Road Racing Strategies Part 2 - Tactics

By Warren Finke

Many runners complete races and miss important standards such as Olympic Trial Qualification by only 1 or 2 seconds. Could they have run faster? Probably. How? By paying attention to small details throughout the race. These are the things that experienced road racers do automatically.


Having a reasonable pace goal and being able to judge and maintain pace are crucial for successful racing.

There are 3 ways to pace a race:

Positive Splits - Go out faster than the average pace and hold on.

Negative Splits - Go out slower than the average pace and speed up at the end.

Even Splits - Run an even pace, (or effort) throughout the race.

Positive splits in a race are painful and rarely result in best performances. Yet many runners who lack self control at the start of a race are seduced into this pacing. They believe they should go out fast because they will slow down at the finish - a self-fulfilling prophecy.

You should only use positive pacing as a racing tactic if you are stronger than all your competitors. Sometimes seeing you vanish after the start will defeat them mentally and help you get a lead you can hold to the end.

Negative splits are used by competitors who like to finish strong. One of the most notable negative split runners was Olympic marathoner Don Kardong who maintains he was motivated by passing people in the latter stages of the race.

Even splits have been the source of most peak performances in running. Even pacing usually means even effort since on hilly courses the pace might vary a great deal.

Being able to maintain an even effort means knowing what your capabilities are and having enough self confidence to maintain your own pace irregardless of what is going on around you, especially early in a race. Practice running your race pace so that you will be able to maintain it. If you consistently have difficulty judging your pace, try using a pulse rate monitor. You can calibrate your heart rate to your target race pace by running a time trial on a track and then use the heart rate monitor to maintain that effort during the race.

Cutting Corners

This is not cheating. The only race courses which are "guaranteed" to be accurate are those which are "certified". In this country, courses are certified by the USATF, (USA Track & Field), to meet international standards set by the IAAF, (International Amateur Athletic Federation). The IAAF and USATF require that courses be measured over the shortest route open to the runners. This means that the course is measured on a route that cuts all corners as closely as possible to the inside apex, usually within 6 inches of the road edge.

You are cheating yourself if you do not cut the corners as the course was measured. If you run down the center of the road, each right angle turn will cost you 1 or 2 seconds in your finish time and extends the distance you will have to run. To further ensure that courses are not short, the USATF recommends all courses be set up to be 0.1% long, about 50 yards or 8-16 seconds in a marathon.

To run the shortest route, keep as close as possible to the inside edge of the road on all turns, and as you come out of the turn, assume a straight line route to the inside of the next turn. Practice doing this in your training on roads or trails that are traffic free.


A significant reduction in wind resistance can be achieved by a technique known as drafting. As you move through the air, you create a pocket of air behind you that is traveling at the same speed you are. Anyone behind you who is in this pocket does not have to push any air out of the way since it is already moving at his speed.

In tests done on bicyclists, it has been shown that nearly 70% of the energy used at 10 miles/hour is due to wind resistance. Since running is much less efficient than bicycling, drafting affords less benefit for a runner. However, a significant reduction in effort on the order of 1-2 % can still be realized by drafting when you run, especially into a headwind, (wind resistance goes up with the square of the wind speed). This has been verified by some of our Team Oregon athletes racing into winds while wearing pulse rate monitors. You can reduce your pulse rate a couple of beats by running behind someone who is going your pace. This is a benefit of about 1 minute per hour of race duration.

The pocket of air where drafting is effective forms a wedge trailing off at 45 degrees from a runner's shoulder and is probably effective 1 or 2 yards behind him. This means you have to run close to someone, close enough to step on their heels or right on their shoulder and slightly behind them. If you can find 3 or 4 or more runners in a close pack, tuck in behind them for a really good draft.

Be warned that some runners do not like to be drafted especially into headwinds where you are getting an obvious advantage. In this situation, you might best offer to trade off the lead every mile or so with one or more runners so that everyone can benefit.


Besides drafting, research on marathoners has determined that running in groups (called clustering) consistently results in better performance than running alone. The benefits are due to group pacing (someone always feels like maintaining the pace), the group dynamics of sharing the goal and motivating each other and of course drafting. If you can run in a pack of runners who are running at your pace, do it. Runners who go out on their own must do all the work themselves.

Taking Aid

Some runners still refuse to stop at aid stations for fear of losing precious seconds. It is obvious that in a marathon, it is absolutely critical that you get enough fluids. However, research has shown that you can become dehydrated enough in as little as 45 minutes to significantly affect your performance. Therefore, even in shorter races aid can benefit you. You should always hydrate yourself well before the start of any race. Consume about 16 ounces of fluid within a half hour before the start.

In races longer than 45 minutes, start drinking fluids at the first aid station. Pick up 1 or more cups at each aid station, pour any extra water over your head and shoulders if you need more cooling. You need to drink at least 6-8 ounces of water for every 15 - 20 minutes of exercise. In hot or high altitude conditions, you will need more fluids. In longer events, you will benefit from the ingestion of fluids containing carbohydrates (CHO). Start ingesting the CHO replacement drinks early. The electrolytes in the fluid will allow the water and CHO to be absorbed better. We usually alternate water and replacement fluids at the aid stations if they are close together. You should 2 -4 cups of CHO fluid per hour.

You can get enough fluids at aid stations yet still not lose time if you practice drinking, and you drink and use the aid stations efficiently. Some people are good at running with cups of water in their hands, other spill most of it. If you are a spiller, learn how to chug the water down rapidly or walk through the aid station. Often aid stations are long enough to drink twice while you are passing through them.

Plan your races. Learn strategies and tactics from your race experiences. Run your own race and you will be a winner.

Warren has coached runners through Team Oregon and the Portland Marathon Clinic and the Leukemia Societies Team in Training.

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