Surging for Race Success

By Rick Morris

There are a lot of ways to run a race. You could be a front runner, run positive splits, race using negative splits or nearly any combination. But, for most runners, the most efficient way to run a race is by even pacing. With even, steady pacing, your body gets into an efficient rhythm. It burns an effective combination of carbohydrates and fats that minimize the production of lactate and potassium that can slow you down. However, some times it is necessary to surge for race success.

There is really no question that maintaining a fairly even pace will result in your best race performance, but there are times during a race when you just can’t do that. In every race you will find yourself either having to answer a competitors surge or needing a surge of your own to pull away. Some races become tactical battles. In a race like that your ability to surge or “shift gears” can spell the difference between winning and losing.

Surging can be a potent weapon that has the ability to break your opponents will. It can also be somewhat of a double edged sword. Surging provides huge competitive benefits but it also comes at a high metabolic cost. Those high power surges eat up a lot of energy. They burn carbohydrates at a much higher rate, resulting in large amounts of lactate being produced and more potassium build up. Your body loses the homeostasis that it so desperately tries to maintain and your central nervous system tries to slow you down in response.

Training to Improve Your Surging Power

Developing your ability to surge and recover is critical to your race success.  There are many specific types of workouts to can do to train for surging. One very simple and common workout is 400 meter repeats at nearly full pace. Recover between each repeat with 200 meters at an easy pace. While this is not a race specific workout, it does develop your ability run repeated fast surges and recover.

A good race specific workout would be to run long repeats of between 1 and 2 miles. Within each repeat insert one or two 400 meter surges at nearly full pace before slowing back to race pace to recover. These are very difficult workouts, but they do a great job of training your body to recovery at race pace.

To develop a good finishing kick, practice running at sprint pace at the end of every workout. I teach my athletes to run the last 300 meters of every workout at sprint pace. This develops a devastating surge at the end of your race.

Running fast pace hill repeats is another good way to improve your surging power, especially your ability to surge uphill, which can be devastating to your competitors.

Deciding When to Surge for Race Success

The last thing you want to do in a race is surge for no reason. The demands placed on your body by a surge are too great to waste it. So, knowing when to surge is an important part of racing. Some of the best times to surge are when your opponent is weak or vulnerable, on an uphill portion of the course and near the end of your race. Watch your fellow competitor. If they are weak from a completed surge or appear to be struggling, that is a good time to throw in a surge and break their will. A mid race surge should always be a strong move.

Run strongly and do not allow yourself to look like you are struggling. Stay loose, fluid and relaxed. Don’t grimace or tense up your face muscles. Your opponents are watching. If they think you are struggling they will answer your challenge. Your goal is to demoralize your opponent. You must look strong and confident. Don’t make a short surge or slow down just after passing your opponent. Keep up your surge until you have pulled a significant distance in front of your opponents and then slow gradually, not abruptly.

Going uphill is a good time to pull away from and send a message to your opponents. To successfully run hill surges you must train diligently on hills and have full confidence in your ability to surge up a hill and recover at race pace on the flats or downhill’s. Don’t stop your surge at the top of the hill. Continue to surge over the top and then slow back to your race pace gradually.

You should always surge at the end of your race. The point at which to begin your finishing surge depends upon the length of your race. Your actual all out sprint “kick” should begin with about 200 to 300 meters to go. You will not be able to maintain a sprint pace for much longer than that. But you can begin to surge sooner in some races. In a 5K race I like to see a surge start with about 800 meter to the finish. A good 10K surge may start with1200 meters to 1 mile left. A marathon surge may begin with as much as 2 miles to go.

Answering the Challenge

You probably won’t be the only runner in your race that uses surging tactics. When another runner begins a surge you will need to decide how to answer that challenge. Your first decision is whether to answer at all. If the surge happens early in the race you may want to consider letting them go. They will probably come back to the pack. If it looks like they will continue their surge you can begin a gradual increase in your pace to try to reel them in. If the surge is late in the race you have little choice other than going with them.

When you see a leader surge you need to make your decision and react right away. Some coaches recommend reacting to the pack rather than the leaders. In my opinion reacting to the pack wastes valuable time. It’s a lot like what happens to a line of cars at a red light. When the light turns green the lead car accelerates, the following cars don’t accelerate until the car in front of them goes.

This causes a progressive delay effect. The cars further back in the line fall further behind the lead car. Reacting to the pack instead of the leaders has the same effect. If you wait for the pack to react you will have lost valuable distance between you and the surging leader. So, when the leaders surge you need to react to them, right away.