By Calvin W.
As a competitive long-distance runner, you’re constantly trying to ride the fine line between running as fast as your body will permit in a given speed-based effort and bombing out by going too hard. When you’re training for an event, you might not always be working on speed—conditioning your body to tolerate long distances doesn’t generally require speed work—but doing so is an important part of training. Efforts like interval training and tempo work are speed- based and a runner does improve by working on faster. In a race like a marathon, there are times to hold back, but overall you’re hovering around a point that is as fast as you can tolerate, as long as you don’t crash. Makes sense to me.
Most people run slower during the second half of a race than the first. Any race that provides interval times will demonstrate that. Consider Chasing the Unicorn in Bucks County, PA. The vast majority of competitors, including the elite runners go out faster during the first half than the second. Maybe some people plan to do that but others go out feeling good and pushing too hard just to start hitting their limits during the second half, hence they’re forced to slow down a little. It’s called positive splitting because the difference between the times of their two halves, second half minus first half, is a positive number. If you’re trying to speed up throughout a race effort, that’s bad. (I know. It’s a little confusing that a positive number could be negative.) When I first started running in 2011, I was always positive splitting: that’s the way my training went and that’s the way my races went. Then came the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
Apolo Anton Ohno was favored to become the most medaled Olympian in history. As an Asian watching an athlete of mixed-Asian descent I was pretty excited about his success. But I was also watching his race strategy because I’d already been aware that many racers actually work on negative splitting: they go easy enough to save energy to be in position to win the race, but not so fast that lose energy before they finish. Watch a high-level long-distance competitive effort and you’ll see racers looking pretty relaxed at the beginning of the race and really going all out at the end. And that’s what I saw every time I watched Ohno racing. Even if it meant that he wasn’t going to come in first in a preliminary heat, he would be racing easy. Then he’d turn on just enough heat to qualify for the final and save enough energy to win that race. Using him as inspiration, I started working on negative splitting both my training runs and my races. I have little trouble, now, running negative-split training efforts. That’s positive.
I have more trouble negative splitting during races. It seems that it’s easy to misjudge the fine line between going fast enough to achieve a personal record (PR), especially after a well-managed taper, and going too fast to sustain and crashing. Failing to fuel properly can result in carb-crashing which results in a very positive split. That’s negative. The trick is to gauge the necessary level just right to be able to sustain a first-half effort that permits a nice fast finish. In my 2 best marathons, I was passing people left and right as I closed in on the finish line. People said things like “Pedal to the medal!” of “Negative split!” as I passed them who were looked like they were seriously positively splitting. Negative.
The last time I posted to this blog (4/12/2018), I had my fingers crossed for a negative split and a PR. Neither happened. The taper had me feeling well rested and I went out much faster than was sustainable on average. I blew it and lost all my steam. Once you use up all your carbohydrate stores, you can’t recover it and you have to slow down. A lot.
With that race in mind, I ran another one. For that I kept forcing my speed slower than I felt I was able, to a point just below what I thought my average speed should be for the entire race based on my training. This time it paid off. I both negative split, finishing strong, and I missed my PR by a mere 25 seconds. Considering that I wasn’t trying to PR, that was a great effort.
With both races in mind, I trained hard to increase my speed and smash my PR with a super-fast effort. And I failed again. Same story: My taper had me feeling like I could sprint the whole way and I didn’t listen to my brain telling me that I simply hadn’t trained hard enough to maintain that pace throughout the race.
Maybe for elite athletes like Apolo Anton Ohno it’s easier to know limits and pace more thoughtfully, maybe they don’t always win, but they compete consistently. For me it will always be a sloppy balancing act, sometimes achieving spectacularly and sometimes bombing abysmally.
Still, even abysmal can be a success. I was conditioned enough for my last race that, despite dropping my pace by 2 minutes per mile in the second half for a very negative positive split, I still finished 15 minutes faster than my last bombed effort. That’s positive!
-CtCloser (Calvinthe), "Negative split or positive splat"
Calvin Wang, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
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