Finish Fast: Negative Split, Positive Results


, by Mario Fraioli

Learn how to negative split to record your fastest marathon times.

Whether you’re planning to cross the finish line in just over 2 hours or trying to break 4 hours for the first time, there’s a tried-and-true racing strategy you can use to run your best marathon this fall. It’s called negative splitting, and the concept is simple and straightforward: Run the second half of your race faster than the first.

“It takes mental willpower to run a controlled, smart first half and mental toughness to pick up the pace in the latter half,” says Michelle Meyer of San Francisco, a 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier. “It also obviously requires the physical training that you have to put in beforehand to have the knowledge of how fast you are capable of running your race.”

Mark Coogan, a New Balance coach who represented the U.S. at the 1996 Olympic Marathon, put his patience into practice when he qualified for the team at the Trials that year in Charlotte, NC. The margin for error was thin, and the difference between a strong finish and a big blowup could make or break Coogan’s Olympic chances. “I knew I was having a good race” says the now 50-year-old Coogan. “And I felt like I had strength and could close hard. Coogan passed Keith Brantly in the final mile of the race, finishing in second and securing his spot on the Olympic team. He ran the second half of the race three minutes faster than the first, crossing the finish line in a personal best 2:13:05.

Despite the evidence from the elites listed above, most runners finish the second half of marathons slower than they started—a lot slower—to the tune of 10-15 minutes on average according to Strava data from the most recent editions of the New York, Boston, Marine Corps, Cal International, Portland and Chicago marathons. On the other hand, the number of runners who negative split marathons is staggeringly low, usually falling between 1 and 8 percent of finishers.

Smart pacing and patient execution will help you run your best marathon. But it’s easier said than done.

Why is this?
“I think many runners have a plan to negative or even-split a race, but they get carried away early on and deviate too much from their plan,” says two-time Olympic marathoner and New Balance athlete Reid Coolsaetof Canada. “The marathon feels relatively easy early on, and many runners get excited and push the pace too much. Some athletes pick over-ambitious goals as their fitness over shorter distances points to marathon performances they don’t actually have the endurance for.”

Want to own the back half of your next marathon?

Incorporate these three workouts into your build-up and learn to negative split like a pro:

Fast Finish Long Run
It’s as easy as it sounds: Finish off the last four miles of your long runs at goal marathon pace (see the McMillan running calculator here) or slightly faster. “The more long runs with fast finishes you can do in preparation for the race, the better,” says Meyer. “By finishing a long run with four miles that are at race pace or even slightly faster, this will prepare you to finish strong and will make those last several miles feel easier come race day.” Coolsaet also practices finishing fast in his long workouts, aiming to progress the pace every 30 minutes. “To help finish strong most of my long sessions are set up to run faster towards the end,” says Coolsaet. “The longest session we do is a 90-minute run where each 30 minute section is faster than the previous one. We usually end this session at marathon pace or slightly faster.”

Triple 5K
This was one of Coogan’s key marathon workouts that gave him the confidence that he was ready to finish fast. “This workout trains your body to run fast when it’s tired so your body and mind know what to expect,” Coogan says. “You’re wiring your brain correctly.” Following a 2-3 mile warmup and strides, run a 5K at a pace that’s 10-15 seconds per mile faster than your goal marathon pace. Rest 5 minutes, then run another 5K at the same pace as the first one. Rest 5 more minutes. Finish with one final 5K at the same pace as the first two or slightly faster. Cool down with a couple miles of easy running.

The Simulator
Coogan and Meyer are both big proponents of simulating the race course in practice, especially if it’s a route like Boston or New York, both of which feature challenging second halves. Meyer likes tempo runs that have an “easy” first half and a tougher or slower second half, where she’ll try to pick up the pace slightly even though the terrain is more challenging. Coogan has done long runs that feature a downhill start and hiller finish (much like Boston) or he’ll even have his athletes finish the last few miles of a long run on the track if they’re preparing for a flat, fast course. “You want to simulate the race as best you can in training without going into race mode,” advises Coogan.

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