Know when to “Go” to perform negative divisions
By Bryan Green,
One of the first “running wisdoms” I remember learning is that most records are broken by athletes performing negative gaps. This means, of course, that the second half is actually faster than the first half.
On the surface, this looks like a simple strategy to execute. Just maintain the pace of your goal until you sprint, then when you’re done you’ll have a faster second half (due to the time you caught up at the end) and a slightly better time than your goal. Breakthrough!
It is obviously not that easy. Part of the problem is that we tend to think of pace and effort as having a linear relationship. Celebrity running trainer Greg McMillan summed it up eloquently in our recent Fueling the Pursuit Conversation:
“Almost everyone is good at the halfway point. It doesn’t matter if it’s an 800-meter race or an ultra marathon. It’s kind of like everyone is happy in the first half, but then something starts to happen where you’re still too far from the finish line to really feel like you can push. But if you stay at the same level of exertion, you will slow down as your exertion level has to increase at a faster rate than you would like as fatigue increases.
If you think of fatigue, it’s not a straight line through a race. It’s not even a kind of angle of a straight line. It’s exponential. Just after the halfway point, the effort and fatigue start to mount even faster than before.
In other words: since fatigue is not linear, you cannot run at a constant pace trying to maintain a constant level of exertion.
When we assume that the effort required becomes progressively more difficult, we prepare to make positive deviations. This is because our energy is not used along a linear curve. We are going to feel more tired halfway through than expected.
This is true for any race distance, but it was always particularly evident to me when I ran the mile. I was a 5k / 10k guy so I enjoyed the mile as a “short run”. But i found it very difficult to keep pace in the third round. I was going to hit 800 yards at what seemed like a reasonable time but my body was already screaming just to hold back my effort, to save a bit for the end. When I did, I always ran a slow third lap.
I see this with a lot of runners. Even as we gradually increase our level of perceived exertion, our fatigue increases faster and our pace begins to slip. And as we get more and more tired, we keep telling ourselves to hang on and we slow down even more. Then we fire up the game and regain some of the time we wereted, but not enough to get negative spreads or, often, our time target.
As you can see in the second diagram, the red section above the line (our time lost) is much larger than the green section below (our time saved).
Coach McMillan has a mental strategy to combat this. He calls it “Go Zone Racing”.
It divides a race into four quarters or “zones”: Start Zone, Fast Rhythm Zone, Go Zone and Get Time Zone. He prepares his athletes to have a specific plan for each of these areas, in order to be mentally prepared for how they will be required to perform in each.
He wrote about it in many articles (here is one from 2009) but I recommend you to take his new book Running Nirvana: 50 Lessons to Elevate Your Running. It doesn’t just go into this idea in detail, it includes insightful lessons on literally every key aspect of training and racing. I picked up a number of helpful ideas and even improved my pre-race mobility routines.
The key idea of Go Zone Racing is that the third zone just after the midpoint – what he calls “the Go Zone” – is where most athletes fail to maintain their pace and miss the point. opportunity to achieve their goals.
The only way to fight this is to have a plan for go all out in this area. Harder than we will be comfortable with and harder than what we “should” need to go to keep pace. As he said:
“What we are seeing is that athletes need to increase their mental intensity, their level of effort, in order to combat this fatigue and keep up the pace. Because if you have increasing fatigue at the same level of effort, you will slow down.
Our effort should look more like the green line in the graph below. And yes, our pace will probably only stay at the pace of the goals despite this enormous effort. This is the painful reality that our mental race plan must prepare us for.
Of course, that still only gets us three-quarters of the way. In the last quarter – the “Get Time Zone” – we need to keep up this effort and use all the tricks in the book to get us going faster than we think. If we really want to run a fast time we can’t wait for the kick. There is not enough time to catch up in the last 200 meters. To really get these negative divisions, we need to catch up more time sooner.
Go Zone Racing is really a strategy to organize your best race. But Coach McMillan doesn’t put it in his running section. He puts it in his section on brain training.
That’s because it’s not just a tactic you can use at will to make a better run. It’s a way of approaching training and racing that requires incredible mental preparation and a commitment to perform.
There’s a reason most runners don’t do a negative split. It’s not just because it’s really difficult. This is because even though they are physically ready, they are often not mentally prepared for the effort it takes. Make sure you are.
Bryan Green’s book, Take the plunge: think better, train better, run faster, has been hailed by Olympians, coaches and competitive runners as “a course book” that “should be on the shelves of every coach and athlete”. You can purchase the book, workbook and trainer’s guide or sign up for his weekly newsletter at his website. Bryan is also the co-founder of Go be more, co-host of Go Be More Podcast and Fuel the pursuit, and has often contributed to Runner’s Tribe (since 2008!).