The Fastest Runners Aren’t Always the Fastest Racers

There are countless things we can do to get ourselves in shape to run as fast as possible when race day rolls around. We often follow strict training plans in hopes of optimizing our fitness, adhere to strict diets, and make sure to get as much quality rest as possible in the days and weeks leading up to a big race. Other tactics may include cross training, weight lifting, stretching, icing, yoga, supplementation, meditation–this list could go on to include dozens, if not hundreds of additional things.

Certainly all of these things are very important, and without the proper preparation you are never going to run anywhere near your full potential. Oftentimes though, I think we put so much focus on these things we do ahead of race day that we end up overlooking just how much a particular race outcome is determined by things which happen on that day. This can, and typically does, include things like nutrition, illness, injury, or simply having an inexplicably good or bad day. If you race several races, you will eventually have one that seems to go either really well or really poorly… for reasons beyond your control. Sometimes, you can be in ‘the best shape of your life’ and simply have a bad day. Other times, you are certain your preparation has been less than ideal and you go out and run a nearly perfect race. There’s really only so much we can do to avoid these kinds of variables, but what I’m interested in looking at more closely in this article is the type of things that we can control on race day that end up often having as much effect on our eventual race performance as does our training leading up to the race. Specifically, our race strategies and tactics as well as our execution of them.

I think these things have a much larger impact on the outcome of a race than is often realized. If you pay close attention to long distance running races (and the longer the race, the more pronounced it becomes) you will see examples in nearly every race of runners who had much better race-day strategy and execution than other runners who may have been more prepared ahead of time. In other words, it’s not the fittest, fastest, most prepared runner who always wins, but, instead, the runner who does everything just right to run the fastest on that particular course on that particular day.

I think the first thing to consider when thinking about race tactics and strategy is the reality that, as runners, we each have a different set of strengths and weaknesses, and it’s very important to learn how to use our strengths to our advantage on race day. The first step in being able to do this is to actually be aware of what our running strengths and weaknesses are. This might sound like a really simple thing, but for me it took at least half a dozen races to really start to understand what my strengths or weaknesses were. Before you race very much, you simply have a sense of what it feels like to run different types of trails, different distances, and in different weather, but until you line up and race several times against hundreds of other runners, it’s really hard to have a sense of what is ‘normal’ in terms of one’s relative ability with regard to these variables. Eventually, you start to see patterns develop. At first it might not seem like much, but then you start to notice that there are certain things that seem to happen nearly every race (i.e., you always gain on other runners on uphills, your stomach always gets upset when it gets hot, you always lose ground on other runners on smooth trail, etceteras). As new racers, I think these trends are one of the most important things we can learn from the first several races we run.

The next step then becomes figuring out what to do with this knowledge. It doesn’t really matter what our strengths and weaknesses are if we don’t learn how to use this information to our advantage. There isn’t enough space in this article to go through all of the strategies and nuances of racing to our strengths, but certainly there are a few basic ideas that make it a little easier to run to our strengths on race day.

In long-distance running, it almost always pays to be patient and aim to run as fast as possible in the second half of the race, after running as efficiently and relaxed as possible in the first half. In the vast majority of long-distance trail races the runner who runs the second half of the race the fastest ends up winning the race. In this sense, it only makes sense that you should use your strengths very differently 20% into a race than you should 80% into a race.

Let’s say you are always really good at running highly technical stretches of trail, and you are running a 100-mile race that has a very technical stretch of trail from mile 20 to mile 30. It might be tempting to run this stretch as fast as possible and open up a decent time gap on the rest of the runners you are racing, but being so early in a 100-mile race it would typically be more beneficial to use your technical running strengths to be able to be more relaxed than your competition in this stretch, thus allowing you to be able to stress your body a lot less, hydrate and eat better/more, and relax your mind a lot more than your competition. Maybe you end up running this 10-mile stretch in the same time as the other runners around you, but often, if it’s a stretch of trail that suits your strengths you can do it using significantly less energy. In the later parts of the race this conservation of energy will be more beneficial to you than it might have been to run that stretch 15 or 20 minutes faster.

Now, let’s say that you encounter a similarly technical stretch of trail from mile 80 to mile 90. This would be your time to attack. You might be able to use your technical running ability to run this 10-mile stretch 15 or 20 minutes faster than your competition with the same level of physical exertion. This late in the race it would make all the sense in the world to do this. In almost all cases, this kind of time will not be made up after mile 90. In the end, you might finish ahead of runners who are every bit as fit and capable as you, but who weren’t as savvy as you in terms of using their strengths in the most effective way.

On the flip side of this, you have the issue of how best to minimize the negative effects of your weaknesses as a runner. I’ll use the example of someone who is a poor uphill runner. Again, the first step is learning to recognize that this is, in fact, the case. Once you have figured this out, you want to come up with a plan on race day that helps you get through the uphill stretches while losing as little time and using up as little energy as possible. One method that helps with this is to become very familiar ahead of time with where these stretches will occur within the race. In this way, you can prepare yourself in the miles leading up to these stretches that you tend to struggle with. Be sure to eat a sufficient amount and be well hydrated and cooled off before coming to a long uphill stretch that might be a struggle for you. If you’re a weak uphill runner, the last thing you want to do is enter a long uphill without enough food and/or water in your system. Another tactic that can help minimize the effect of your weaknesses is to be very accepting of them and, therefore, not get too stressed about them. If you are always slow going uphill, then you shouldn’t waste energy getting stressed about the fact that you are once again losing time on an uphill, because this is something you more or less knew ahead of time was going to happen. Simply lower your head, keep moving forward, try to find a rhythm, and relish in the fact that the uphill is not going to go on forever.

Another aspect of race-day strategy and execution that almost always has a role in the outcome of a race is how well we adapt to what others are doing around us. There is a very common belief in running that we simply need to run our own race and not focus too much on what others are doing. There is a lot of wisdom in this belief, and from a psychological standpoint I think this is very wise advice (advice that I have given to many people over the years), but from a tactical standpoint we end up in situations in most races in which we can benefit a lot from paying attention to what others are doing. In a sense we are trying to figure out what other runner’s strengths and weaknesses are on that given day, and then we try to use this information to improve our chances of being the fastest runner on that particular day. In this case, you would look for ways not only to exploit their weaknesses, but also for ways to disrupt their chances of using their strengths to their advantage.

Let’s imagine you are racing someone who is clearly a very strong downhill runner. Early in a race you might, then, want to attack the early parts of long downhills, and then ease up considerably a few minutes into the descent so as to not over stress yourself. This might get your opponent into a pattern of running much faster on downhills than they probably should that early in a race, the hope being that when you ease up a few minutes into the downhill they keep hammering to the bottom. In this way you are not allowing them to use their downhill running ability to be more relaxed and more efficient than you are. Sure, they may end up running that downhill several minutes faster than you, but if you play it just right you might actually end up using up a lot less energy than them. Later in a race you might consider playing it the other way around. If you are in a tight race and approaching a prominent downhill with someone who is clearly a stronger downhill runner than you, you certainly don’t want to antagonize them or encourage them to attack the descent. In this case you might want to ease off as you are approaching the downhill, hopefully lulling them into thinking they have you already broken. No matter how strong of a downhill runner anyone is, it hurts to run really fast downhill 80 miles into a race. If you give your competition any reason to believe that they might simply be able to coast at that point, they likely will take the bait.

Anyhow, as I said already, there are way too many nuances here to touch on in this one article, but, hopefully, a couple of these points will lead to some further thoughts about just how much our race outcomes can be influenced by the series of choices we make on race day.

You’ll never be the racer you want to be without the proper preparation ahead of time, but you will also never be the racer you want to be if you make the assumption that you can take care of everything ahead of time and simply go out and run as fast as you can on race day. The reality is that running as fast as we can for long distances requires numerous different stretches in which we choose to run much slower than we might otherwise be able to in that given moment. Over time, if we can learn the exact right moments to relax and the exact moments to attack, we can gradually figure out ways to become much better racers than our fitness and preparation might otherwise indicate we ‘should’ be.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you know what your strengths and weaknesses are?
  • Have you strategically employed your strengths during a race?
  • Can you think of some other race-day strategies that Geoff didn’t mention that could make a race day go a little faster?

There are 13 comments

  1. Tyler_W

    I didn't want to be the first commenter, but this is a great article, Geoff. While I don't have nearly the experience of Geoff and the other "elites", I have found that understanding that the "race" doesn't start until about 3/4ths of the way through is so important, but so difficult to do in practice. Often early in races I have found myself clicking off miles with a group and having good conversation, but then felt it was going a little too fast for so early. Letting the group go and dropping back into solitude is so hard, but in both of my 100 milers it has paid off. Walking early (when needed to keep exertion level down) allows you to run late. Not to mention passing people late in the race is such an emotional boost as opposed to being passed.

    1. EvanKimber

      Tyler did you run TMR last year by chance? I think you were the dude that blew by me at the very end of the race, demonstrating those "reserves" you're speaking about on here! And looks like you went sub 24 at Wasatch too? All good stuff and advice (unless I'm talking to the wrong Tyler :))

  2. Justin_M

    Thanks for the great advice Geoff! I haven't done that many ultras, but I am looking forward to attempting the same one for the third time later this year. I have learned a lot each time, and I hope to be smarter and stronger this time around. More training will be key, but taking the foot off the gas in the first half will be more important…last time I got caught caught up in barreling down a hill early (following a better downhill runner). The few minutes I gained were not worth what I lost later on. Thanks again.

  3. senelly

    So right. one more thing: We all know that distance running is a smartypants sport (e.g., typically high school and college XC runners are braniacs), but… there's also the mental toughness factor, which sometimes shows up in the form of high levels of mental density … as in the practiced ability to ignore stuff… like pain, getting lost, lousy weather, stupid gear choices, etc. It should probably be called, intentional stupidity, as in "what was I thinking?"… which takes extraordinary mental control and great cranial density… Without it, at least in our optimistic memories, we're just fast trainers …

  4. crowther

    Geoff, I always enjoy reading your thoughts, but articles like this one would benefit from real-life examples from your races (and/or those of friends). No need to keep things so hypothetical/theoretical — don't be so modest — tell us a war story or two of how you used YOUR strengths to win a race!

  5. Forestjeep

    HaHaHa ! Put the banjo player in the barn and lets start dancing some floor-boards! No wait lets put the kitten in the hammock and take a wee nap! Competing is great :) True stuff Geoff, thumbs up!

  6. JohnBurton

    Great article Geoff! I really enjoyed it! And I agree that pre-race preparation is not necessarily everything and that race-day tactics also often come into play as well.

    However, I would point out that sometimes nothing you do matters if you are simply outgunned by a stronger runner. Case in point, I was hoping to win a small local 50K race. That is, until I saw that my buddy Marc was a late last-minute entrant. He is a much stronger runner than me and I have never beaten him in a race. However, he has also had his share of bad races where he goes out a bit too hard and then struggles.

    I thought that if I went out as hard as possible (at 10K race pace) I might lure him into over-exerting himself and bonking. While I knew I would also bonk, I figured that if we both fell apart and slowed down enough I might have a chance of out hiking him — since I clearly can't outrun him. So I took off like a nutjob and opened up an early lead… for about the first 200 meters until he came flying past me. He gradually pulled away and I never saw him again :)

  7. Johnny

    Ha. I like how it's Karl Meltzer's picture represented on this article. He might not have the fastest 5k time out of all the elites, but he sure does win a lot of ultras.

  8. EvanKimber

    Great commentary as always Geoff. Boy have I struggled with patience in the early on of races, I came into the sport of running with massive front running tendencies. Sometimes it really is hard to know what pace to fall back into with the beginning and middle, so much of it is "feel" unlike other calculated distances such as the road marathon or shorter distances.

  9. @garyaronhalt

    The best example that I can think of for this scenario is when Hal Koerner absolutely schooled Dakota Jones and Joe Grant at Hardrock 2012. I believe Dakota said something like, "I gotta tell you Bryon… I did not see that coming." in the post race interview. If anyone's not familiar with how that particular race played out, it's worth revisiting.

    Another example is the Ol' Speedgoat besting the kiddos at the Run Rabbit Run in 2012. Also worth re-visiting.

  10. totops1

    Very good article. I really enjoyed your insight on how race strategy can play out.
    I really agree, I always try to do my own race but still be on the lookout on what is unfolding.
    Patience is the key!

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