Racing Tactics and Strategies


For the 10K and Half Marathon

By Roy Stevenson

You’re waiting behind the start line, your legs twitching nervously, just wanting to get going. Bang! The gun goes off.

Will you cross the finish line elated that you’ve run your best time and wrung everything out of yourself? Or will it be another race where you grimly hang on to the bitter end, lunging across the finish line, exhausted, wondering why your time was much slower than your best?

Most semi-serious and recreational runners experience the second scenario because they just line up, trot off when the gun goes, wait for the race to unfold, and then run their race without a plan. This is a recipe for mediocre performances, and often leads to disaster.

Let’s look at the three standard racing tactics and strategies used by semi-serious runners and middle of packers to find the best one.

1. Positive splits. Race out as fast as you can and hang on as long as you can. This tactic is not recommended. Read on to find out why this should be avoided.

2. Negative splits. Start slowly, gradually speed up then come through with a roar in the last mile or two.

3. Even-Paced Racing. Run at a steady, even pace the entire distance, so your two halves of the race are nearly identical. This has some great advantages and is how most runners get their best times. Perhaps a better way to explain it is “even effort”, meaning that your effort is distributed evenly along the course. Hence when you come to hills, you will still slow down, but your effort is maintained.

Research on Pacing Strategies

What does exercise science show about these strategies?

One study looked at blood lactates of well-conditioned runners during exhaustive treadmill runs over 1245 meters. Their blood lactate accumulation and oxygen requirements were significantly lower in the slow-to-fast trials. The even-paced runners were next, and the fast-to-slow lactate accumulation and oxygen consumption were highest.

Another study examined heart rate response to these pacing patterns during a one-mile run. It found the slow-fast pattern required less energy than the other race patterns.

Benefits of Steady Pace or Negative Split Races

A slow early pace conserves greater stores of glycogen, whereas fast early pace depletes glycogen supplies at a horrendous rate−a critical concern in any race over 5K. The rapid glycogen burn results in a large increase in lactic acid−translating into a much slower pace.

Jeff Galloway, in his book Galloway’s Book on Running, claims that for every second you run too fast in the first 3 miles, you’ll run as much as 10 seconds slower per mile at the end in a 10K. In an extended event like the half marathon, the slowdown will be more dramatic than this.

Thus, a moderate early (even) pace or negative split race minimizes the threat of glycogen depletion and reduces your chances of premature exhaustion−your energy is economically burnt during the entire race. To keep pace, laminate a pacing chart and hang it under your race numbers where you can refer to it easily.

Base Your Race Plan on Your Desired Race Pace

Numerous factors come into play when planning your race strategy. It’s all about setting the right pace to get you to the finish in your fastest time with little energy left. Your pace must be set according to your fitness, the topography of the course, and ambient weather conditions. An example or two best illustrates the interplay between these factors. If it’s a hilly 10K course, 80ºF, 80% humidity, with a 5 mile-per-hour headwind, and you’re not well conditioned, clearly you would need to set a conservative pace only a notch above your standard training pace for this distance. On the other hand, if you’ve just finished a three-month conditioning phase, the course is flat, with a near perfect temperature of 50ºF and low humidity; your pace should be near maximal. Regardless of the weather conditions, your early pace must be slower than your desired race pace, at least for the first mile.

Heat and Humidity

According to research, runners start to slow down past 55ºF, and start suffering at 65ºF. When humidity is thrown into this mix, the slow down is even more dramatic. Going out too fast in extreme heat and/or humidity can even cause heat injury.

Therefore in high heat and humidity, the prudent runner starts off at a pace he can maintain, perhaps as much as 30 seconds per mile slower than normal. Galloway recommends slowing your goal pace by 3–5% in 60ºF to 70ºF; 7–12% in 70 to 80ºF temperatures; and by 20% above 80ºF.

Are you guilty of flying off at a suicidal pace in the first mile or two of a 10K because you were so excited? The longer the distance the more energy conservation and muscle recovery come in to play. Spend it early and you’ll be miserable in the end.

With competition our adrenal glands dump large amounts of stress hormones like adrenaline into our bloodstream, causing us to start far too quickly. So hold yourself back and start very slowly up to 30 seconds slower than your desired race pace. Don’t worry about losing time this way you’ll make it up when it counts later in the race.

Most runners have found, by accident, that their best races have been when they hold back in the first half (sometimes to the extent of near tedium) and then pick it up in the second half.

Start with runners of your ability, not faster. If it’s a large race, avoid weaving in and out of the runners. Settle into your desired goal pace somewhere around the first mile. Keep things under control until you’re past the first 2 miles in the 10K and 5 miles in the half marathon. Take it easy in the beginning and you’ll enjoy the finish a lot more, and surprisingly, will probably be faster.

Approaching the middle of the race you should still be running within your capabilities. Now gradually start picking up your tempo. Do not pick your pace up in a short fast burst−it should be done over a half-mile or more. Speed up almost imperceptibly.

Altering your Strategy Midrace

Most of the time you should attempt to stay with your pacing plan, but occasionally the weather or how you are feeling will merit altering your pace. Do so without regret.


Evidence strongly supports the tactic of drafting behind other runners. Research shows the energy required to overcome air resistance increases exponentially with running velocity and headwind. One study found that running into a 10 mile-per-hour headwind adds 8% to energy costs. But by drafting behind another runner you reduce wind resistance by 90%, and decrease your energy expenditure by 7%, so it’s almost like you’re running without a headwind.

Shelter about one meter behind other runners going into a headwind. Conversely, when the wind is behind you, come out wide from the pack, set your sails, and pick up your pace.

Running with a group can help tremendously. Sharing the goal and motivating each other reduces your perceived effort. Just make sure the pack is running at your pace.

Cutting Corners

Accurate courses are measured over the shortest possible route open to the runners. So make sure you cut the corners−this is not cheating. Running down the center of the road adds 1–2 seconds to your finish time and extends the distance you run.

The Last Third of the Race

No matter how well you pace yourself, you’ll be feeling discomfort by this stage. Concentrate on relaxing and holding your form. Focus on maintaining your pace, breathing, temperature, and rhythm, and adjust pace up or down as you feel.

Toward the end, runners tend to slump forward, causing their stride to shorten, slowing their pace. A good core strengthening program eliminates this slump. In the second half of the race, focus on trying to catch the people in front of you.

The Final Sprint

The practice of sprinting the final few hundred meters should be used with caution, if at all. You’ve just thrashed yourself over 10 kilometers or 13.1 miles, and your body is screaming out to stop. Perhaps getting your heart rate up to maximum, accumulating excess lactate, and the other stressors that zap your tired body here might not be worth those few seconds you’ve shaved off your time.

Finish Line

These then, are basic strategies used in most 10K and half marathon races. Evaluate your personal racing tactics and try something new in your next race to improve your time and race experience.

Roy Stevenson has a master’s degree in exercise physiology and coaching from Ohio University. He teaches exercise science at Seattle University in Washington and has coached hundreds of serious and recreational runners and triathletes in the Seattle area.

Roy Stevenson: As a freelance writer, Roy has over 200 articles on running, triathlons, sports, fitness and health published in over fifty regional, national and international magazines around the world. To view more of Roy Stevenson’s running articles go to


About Author

Jenny Willden is the Managing Editor of Outdoor Sports Guide and a self-proclaimed gear and grammar nut. She's a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the Adventure Travel Trade Association. A lover of adventure and travel, she's happiest when riding horses or snowboarding in Utah’s mountains. Follow Jenny’s exploits on Twitter @jennywillden or Instagram @jlwillden.

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