in the race when you become more fatigued and your body becomes more over heated. In high heat conditions do not expect to be able to maintain a faster pace in the last half of the race. High wind conditions can also force you to abandon your negative split plans. If you are running into a strong head wind in the last half of your race you will be hard pressed to maintain negative splits.

Running negative splits will give you the best race results in most situations. But stay flexible – if conditions don’t support negative splitting use another pacing approach.