How to Develop a Bullet Proof Race Strategy for Top Distance Runners

Race Strategies for your Long Distance Runner

This class of runner is near and dear to my heart, as this is how I would classify myself, at least at the high school age, before I developed enough coordination and strength to have some speed.

The race strategy here can vary greatly, as each type of runner in the category is so different, with unique strengths and weaknesses.

The first thing that must be done before developing a race strategy for your long distance athletes is to identify how these runners behave in workouts. What they respond to best, where they seem to have the most natural ability.

These runners can range from the grueling grinders, who take the lead early and just push the pace trying to exhaust the field, to the sit back and wait, and make a tremendous surge at some point that puts them in the lead and allows them to control the final few laps, knocking the sprint out of the kickers.

Both of the above methods depend greatly on competition.

The biggest mistakes that are made by these athletes are:

  • Being used by the leaders – Have your runners only take the lead when they know they can maintain and grind out the remaining runners in the lead pack. Don’t fall into the trap of being the windbreaker for the leaders, and they’re sitting back doing far less work, drafting off them.
  • Surging not aggressively enough  – when they make their decision to go, go hard and go fast. A big surge, that propels your athlete into the lead, and gives them an immediate gap on the pack will catch the competition off guard, but if they time this just right when everyone else is starting to feel the discomfort settling in, it can be confidence crushing.
  • Getting stuck inside – this has happened to me on a number of occasions, I settle into a position and all of a sudden I realize I’ve been boxed in, and the only option for me to maintain connection with the lead pack is to slow down and shoot out the back of the pack, and then surge up the outside trying to reconnect with the lead group. This is not ideal, as this uses a lot of energy, and it breaks the running rhythm. Your runners should always be aware of their position in the pack and of the position of those around them. Avoid ever losing the ability to act fast if need be.
  • Becoming complacent – Similar to getting boxed in, complacency can ruin any race outcome. This is more prevalent in the longer races like the 2 mile or a 5k during cross country. Settling in, and just losing focus will result in a complacent mind that allows things to happen around it, without reacting. We’ve all heard the saying, “the race got away from them”.  That is complacency, letting things happen without reaction, losing focus and motivation, even for an instant can make the difference between a top performance and suboptimal one.

One tactic I’ve seen work for athletes that have a tendency to become complacent in a race situation is to use a certain word or phrase that means wake up and surge. When you yell this to your athlete, they throw down a 20-30 second surge, which often times can wake them up, and break them out of the rut they’ve found themselves in mid race. I’ve seen many athletes come back to life in a race after a short increase in tempo that shakes out their legs, and improves their posture, and gets their mind back focused on the moment and the work at hand.

In a workout situation, these runners will typically respond best to tempo runs, and longer intervals. Notice how they maintain pace during these efforts, or start slow and gradually increase to hit their target time.

This should be a good indication of their style, they like to run even paced the entire time, or slowly increase tempo as the effort continues. Much of this will be based on instinct and trial and error. If your runner doesn’t have a the best sprint speed, but can maintain a prolonged kick of 800 meters, than have them test this in a mile race, sit back for 2 laps, and then surge to the lead and maintain a powerful kick for the final laps. Finding the balance of speed to endurance is all based on practice, and seeing what works versus what does not.

The Benefit of Shorter Races for Your Long Distance Runners

Shorter races can be demoralizing for a long distance runner who lacks any speed. Throwing your 2 mile standout into an 800 meter sprint, can be either fun or harmful. It’s all about how you approach it, and position it to them.
The physical benefit these races offer is to increase speed and anaerobic ability. They take your runner to oxygen debt quickly and help them develop the ability to overcome the feeling of lactic acid build up.

A good strategy (and often times the only strategy) for your long distance runners in an 800 meter race is to have them go out hard and push the pace from the start. So many pure middle distance runners will sit and wait, and they aren’t used to have the pace pushed from the start, so by doing this, your runner can disable their ability to kick it into high gear in the final 300 meters.

Your long distance athletes have the strength to maintain a grueling pace, and as long as the wheels don’t come off in the final 200 meters, they may just be able to hold on for the win.

Shoot to have them run two equally paced 400’s, with their 400 split within a few seconds of what they could do in an all out effort. They should have the endurance to maintain through the second half.

At the end of the day, these are just some suggestions for helping you formulate a race day plan of action for your athletes. It’s more important to think about what could happen externally, and prepare for that, than to worry about your athlete doing their part.

The strategy should play to their strengths and natural gifts, so as long as they can keep themselves in a good place in terms of focus and position, their natural instinct should kick in when it matters, and when it’s time for them to make their moves.

Certainly more to come on this topic, and on pre-race preparation, visualization. Let me know what some of your tactics are for successful race outcomes in the comments.


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