It doesn’t matter whether you come in first, in the middle of the pack, or last. You can say, ‘I have finished.’ There is a lot of satisfaction in that.
– Fred Lebow, co-founder, New York City Marathon

Finishing a race you’ve been training for is an exhilarating feeling; it’s what makes most runners race in the first place. For beginners, finishing is often the goal for the first few events they participate in, before they can think of improving their time and move on to more challenging terrains. Several factors are in play when planning your race strategy and it all comes down to setting the right pace to get you to the finish line, while you still have the energy to grin for the cameras.

Understanding splits
Splits refer to dividing your race into two roughly equal parts and running both at an optimal pace to ensure that you finish strong. Seasoned and pro runners usually embrace an even split, whereby they run both halves at a consistent pace, with minor changes in line with the terrain and weather. Yet others prefer the negative split, which involves running the second half at a slightly higher pace. Try out both strategies during your training runs to determine which one suits you better. Importantly, ensure that you train for the entire race distance during sessions. Practicing a progressively faster pace will train you to finish strong on race day itself.

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Warming up
An adequate warm up is one that lets you hit the ground running once you hear the shot. Beginners are often advised to use the first few miles of their race as a warm up stage, before they find a comfortably fast pace for the rest of the run. If you’re feeling more ambitious (and adequately prepared) and plan to run at a pace higher than your training, your warm up needs to be more comprehensive such that it activates your aerobic system, while still sparing enough energy for the race. Combine dynamic stretches with short 5-minute runs thrown in between and a gradual increase in pace. Ensure that you start the warm up at least 30 minutes or more before race time, and conclude it with less than 10 minutes to go.

Starting slow
One of the commonest mistakes made by new runners is to rush headlong into the race at their top speed and then find themselves burning out well before the halfway mark. Starting slow helps conserve critical levels of glycogen that translate into energy to last your whole race. By running too fast too early, you eat into your glycogen levels at an alarming pace, which leads to premature exhaustion and much slower running speed when it counts the most. Establishing a relaxed running style early in the race will go a long way toward helping you avoid tightening up so that you can maintain your goal pace to the finish.

Expert tip
Former Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi talks about his marathon finishing strategy:

Fuelling right
Staying well fuelled and hydrated through the course is of paramount importance. Don’t wait until you’re tired and light-headed before looking for the next aid station. Grab an energy drink at the first possible outlet, so as to avoid dehydration and carbohydrate depletion, which can hamper your race time. Keeping your race day conditions like heat and humidity in mind, you should aim to replenish your stock more frequently. If you’re fuelling right and maintaining running form, the last part of the race will become that much smoother to conquer. Studying your course and its anticipated challenges beforehand, as well as marking out the possible aid stations along the way will help you work out an efficient strategy and also add a great deal of confidence in your run. Also, never eat or drink anything new on race day – stick to what you know and what has worked best for your body during training.

Use Fartleks to prepare for marathon runs (Image: FartlekRun)
Use Fartleks to prepare for marathon runs (Image: FartlekRun)

Doing the math
So much about finishing a race involves being mentally prepared for it. Towards the middle and end of your course, it’s common to go through a few bad miles where you simply can’t seem to egg on any further. Give yourself a pep talk if it helps and try to run alongside others with similar pace. The loneliest parts of a marathon are when you start questioning your performance, so try and feed off the energy of other runners who are alongside. Concentrate on those slightly ahead of you and try and cross them with some acceleration, before slowing down into active recovery for a while. Devise mental tricks and use your interval training strategies when you find it hard to run consistently at an even pace. Remember, also, that your body feeds off carbs and converts that into energy, so if an unexpected fuelling stop helps replenish that, it automatically becomes a part of your strategy.

Main image: Rico Shen

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