8 Ways to Improve Your Race Pace

Whether you’re a long time runner, or someone just getting started your race pace likely matters to you. While crossing the finish line or making an attempt is just as important, once you’ve been at it awhile, or once you’re sure you can meet those basic goals, the time that you’ll finish in probably ranks up there fairly high on your list of priorities when a race is approaching.

I get it. Every time I run a race there’s a little part of me that wants to do better than last time. While I understand that this has limits, and that a peak is a peak, I believe that for all of us, finishing faster is a priority at one time or another.

I want to take the time to tell you that, with a little training and forward focus, this is possible. In the past 1.5 years, I’ve shaved 30 minutes off of my half marathon finish time and have cut my 5k finish time almost in half. You can too – take a look at the 8 tips below that matter before and during your race, and consider mixing up your routine. You could be surprised at the results!


Before Race Day

1. Find What Works for You

I’ve read a lot on this topic, and have practiced it myself. For some people, running spurts are the most effective way to get from point A to point B – that is, running for a pre-allotted amount of time or distance before backing off a bit for a specific amount of time, then repeating until you cross the finish. For me, that is not effective…if I slow down to much, I have a hard time picking my pace back up. My method is to go out fast (not too fast), maintain as long as I can and then to back off slowly while maintaining a run, using hills to my advantage – which varies overall pace a bit (check out the splits below from my last race to see what I mean). But, I only know this because I’ve practiced it and have tried different methods. This is not something to figure out on race day; if you’re looking to set a PR, you’ve got to have your method down in advance. Play around and find out what you’re comfortable with. When you find your groove, you’ll know.


2. Practice Speed

You can’t run fast during a race unless speed work is a part of your training regimen. How fast, how far and how frequent depends upon your race distance and the pace you’re trying to achieve. In most cases, speed work should happen once a week during your race training. Check out one of my go-to treadmill speed workouts here, or check out Runner’s World’s “5 Key Speed Workouts.” By practicing your speed, you’re allowing your body to become familiar with going faster, making a better finish time more than possible.

3. Train Slow

This probably sounds counter-intuitive – number two is about practicing speed while number three is saying to train slow. But, it works. Here’s why: by limiting speed workouts, you’re allowing your body to go hard, but giving it time to recover. While doing this, training slow allows you to build up miles, to become familiar with how far you’ll be running or further, depending on your training plan, while allowing for recovery and increasing strength. By incorporating speed workouts into your routine, you’ll be prepared for the pace, make sure you incorporate long, slow training runs to prepare for the distance by increasing endurance.

4. Know Your Fuel

I’ve seen it happen way too many times. Runners train using one fuel – a specific drink, a snack, something else altogether, then rely on what’s available during the race at the refreshment stands. The effect? Nothing good. Side stitches, stomach issues or even worse. In fact, not trying out the fuel in advance can stop a race in its tracks. There are a few options to overcome this. The first is to use what works for you. For me, it’s Cocogo coconut water. For my husband its GU Gels. It all depends on your digestive system and what works. If you have something that works, why change it? Have someone along the course with what you need and use it. The second option is to find out what will be available on race day – most races lay out their hydration stations and a list of what will be available at each one. Train using whatever that may be and see how your body responds. Remember – either option could be a possibility, but you’ve got to prepare in advance. Your finish time could depend on it!

(Side note: along with fuel, you should know exactly what you’ll be wearing on race day and practice in it, a gear slip up can be just as terrible as a fueling error).


5. Listen to Your Body – Not Your Headphones

You’ve probably heard that music is the best way to get through a workout. I would agree. However, I would argue that it’s not an effective way for finishing with a PR. I read a great article awhile back on Runner’s World about listening to your body instead of music; the writer took down his pace significantly. I was intrigued; I usually depended on headphones when it came to race day. But, this go round, I decided to give it a try. I was amazed. Instead of focusing on music and drowning out my body’s signals, I was able to listen to what felt right and to go with it. I didn’t experience fatigue at the halfway point, in fact, I felt strong from start to finish. I could hear my own footsteps which pushed my on and I could pay attention to the crowd that provided a ridiculous level of support. Instead of drowning myself out, I used my own signals to push me faster than I’d gone before. Give it a try – listen to your body, not the music. This is also true of GPS tools – watching a clock is a surefire way to burn out, instead, trust your training and go from there.

6. Draw Them In

A race is a big deal. With the excitement and nerves at the starting line, coupled with the idea of how far you have to run, distractions are plentiful and can become problematic. The best strategy for cutting them out? Focus on the feet in front of you. After the initial craze of the starting line, fall into your pace, and look for runners around the same pace as yourself. From there, start to draw them in. Start with the person right in front of you, try to match their stride and pass when possible. Do it again. By taking this approach (slowly), you’ll be building your own pace without focusing on anything that will slow you down. When you get passed yourself, don’t stress; that’s what a race is all about. Just focus on what’s ahead and get there.

7. Set Small Goals

This is especially important during longer races. When running a half marathon, reaching mile 6 and starting to feel tired while realizing you still have 7 to go – that can be almost unbearable. But, it can be just as bad for a shorter race, especially for a new runner. The solution? Stop counting. Stop doing the math. Stop focusing on how far you have to go or how far you’ve come. Instead, set a small goal. Make it to the next mile marker, or the next telephone pole if a mile is too far! Set a small distance goal and conquer it, celebrate for a second when you reach it then do it all over again. A race is generally more mentally challenging than physically challenging, especially if you’ve done the work in advance. Set small goals and conquer every single one of them.

8. Think Big

Once again, this one may sound like it works against the tip before it. But, it doesn’t. Just because you’re setting small goals doesn’t mean you can’t think big on race day. Toward the end of the race, when you’re tired and you’re ready to settle for just finishing…step back. Think about the finish. Think about the pace goal you’ve set and remind yourself that you’re totally capable of it. Remember that you’ve put in some serious training and that you set your goal for a reason. Think about the pride you’ll feel when you hit it. I think about how I’ll feel at the end of the race when I need to dig deep. Will I regret not leaving it all on the course? How will I feel if I know that I could have pushed a little harder? If the answer is “full of regret” I push on. If I feel as though I’m doing all I can and that when I look back I’ll know that I’ve done my best, then I stay at the level I’m at. Once again, the power of thought can do a lot as far as hitting a goal finish time. Use it to your advantage.

Setting and achieving a pace goal or a personal record during a race can be a mountain top experience, but, it doesn’t happen on it’s own. It takes serious preparation and mental toughness to come out on top. That’s what makes running so fantastic; in most cases, your only competition is yourself – it’s one of the only sports where this is true. If you’re ready to take your training to the next level and to achieve your goal during your next race, take the tips above to heart and get started today. You’ve got this!


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