How to Choose the Right Race Strategy

Successful racing also requires flexibility. Always have a plan going into the race, but be willing to alter your plan if conditions require it.

At the 1984 Olympic Marathon Trials, my pre-race plan was to stay in the second pack and gradually pass people during the race. When the leaders slowed at halfway, however, I picked up the pace. When no one went with me, I had to decide whether to ease off and be absorbed back into the pack, or to forge ahead and try to build my lead.

I decided to keep pushing the pace and hope that I could hold on and make the Olympic team. As it turned out, I built a 30-second lead on the pack, which included Alberto Salazar, Greg Meyer and Bill Rodgers. At 25 miles, Salazar and John Tuttle passed me. By hanging on to them for dear life, I made the team and outsprinted Alberto at the finish to win the race. The change of racing plans proved to be a good decision.

Tactics for Different Distances

The racing tactics we've looked at apply to all distances; even pacing makes as much physiological sense in a 5K as it does in a half-marathon. Still, every distance has its own feel.

Here's some advice on tactics and mental approach for specific popular road races:


Whether you're racing 5K on the roads or on the track, the race is challenging, both physically and mentally. Physically, the 5K is tough because you're racing at just about your VO2 max, so you have very little margin for error in selecting your race pace.

If you start too slowly, you can't make up the time lost later in the race. Worse, and more typical, if you go out too fast, your muscles will accumulate lactate too quickly, you'll have to slow and your finishing time won't be all that suffers.

The secret to a great 5K, therefore, is selecting the fastest pace that you can maintain for the distance. Your VO2 max workouts will give you a good idea of how fast that pace will be.

More: What to Do Before Your 5K

Mentally, the 5K is tough because you must concentrate well for the entire race. In longer races, you can get away with letting your mind wander a bit during the middle miles. During a 5K, however, the effort you need to maintain is too intense to allow a lapse in concentration.

Fortunately, you can learn to maintain your focus by practicing this skill during training. Rehearse running fast yet relaxed, and become aware of how to find the fastest pace that you can hold without tightening up.

One way to help ensure that you achieve your best result in a 5K is to be thoroughly warmed up for the start of the race. Although important for all races, a good warm-up is particularly vital in the 5K, because you don't have the luxury of getting up to speed slowly--as soon as the gun fires, you need to be able to launch into your VO2 max pace.

A thorough warm-up should begin about 45 minutes before the start of the race, and should include 1.5 to 3 miles of easy running, stretching and several accelerations of 100 to 200 meters up to race pace.

At the end of a 5K, you can kick with reckless abandon; you get to stop soon, so it doesn't matter if you accumulate high levels of lactate.

To beat your rival in a 5K, the best strategy is to run an even pace and, if you're with him in the last half-mile, to run off of his shoulder until you're confident that you can make a sustained sprint to the finish. This will usually be with 100 to 200 meters to go. Avoid the temptation to start your sprint too early, or you may find your rival running off your shoulder with one more gear left.


These races require the aggressiveness of a 5K runner and the patience of a marathoner. As in the 5K, you can't afford to start off slowly in an 8K or 10K. At the same time, if you go out too hard, you may experience a long, painful last 3 miles.

The key to these races is to run good middle miles, when your mind has a tendency to drift. The first 2 miles of these races should be easy to run at your goal pace--you're still fresh and feeling good. Similarly, during the last mile, it's not difficult to rally your energy for a drive to the finish.

But it's in the middle miles where your time for the race is largely determined. Your mental approach should focus on these miles. Prepare yourself mentally to concentrate well during this part of the race. Learn your mile splits and work to adhere to them.

More: 4 Tips on Running Your Best 10K


These races require mental toughness. The pace is right at your lactate threshold, yet you must hold this pace for 9.3 to 13.1 miles.

While every race requires a balance of aggressiveness and patience, in races of 15K or longer, the scale is tipped toward discretion in the early stages. By starting the race fast, you may gain a few seconds per mile in the early stages of the race. Going out too hard is dangerous, however, in that it can lead to a slow last few miles and may ultimately add several minutes to your finishing time.

The key to these races is to run an even pace, particularly in the second half of the race. The less you slow down in the second half of the race, the better your time.

Mental toughness can be cultivated during training. Try to run your lactate threshold and VO2 max workouts evenly. Practice holding the pace as you fatigue. Similarly, during your long runs, don't slow in the final miles. Gradually increase the effort as your long runs progress so that you maintain an even pace. This preparation will be invaluable on race day against less-prepared opponents.


During the marathon, the most effective racing strategy is simple: Patience is a virtue. For every minute you gain through irrational exuberance in the first half of the race, several minutes are usually handed back during the second.

How can you minimize both your finishing time and your chances of blowing up? Realize that the most efficient way to use your body's energy supply is to run as close to an even pace as possible. By holding back during the early miles, you'll conserve your glycogen reserves for later in the race.

The most effective mental approach for the marathon is also simple. During the first half, run as relaxed as possible and prepare mentally for the second half. Regardless of whether you aspire to a 2:10 or a 4:10 marathon, it's wise to shepherd your resources for the second half of the race. That requires discipline during the early miles, when your legs feel fresh and the pace feels slow. But rest assured that you'll need your mental energy for the latter stages of the race, when your muscles are complaining and your legs are rebelling.

Even if your powers of concentration are exceptional, it's nearly impossible to run aggressively for 26.2 miles. By staying relaxed early in the race, you'll save more of your mental determination for the latter stages, and will maintain a more even pace.

More: 5 Ways to Run Past Your Mental Blocks

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About the Author

Peter Pfitzinger, M.S.

American Running Association, empowering adults to get America's youth moving. For more information or to join ARA, please visit
American Running Association, empowering adults to get America's youth moving. For more information or to join ARA, please visit

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