What do athletes Steve Prefontaine, Wilson Kipsang, Galen Rupp and Ronaldo de Costa have in common? Apart from their vastly successful individual track records, they have all been known to adopt and perfect a particularly winning strategy during their races – the negative split.
Simply put, it refers to running the second part of your race at a faster pace than the first half. It’s the opposite of what we usually end up doing: rush headlong into the race at our best speed, and eventually struggle to maintain pace through the middle and just about manage to hold it together at the end. Negative splits, when done right, can produce excellent results and several elite marathoners, as well as cyclists and swimmers, favor this strategy when looking to better personal records or go for the win. With a little training, however, there is no reason why beginners can’t try it out too.
Positives of the negative
There are several scientific and physiological reasons why running the first half of a race at a slower pace can help you increase your overall speed.
1. By running at less than your goal pace in the first half, you’re giving your muscles and joints that extra time to warm up completely, thus reducing chances of injuries and muscles pulls later in the race.
2. The initial slow start makes a more systematic demand on your heart and lungs and does not throw up any sudden shocks to the system as a fast sprint might do.
3. Running too fast at the start depletes your glycogen levels at an alarming pace. You may not feel it right away, but your energy levels are seriously compromised once you’ve passed the midpoint, and you’ll find it hard to maintain pace with every new step.
4. Starting slow also allows your body to balance out the lactic acid that is produced as a by-product of exercise and the resulting low oxygen levels. Those who start out too fast build up lactic acid faster and it causes them to slow down as their bodies cannot process the excess lactic acid fast enough.
5. By the time you’ve picked up your pace in the second half, your endorphins will be at work too. These mood boosters can lift your spirits and energy and actually help you enjoy your run.
6. Running faster towards the end also gives you a psychological advantage. You’ll feel more confident as you pass other runners by, especially those who sprinted past you during your slower first half.
Split it right
Carrying out a successful negative split calls for some serious discipline, especially in the highly charged atmosphere of a marathon or 5K, where spectator support and the initial excitement of running alongside so many others can goad you to run faster even if you’re consciously trying to maintain a measured pace. You may even find yourself giving into the momentary self doubt and speed up.
The trick is to practice your negative splits while in training itself so as to get your body and mind used to idea of deliberately running slow before picking up pace. Divide your training runs into two halves and run the first half at a pace that is about 15-20 seconds that your intended race pace. Once you’ve crossed your halfway mark, double your efforts until you’re going at a pace faster than you intended. Above all, have faith in the method and believe that your legs can go faster if you give them enough time to gather speed. After all, it worked wonderfully for those legends – and with a little practice, you can make it work for you too.