(This is the 50th anniversary of my first article in Runner’s World magazine. All year I post excerpts from my book, This Runner’s World.)
August 2003 (retitled in the magazine). To find one of the great misnomers of our sport, look no further than “negative split.” The term is mathematically correct, in that a faster second half of a run takes less time than a slower first half.
But to call finishing faster than you start a “negative” is wrong psychologically. This is one of the most positive experiences a runner can have, and you can have it often. It can happen in your everyday runs, in races and in speed training designed specifically to teach faster finishes.
Normal runs. Almost all daily runs can be positively “negative.” This happens naturally if you let it. You ease into the run, bumping up the pace as you warm up.
I’ve long since stopped measuring my runs and checking their mile splits. But I know they end faster (or less slow!) than they start.
The proof is on the watch, which is my only way of telling the length of most runs. I often run out-and-back courses, going out for 20 to 30 minutes and noting the turnaround time.
The return trip of equal distances usually takes a few minutes less – with no apparent increase in effort. Any run that ends better than it had started is a good one.
Races. Alone on a weekday run, your natural tendency is to start slowly and build into your pace of the day. On race day, however, you naturally try to do the opposite. Mass adrenaline poisoning urges you to join the crowd that’s starting unwisely.
Your race will end better if you resist that urge and smooth out your efforts, keeping your head while others around you are losing theirs. It’s depressing to slow down steadily (with “positive” splits). It’s uplifting to hold or increase your pace, and to pass the unwise toward the end.
All my PRs, over a wide range of distances and a long span of time, were set while running the halves of those races close to equal or with a somewhat faster ending. Those PRs are ancient for me now, but the pacing rule still applies. To guard against a too-fast opening act, I warm up little and start far back in the field.
Fast-finish training. You can practice fast finishes by mimicking race speed and effort for part of a day’s run. This can aid your final kick, which lasts for a hundred meters or so. But its greater value is in teaching you to make a longer, sustained, more controlled push for home.
A favorite session of mine goes like this: Run three miles nonstop. Use the first mile as a warmup, easing into the run as on any other day.
Then run the second mile about one minute faster than the warmup. This still isn’t much of a stretch. The real effort comes on the final mile, where the pace jumps by other minute (to what I’d expect to hold for an entire 5K).
To avoid time pressure, I ignore splits, only checking them afterward from the watch’s memory bank. Sometimes I even ignore distances, either partial or full, and simply run out easily for 15 minutes, hurry back the same way and take a final time. It usually falls in the 27s.
You might call this “negative-split” training. I think of it “half-fast,” with the last half being the faster one by far.
2018 Update. I make no mention in this reprinted column of the athlete Runner’s World originally chose to illustrate it. Her long and apparently brilliant career ended amid drug charges and penalties.
[Many books of mine, old and recent, are now available in two different formats: in print and as ebooks from Amazon.com. The titles: Going Far, Home Runs, Joe’s Team, Learning to Walk, Long Run Solution, Long Slow Distance, Next Steps, Pacesetters, Run Right Now, Run Right Now Training Log, See How We Run, Starting Lines, and This Runner’s World, plus Rich Englehart’s book about me, Slow Joe.]