Staying poised and within yourself are key so you don’t find yourself fading in the late stages of a race.
One of the most surprising moments of the 2022 New York City Marathon came early on despite unseasonably warm temperatures. In the first 5K of the
men’s race. Daniel Do Nascimento surged ahead at a blazing pace. The 2:04 marathoner passed the first major marker in 14:31, already 29 seconds ahead of the chase pack. By 10K (28:42), he was on pace to finish in 2:01:01, eight seconds faster than Eliud Kipchoge’s world record.
The Brazilian kept pushing his lead until the wheels started to come off just after mile 18. Do Nascimento, feeling “strong and confident” in the first half of the race—which he covered in 1:01:22—told Runner’s World he started to experience stomach problems when he arrived in the Big Apple. Stomach problems combined with excessive heat on race day forced him to use a portable toilet a few miles beyond halfway. After he emerged back on the course, dehydration took over, he said. About 10 minutes later, Do Nascimento grabbed his left quad and collapsed in the 21st mile, where race personnel attended to him.
Just over a week after the race, Do Nascimento said he’s 100 percent recovered and already resumed training after being treated for dehydration in New York. Now, he’s looking at the race as a learning experience. When asked if he had any takeaways, Do Nascimento said, “Worry more about all pre-race food, and respect more adverse weather conditions in addition to using a more conservative attack strategy to lead the race.”
While most of us won’t be leading a World Marathon Major anytime soon, chances are you’ve also made the same mistake of going out too fast and paying the price later on. Maybe the hype of the crowd gets you moving or pre-race butterflies push you to pass runners sooner than expected. Whatever the cause, it’s very easy to get caught up in a pace that’s too quick. But it makes for a much harder effort down the line.
To learn how to hone a smarter race strategy in the early miles, Runner’s World spoke to two coaches who guide athletes in events ranging from collegiate cross-country races all the way up to the marathon. Here’s the advice they share with their athletes.
Raul Arcos, an elite marathoner and coach who founded the Los Angeles-based group the Running Lobos, encourages his athletes to think of the first three miles of a marathon as an “icebreaker,” meaning use the early section of the race to gauge the competition. “Know who is going at what pace, and if you need to stick with the pacesetters, stick with them because they know what they’re doing,” Arcos told Runner’s World.
If done correctly, Arcos says his marathoners should feel at ease and almost surprised when they look at their watch and see they’re running race pace in the first three miles. “Once you get into that rhythm after three miles, you should be locked into the race, follow the game plan, and try to pick it up in the second half because the race doesn’t start until mile 20,” he said.
Andrea Grove-McDonough, the director of cross-country and track and field at the University of Toledo, likes to remind her athletes they can’t win the race in the first 1,000 meters, but they can lose it.
At the Division I level, women race 6K and men race 10K in cross country, distances in which every kilometer counts, especially at the top level where the competition is fierce. Oftentimes, if athletes push too hard early on, they run out of gas and fall back in the last kilometer or so. Grove-McDonough wants them to avoid that.
“Whoever is winning at the K is often irrelevant,” she said, emphasizing that successful runners typically conserve energy and emerge later in the race.
Unless a runner is clearly the class of the field, Grove-McDonough advises them to stay disciplined and have confidence in order to avoid the mistake and meet their individual goals. “I’ve always found the more confident I was as an athlete and the more confident my team is in themselves as a squad and individually is when they know they can stick to their game plan,” she said.
Most athletes feel some level of nervousness as a race approaches. Afterall, you’ve put in hours of hard work to compete at your best on race day. But it’s important to not let your nerves get the best of you. Arcos encourages his athletes to reframe them. “It’s good to be nervous, use that because it means you care,” he said, explaining that once the race starts, runners should refocus on controlling their emotions.
To do that, Arcos recommends practicing visualization for races, workouts, and training runs. Picture how you want the race to play out, what pace you hope to run, when to surge, and how it should feel throughout the effort, and put that visualization into action.
Big races, especially major marathons, often take place in front of thousands of people. The cheers of the crowd can lift you up and encourage you to pick up the pace, but amid the rush it’s important to run controlled through those early miles.
Despite receiving this warning ahead of time, Arcos still got sucked into the hype of the crowd in his marathon debut, he said. At the 2016 Chicago Marathon, he went out too quickly and got a hamstring cramp with just a few miles to go. After receiving a 25-minute massage in the medical tent, Arcos jumped back on the course and finished the race much slower than his goal time, but he learned a valuable lesson that day.
A big part of the fun of racing is beating competitors to the line. But oftentimes, it’s a balance between pushing yourself against the competition and trusting your race plan. To help her athletes follow their plan, Grove-McDonough encourages them to stay disciplined. “If someone you know is out in front of you that you don’t necessarily think should be, or is at a pace that’s too fast, there’s two scenarios, either they are going to beat you and there’s nothing you can do, or they will come back to you,” she said. “Think of it as it’s their mistake to make.”
To illustrate this scenario, Grove-McDonough refers back to the shocking women’s race at the 2009 NCAA Cross-Country Championships, where Jenny Simpson (then Barringer) of Colorado and Susan Kuijken of Florida State battled way up front at a blazing pace (5:02 for the first mile) through halfway. After remaining undefeated all season, Simpson crashed at 3K, finishing 163rd overall. Kuijken also fell back and placed third. By sticking to her race plan, Angela Bizzari of Illinois ran patiently behind them early on and moved up as the race progressed to become the surprise champion that day.
To help athletes stay disciplined and hone their confidence, Grove-McDonough tells them to have an understanding of their body’s signals as the race progresses, trust their race plan, and know that sometimes “nerves can lie to you,” meaning your legs may feel more tired than they actually are due to adrenaline or vice versa at the start of a race. “It should feel like you’re slightly holding back because your adrenaline and nerves are so high, but it’ll make things feel easier than they are,” she said. “It’s almost a false flag. It’s supposed to feel easy in the first mile….and then you’re going to have to trust.”
If your nerves get the best of you and you find yourself winded too early, it’s important to remain calm. When her athletes make that mistake, Grove-McDonough tells them to embrace the pain, especially when cross country often becomes a race of attrition. “A tiny bit of humor can also help, like this might get ugly, but now I’m just going to have to put my head down,” she said.
To help them stay tough through the remainder of the race, Grove-McDonough encourages her athletes to mentally break it down into manageable chunks. “You can do anything for three minutes,” she said.
Reframing the effort can also help runners stay engaged in the race. Grove-McDonough tells her athletes to “give themselves a job.” For example, passing the runner ahead of them, staying with a pack, or closing the distance between themselves and another runner are common instructions she gives her athletes to tackle the competition.
Taylor Dutch is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas, and a former NCAA track athlete who specializes in fitness, wellness, and endurance sports coverage. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, SELF, Bicycling, Outside, and Podium Runner.
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