Debunking Dogma: the Myth of the Negative Split

Call me a heretic.  Call the notion blasphemy, insanity, absurd beyond belief if you will…
exercise_2905101bThe strongest idea that I’ve noted in running since I took up the sport a few years ago is the importance of/exaggerated emphasis placed upon running a negative split.  “Crucial to success”, I’m told.  And yet, no one can give me a genuine, convincing reason why.  I’m left with the belief that runners think it’s important because they read it in a magazine once and their friends did too; and somehow because it may have provided an element of success to some people, perceived or otherwise, the idea of the negative split has become dogma.  Heard at a race recently: “The conditions were rough, I really pushed but I didn’t do as well as I’d hoped to, no where near my PR… but hey, at least I ran a negative split…”
Huh?
Convinced that a negative split is the be all and end all?  Consider this: of the last three men to break the world record for the marathon, two of those three records were achieved by running a positive split.  Here are five reasons why runners can throw the idea of a negative split in the same pile with other avant garde ideas like the earth is flat, and the internet will never amount to anything more than a fad.
  1. Time lost is hard to claw back.  Let’s suppose you’re running a 4:12/k for the first half of a 5k race despite having a target pace of 4:00/k in hopes of being stronger in the second half of the race.  At the half way point of the race, you’re 30 seconds behind target.  Can you run a 3:48 pace for the whole second half of a race, when you’re at the highest point of fatigue in your race?  Shuffling in traffic at the start of your next half marathon will net you an equally insurmountable challenge- get going and get clear of traffic with “deliberate and contemplated haste.”
  2. Who can control terrain or weather?  In every race I’ve raced this year, despite racing some courses that were described as “flat” (yeah right!), the second half of the race or the last few kilometers were net uphills.  It happens.  Or what happens if the second half of the race is into a monster headwind… or both a headwind and uphill?  Then what – should a runner run slowly downhill with a tailwind in hopes of conquering wind and grade in the home stretch?
  3. Listening to your body: we often start race day with an idea of how fast we are going to go, based on our training and past performances.  What if that doesn’t work out because it’s just not your day?  Trying to go faster in the second half of a race when your body isn’t behaving as you’d want can lead to frustration, agony or DNF, depending on your race distance and circumstances.  Attach this to  point 2.  Contextualize your result.  One of my athletes was crushed in not negative splitting nor PBing a race that was run in “23C feels like 29C, humidity 88%, air quality poor, pollen high.”  What she needed to focus on was the fact that in race of more than 9000 people, she had placed 7th in her category, in the first big venue race of her life.  Everyone suffered that day on account of the conditions.  We were all breathing through soup!
  4. Who needs that pressure?  Adding the pressure to produce a negative split in one’s performance is piled upon a tall stack of other agendas we place as the metrics for success in our race.  “I’m going for a PR today”; “I’m needing to break xx:yy to qual for Boston”; I’m really hoping to finish under xx:yy.  Whatever your goal for a race, complicating that goal with trying to artificially devise the path to achieving that actual goal can be anything from emotionally exhausting when things go alright, to emotionally devastating when they don’t. Focus your mental energy where you need it- on your actual desires for your race performance- stated as goals or otherwise.
  5. Racing on the margin.  The idea is simple – from a performance thesis provided to me by Daniel Matheny, formerly a coach at Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) and founder of Matheny Endurance: if you can sprint to the finish of a race, or if you can push hard and significantly increase pace for the last couple of kilometers of a longer race, then for the rest of the race, you raced sub-optimally.  Who want’s to race nine tenths of a race, or half a race, sub-optimally?  Had you raced faster throughout the rest of the race, and been unable to go any faster (or perhaps just barely) at the end of the race, then most likely, you were racing at your limit for the race in it’s entirety.  That’s the stuff PR’s are made from.
But wait?  No negative split?  Then what?  How can you possibly race your next race without dogma?
Here are some proven strategies and tips that most racers can apply to their next race:
  1. Get to know your body and listen to it:  whether you start with the watch, and tie how you feel to the watch, then ditch the watch (or keep it as back up), or just run on feel and get to know how you feerunning_joints_12091l and what pace you can run at any distance throughout your target distance, with a little training, you’ll arrive at a point of self-knowledge that allows you to race at or near your threshold; your “best”.
  2. The almighty pace bunny and rabbits that you might spot around you: if you ran with pace bunny “x” last time during your race (for races with bunnies), next time try running with bunny “x – 5 mins” (or whatever graduation is offered based upon distance being run).  Even in races with bunnies, or whenever there aren’t bunnies, find a target runner(s) with whom you want to keep up.  Watch for a few minutes and see someone that is running a pace that looks like the pace you are wanting to maintain.  However, and this will most often be the case- be prepared to catch and pass your rabbit should they falter in maintaining your desired pace.  Do not let someone else dictate your race result if it’s to your detriment.  Find another rabbit to your liking.
  3. Try running forward in the race.  Take confidence in your training and preparation and as others slide, go past them with a sense of triumph and use that to build positive vibes to push you on.  If you can’t run forward in the crowd, do you best to maintain station.  Back to point number 2 – find pacers and stay with them, without losing pace should they falter.
  4. Reach.  Not a ton, not unreasonably so, but for most of us, we underestimate our ability and our ability to suffer.  Suffer more than you think you can.  You’ll surprise yourself.
  5. There are three elements that all endurance athletes must juggle on race day: fuel management, hydration management, and effort management.  Fail in any one of these areas and your race will be off the rails in no time.  Devise your strategies in training, under varying conditions, and be sure to know how you react to poor pre-race sleep, travel, etc – all of the same things that you will face at your next big race.
  6. “Make hay while the sun shines.”  Whether it’s that downhill tailwind section of the course, or the part of the race that you feel best, there’s a time that you are going to be able to make your best pace without killing yourself or blowing up.  On race day you won’t be able to make unimaginable changes to your form to produce a miracle, but you can maintain form – your own running economy, something that many racers fail to do for race duration.  Start by looking up.  Whenever I look down I slow down.  So do you.  Don’t do that.  There will likely be a part of the race- perhaps around the start of the second third of the race or even sooner in a longer race, where energy is high, the body has loosened up, traffic has diminished and the endorphins are flowing.  Big asterisk here – don’t over do it and crush yourself, however within manageable, go strong when you feel strong.  At a recent duathlon I raced (I’m 49, my competition were university undergrads for the most part) a few fellas and one young lady went up the road at the start of the first run portion of the race like they were shot out of a cannon.  “Wow” I thought to myself “…ok, well that’s the last I see of them…” And it was.  They were on a 3:20 pace and me?  Well I had a great run for myself, running my pace – actually 4 seconds per k under my target since I was feeling good.  But I never tried to over-reach and keep up with runners clearly out of my league… and I never blew up, like some of my younger competition who did try to keep up.  My best splits were the middle kilometres of both run segments.  Make hay while the sun shines, but go back to point number 1 and race your race, listening to your body, too.
Need proof about making hay when the sun shines?  Those two guys that set marathon world records with positive splits?  Their best 10k splits were between the 20k and 30k mark.
What about mere mortals and the tips above?  Recently I paced a friend during a half marathon that in truth we were both undertrained to race.  Despite this fact, using all of the the suggestions above in summation, she bettered her PR by approximately 8 minutes.  She ran a horribly positive split.  I don’t think she’s too upset about that.
Runner’s World, in an article analyzing the most recent world record result for the marathon, begins the article referencing the importance of the negative split, immediately sending my hackles up.  But then reading further, they make an important shift in emphasis and summarize with: “To run your best, you have to find the precise threshold where you are not dipping into an effort level that is unsustainable for the entire distance… Finding that threshold is your most important task… Learning to trust it and maintain it mile after mile will result in your personal record.”
Now, that is something upon which we can agree.”
-Coach Derek

About the author –

 In his late 40s, Derek decided to give running and triathlon a dedicated try, qualifying for and competing in both sports at the Canadian Armed Forces Nationals in 2013 and   2014, achieving podiums and top 5 results.  In addition, he has been coaching triathlon for the past two years, with his first athlete headed to the Olympic Distance Triathlon World Championships in Chicago in September 2015.  His philosophies on training, racing, nutrition and life are focused upon personal accountability, sustainability, and balance.

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