When you first take part in races, your main objective will be to cross that finish line. You’ll be driven by the desire to complete the course and, when you do, your sense of achievement will be so great you won’t think twice about your time. However, once you become familiar with the routine of running races, you may find yourself wondering if perhaps you could knock a few seconds off your 5K and 10K times. The answer is yes; you just need to know how to train for it.
To train yourself to run faster, you have to first become familiar with your different running paces. If you’re aiming to achieve a specific finishing time, you’ll need to know what speed to maintain during the race to ensure you hit this target. The easiest way to establish this is to take your current fastest time for the distance you’ll be racing and work out how long it takes you to run each kilometre. This is your current race pace, and you need to improve it.
During training sessions, practise running at faster speeds for shorter distances. Begin with 100m, 200m or 400m bursts, running a little faster than your current race pace, and allow yourself a few minutes between each period of faster running to recover. Progressively work up to 400m, 800m and 1K at a faster pace. Once you’ve practised this a few times you’ll get a feel for the race pace that will suit you and that you’ll need to maintain to achieve your faster time.
At this point your focus should be on increasing the distance over which you can maintain this pace and decreasing the periods of slower recovery running. This will be most easily achieved by mixing up your training sessions to include some short, fast interval training, some longer intervals and plenty of practice at your new race pace. It’s a great idea to also include some hill training for extra leg strength and stamina.
As you train harder, remember to focus on your breathing and maintain a fluid running style at all times. It’s important to stay relaxed, whatever speed you’re aiming for. Once you’ve worked on your speed, it’s time to plan your race-day tactics.
Generally speaking, when you’re aiming for a fast time it’s best to establish your race pace and run a consistent speed, however short or long the event. In reality, race conditions may dictate a different approach.
Over the shorter distance there are often a lot of runners bunched up at the start, so you may not be able to get straight into your stride. Don’t panic. Adopt a race strategy that builds in a margin of error, allowing you to run a little slower for the first kilometre and get into your stride as soon as you have a little bit more room to manoeuvre. Practise this precise approach before the event to ensure that your race pace for four kilometres takes account of the fact that you’ll be running a little slower over that fiddly first kilometre. Unless you’ve trained specifically to do so, avoid speeding up too much to get ahead of the crowds in the early part of the race, as you could end up paying for this later. It’s easy to let the excitement of the day get the better of you and take off fast. But keep an eye on your pace; if you’re too far within your split times, ease off a little.
It’s common to feel superhuman at the start of an event but be disciplined and stick with the plan you’ve trained for. You’ll be glad you did later in the race. It’s far better to have a bit in reserve at the end, allowing you to speed up, than to set out ahead of schedule and then see your times tumble as each kilometre passes.
With the longer distance you have more time to pace yourself consistently. There should be less congestion close to the start, allowing you to get quickly into the rhythm of your target pace. As with a 5K race, resist the temptation to begin too quickly, no matter how good you feel. Focus on hitting your split times for each kilometre. If you feel OK in the last kilometre or two, feel free to nudge the pace a little, but only if you’re sure you can maintain that slightly higher tempo to the finish line and reach the target time for which you have worked so hard.
Knowing the moment to time a sprint finish comes with practice but is usually within the last 200-600m. Again, err on the side of caution. It’s far better to maintain a consistent pace and set a new PB by a couple of seconds than go for glory, end up peaking too early and miss your sought-after time by those same couple of seconds.