Tips to Sharpen a Racer’s Edge

Cooler weather signals fall has finally arrived, and along with it a season filled with road races from 5Ks to marathons. Through the summer you trained consistently, gradually increased your mileage, and even hit your splits while running speed work in miserable heat.

I’m often asked: “Is there anything else I can do to better prepare myself besides running more miles?” and the answer is yes, there is! 

The following tips can help send you on your way to a PR this season.

Be familiar with the course and elevation profile. Knowing the course, turns and terrain provides an opportunity to employ race tactics and identify points where to push the pace.

Tip: If you’re racing in another city, attempt to drive the course, even a portion of it, the day before so you know what to expect. If you’re running a local race, run the course during your training.

Whether or not you’re running locally, run your pre-race warm-up on the final mile of the course. Having visual landmarks helps to mentally prepare you and to gain confidence heading to the finish. Often times, runners lose focus and their ambition to push/drive at the end of a race. It’s been my experience that by warming up on the last mile, it’s helped me to see just how close I am to crossing the finish line.

Tip: Line up properly at the start so you don’t spend time and energy weaving around slower runners. If the start of your race is narrow or crowded, you may have to run an initial surge to avoid “traffic” or a bottleneck. Remember to dial the pace back, so you don’t fatigue too early.

One strategy for running a faster race is to run the tangents, or the shortest distance possible by running straight from one curve to the next. What about races that have hairpin turns?

Tip: Instinctively, runners slow down to maintain balance and to try to take the hairpin turn narrowly. To effectively navigate a sharp turn, surge! Concentrate on foot placement and keep your inside arm close to your body while throwing your outside arm wide. Another option is to aim for a point farther out while maintaining your current speed. You can practice both of these options by setting up a cone or marker in your driveway.

Stealth running. You can catch a competitor or throw one off your tail by using the course and terrain to your advantage.

Tip: If someone is hanging on your tail, next time you approach a bend on the course, surge ahead until you have nearly completed that curve or section. By the time they respond, you will look much farther ahead which can discourage your opponent when they are already tired from trying to stay with you. If they come back on you, surge again at another point.

A well-timed surge can blunt a competitor’s strong kick or put enough distance on them to render it meaningless. When you surge midrace, only you know how long it will last. This uncertainty can unsettle those around you, and they may let you go. This will allow you to build a gap before settling into a rhythm you can maintain for the rest of the race. If you believe your opponents will follow you, wait until you’re close enough to the finish, so you can carry your speed to the finish line. A sustained surge from ¾-mile to a ½-mile out can leave even the speediest finishers with rubber legs.

Don’t zone out. Stay present and alert. Once your race begins, attempt to stay mentally in the current mile and not think too far ahead. It’s easy to get overwhelmed thinking, “I still have 23 miles to go!”

Tip: “The zone” is a present state and you want to be in the zone as much as possible. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by focusing your attention inward. Think about what you are doing - pay attention to your breathing, form, rhythm, etc.

Tip: Set small goals throughout the race. It can be as simple as catching a runner ahead of you or running to a landmark in the distance. Once you reach your goal, set another. Continue to do this until you finish. Reduce your anxiety by staying more in the moment than focusing on the remaining distance. Keep wondering thoughts to a minimum.

Tip: When you start to feel tired or begin to zone out, throw in a small surge. A trick I use to help pick up my cadence is to count from 1 to 100, then backwards if I still need more of a pick up.

Conquer the hills. Runners often try to charge/surge up a hill in attempts to overtake a competitor on the climb. Whether you’re trying to pass a competitor or running to set a PR, this tactic can ruin your race by wasting too much energy and causing you to fatigue early. 

 As you ascend the hill, try to maintain the same effort/rhythm (not pace) by shortening your stride; keep your head up and chest out. Think parallel to incline. Pick up rhythm as you near the top by increasing your arm swing. This helps to pull you over the top and gets you ready to use gravity for the downhill.

Tip: When running downhill, let gravity and increased rhythm help you. Have a slight forward lean. Don’t lean backwards, thus landing on your heels as it will cause you to brake. Lengthen your stride slightly but don’t over stride. If it’s too long, you’ll lose control and quads will take a beating.

When planning to pass a competitor, save your speed for the last third of the climb and strategically make your move on the downhill. You will get an oxygen boost and momentum as you crest over the top. Relax your legs as much as possible and zoom by them as if they are standing still! 

 Challenge yourself - don’t settle for average – I just want to finish. I’m not competitive. I just do it for fun. If you’re going to invest time in training and, at times, even sacrifice your social life, you owe it to yourself to see what you are capable of. Life is too short to do things halfway or average.

Tip: During your next race, find runners who run your pace, or just a bit quicker, and focus on staying competitive with them. Another option is to remain within eyeshot of a competitor that’s ahead and try to close the gap in the last quarter of race. A good trick is to look at whoever is in front of you and think about racing the runner in front of them.


Race confident workouts for 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon during race week:

5K - Do this workout on Tuesday and no later than Wednesday of race week. Run 2-mile warm-up; 4 x 800 meters (1/2mi) at 5K race pace with 400-meter (1/4mi) recovery jog between each rep. Cool-down 1-2 miles.

10K - Run the workout Tuesday or Wednesday. After a 2-mile warm-up, run 3 x 1-mile at 10K goal race pace with 800-meter (1/2mi) recovery between reps. Cool-down 1-2 miles.

Half-marathon - Run Tuesday or Wednesday. After a 2-mile warm-up, run 3 x 1-mile at 10 seconds faster than half-marathon goal pace with 800-meter (1/2mi) recovery jog. Cool-down 1-2 miles.

Marathon - Run the workout either Tuesday or Wednesday. Begin with a 2-mile warm-up then run 3-5 miles at your goal marathon pace. Cool-down for 1-mile.

Whether you aspire to win or place in your age group or to race just for the fun of it, I hope you will try these tips in your next race. Don’t be afraid to challenge yourself. You might be pleasantly surprise with the outcome.


I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from Meb Keflezighi, who sums racing up perfectly: 

“Winning doesn’t always mean getting first place; it means getting the best out of yourself.”


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