How fast should I run for the first mile of a 5k? What about a hilly half marathon?
Pacing yourself during a race isn’t always so straightforward. Elevation changes, terrain variability, and different distances all impact how quickly (or slow) you’re able to run.
But in almost every racing scenario, negative splits are the ideal pacing strategy.
But first, let’s define our terms: a negative split is when the second half of a race is faster than the first half. For example, if you race a 10k with 5k splits of 25:30 and 24:30 for a 50:00 10k finish time, you’ve just ran a negative split.
It may seem more difficult to run negative splits on race day, but in fact it’s usually easier. It often takes 1-2 miles to properly warm up during a race (especially for longer races like the half marathon or marathon). But then:
- Joints are fully lubricated
- Adrenaline and other performance-boosting hormones are peaking
- Muscles are primed to work at their most efficient capacity
In short, you’re not ready to run at your best until the middle of the race – making a negative split easier to attain than most think.
When the opposite happens (running the first half faster than the second), you’re not allowing the body to properly warm up nor are you taking advantage of the hormones that make racing fast a bit easier.
I’m sure you’ve had experience of starting a race fast only to flounder and pull up short in the later miles… We want to avoid that!
So, can we find examples of this strategy benefiting runners at the highest levels?
How can we put these lessons into practice on race day?
Let’s find out.
Negative Splits and World Records
At the elite level, most world records above 800m have been set with negative splits. If you look at the recent history of marathon world records, you’ll see this strategy used effectively to consistently lower the world record performance.
When Dennis Kimetto set the marathon world record to 2:02:57 at the 2014 Berlin Marthon, he ran the first half in 61:45 and the second half in 61:12.
Haile Gebrselassie ran a similar strategy in 2007 when he ran the WR of 2:04:26 with a spread of 62:29 and 61:57. The next year, when he broke 2:04, he had half marathon splits of 62:05 and 61:54.
This strategy extends beyond the marathon, however. When Kenenisa Bekele ran the 10,000m world record of 26:17:53 his 5k splits were 13:09:19 and 13:08:34.
Galen Rupp had a fantastic negative split performance when he set the American record in the indoor 5k of 13:01.26:
Watch Galen Rupp Negative Split the American Indoor 5,000m Record
His mile splits were 4:13.94, 4:12.64, and 4:04.32 with a final 200m split of 30.36!
Top coaches like Jay Johnson (coach to three national champions) also believe negative splits are ideal for both elite and recreational runners.
How to Negative Split Your Next Race
While it’s easy to say “finish faster than you started,” it’s much more difficult to put into practice!
First, let’s make sure that you’re able to overcome any adversity that you experience:
That’s why it’s critical to practice negative splits during training to ensure you’re used to the feeling and execution of this strategy on race day.
Training tip #1: Negative split easy runs
Easy runs should be negative splits all the time, anyway. Start slow to help you transition to running and allow your body to warm up properly. After a few miles, you can settle into your “normal” pace.
If you’re a more advanced runner or are just feeling great, then you can run the last 1-2 miles of easy runs at a moderate effort. This will surely guarantee a negative split run, helping your body and mind remember what it’s like to finish a run faster than when you started.
Training tip #2: Negative split workouts
The absolute best way to practice negative splits is to run them during a structured workout. They work best in single-speed workouts where you run the same speed for the entirety of the repetitions (i.e., all of the intervals are at 5k pace).
This strategy forces you to run harder when you’re fatigued – exactly what’s needed during a race to finish with negative splits. Just be sure not to turn the workout into a race and still run within your means.
Racing tip #1: Predict an accurate finish time
A negative split is virtually impossible if you don’t have an accurate finish time prediction. After all, if you think you can run faster than you’re able to and start too fast, you’ll fizzle out rather than speeding up.
For example, if you’d like to negative split a 10k and you’re confident you can run 50:00, then run the first 5k in about 25:10 – 25:30. That should be comfortable enough that you can turn on the afterburners in the last 2 miles to finish in 50 flat.
Racing tip #2: Be confident
Negative splits are challenging – there’s no way around it. But when top coaches recommend them and world records are set using this race pacing strategy, then you know it’s the real deal.
But it can only be achieved if you’re confident in your abilities. Running fast when you’re tired hurts.
You’re in “the pain cave” taking a bath in lactate.
Your brain is screaming at you to slow down.
Your muscles and lungs are burning as you squeeze every ounce of speed into that final stretch.
Simple isn’t always easy. But if you believe in your fitness, then you’ll finish strong.
That confidence (and a good dose of mental toughness!) will help you cross the finish line with negative splits – and hopefully, a shiny new PR!
For more on pacing, race strategy, and negative splits don’t miss our free ebook 13 Lucking Racing Tips for Your Next Personal Best.
You’ll hear the preferred racing strategies from top coaches and runners like:
- Jay Johnson, coach to 3 national champions
- Jeff Gaudette, Olympic Trials qualifier
- Mario Fraioli, coach to the 2012 Costa Rican Men’s Olympic Marathon Team
And many other journalists, Boston Marathon qualifiers, and ultra marathoners. Download it here!
A version of this article first appeared on Competitor.com.