Out and Back Runs - Train to Race Smart

By: Matt Young

If you’ve ever run a 5k or been there to witness the start of a 5k this will be a familiar scene for you.  Runners position themselves at the starting line and shake out the nervous jitters as they wait for the starting gun.   Then when the gun goes off, BANG, it’s like they’ve been shot out of a cannon and propelled forward like it’s a 40 yard dash instead of a 3.1 mile run.  It happens all the time and it is a painful way to run a 5k, starting too fast and hoping you can hold on.

There are three basic ways you can run any race:

  1.       Positive splits- you start fast and your first mile split is faster than your last. The typical outcome is your slowest result and a miserable feeling run.
  2.       Negative splits- you start easy and your first mile split is slower than your last. This typically gives you the most comfortable run and you feel like a champ as you sprint to the finish but t’s not necessarily your best result (although better than the first option).
  3.       Even splits- you start steady and each mile split is within a few seconds of each other. This will typically give you your fastest finish and is the optimal way to race.

So which of these best describes your race?  Most runners fall in to the first “strategy” and don’t live up to their potential.  For my Genesis running classes we have a saying, “Easy Start, Strong Finish.”  And we practice our easy starts and strong finishes by practicing with out and back runs.

An out and back run starts with an easy warm up and then you’ll run straight out in one direction for a prescribed time (like 15 minutes) and then turn around and come back.   With the out and back runs ideally you should start and finish at the same spot. If you don’t’ make it back to where you started by the end of the run you went out to fast.   On the way back if you pass the spot where you started that’s ok because you held some back and were able to finish stronger than you started.   Many runners start too fast and are reduced to unscheduled and unplanned walk breaks. 

If you’re a new runner then for these out and back runs you are working to find a pace you can hold which is a nice, steady and deliberate pace.  Practice finding a pace you can hold and remind yourself, this is what the start of my race should feel like.  Then when race day comes you can resist the temptation to take off like a bandit but rather, start easy with your sustainable pace. If you start easy and under control you’ll finish the race running strong.

If you’re an experienced runner you can do these out and back runs as a pace run. With a pace run your goal is to run your target race pace for a prescribed time.  For example, a pace run starts with a 10 minute warm up followed by a period of good, solid running. This is not an all out pace but a “comfortably hard” pace.  A comfortably hard pace doesn’t allow for conversation.  You should only be able to speak in sentence fragments because most of your breath is going to working muscles.   The objective is to work on your race pace and teaching your body to run when it is uncomfortable.   Always finish with a 5-10 minute cool down.  

The bottom line is out and back runs help you practice and feel your race pace and achieve your best result for the day.  Remember, Easy Start, Strong Finish! 

Matt Young is the head coach of Genesis Running and loves to help people run their first 5k. Learn more about the next class at www.genesisrunning.com


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