Start Slower…Finish Faster
Twice in my short marathon running career I have passed world class runners during a race and finished ahead of them. These are the guys that look fast when they're standing still. It wasn't because I was running a sub-five minute pace per mile. It was because they started their races too fast and hit the wall somewhere after 20 miles. All I had to do was run a consistent, well-planned race.
The case for starting off slowly, whether it's a practice run or a race, is one that can be argued by anyone wishing to come away from a run feeling good about their effort. Here are the three main things that happen when you start your runs slowly and allow yourself to pick up the pace later on:
1. You set up your body for efficient fuel burning
During aerobic exercise (long distance running) your body relies on the glycogen stored in your muscles (from eating all those great carbohydrates) to help burn fat which is stored in your body. If you start off your runs too fast, you risk burning up all of your muscle glycogen which leaves you with nothing to help you access your body fat as fuel. You're basically stuck upstream without a paddle. This condition in marathons is very appropriately called ìhitting the wall. When you start off slowly you can conserve the use of that precious muscle glycogen so that later in your run there is plenty left to provide fat-burning fuel.
Another way to set up your body for efficient fuel burning is to work on your technique early on so that you are running more efficiently and therefore burning less fuel with each step. Allowing yourself time to work on your form early on sets you up to do your run more mindfully from the start.
When you start off slowly, you can run relaxed and relaxed muscles burn less fuel. As you continue your state of relaxation into the later stages of your runs you will sense a much lower perceived rate of exertion. No complaints here.
2. You set up your mind for a focused, confident approach to your event
Running an endurance race is as much mental as it is physical. I consider anything from a 10K on up to be an endurance event. As the distance gets longer, the demand put onto your mind increases. Ask any ultra marathon runner what percentage of their races are mental vs. physical and theyíll probably give you a number in the 80% range. The better your mind works for you the better youíll run period, end of story. Without a director, any enterprise would be hard pressed to be successful, and your mind is your director, like it or not. The best use of your mind is to have a plan of action for each of your runs so that you have some idea what youíre going to do and when. Using your mind at the beginning of each run allows you to transition into your exercise in a mindful state. This will insure that a higher level of results can take place. When you go into a run knowing what to expect from the course and from your body, youíll be more likely to make the right choices moment to moment as you progress from beginning to end. Each step taken correctly will allow all of the subsequent steps to be easier.
3. You set up your psychology for a relaxed and positive approach
One of the best things about starting off your races slowly is that you get to pass people the entire way. Here's how it works. Everyone else takes off at the starting line running with all that pre-race adrenalin and excitement driving them at a full gallop. At some point down the road their body begins to feel the pace and fatigue sets in. Then they spend the rest of the race battling fatigue: eating energy bars, guzzling sports drinks and watching their pace slow down with each mile because they've burned up most of their muscle glycogen. Jackson Browne wrote a song about this state - it was called "Running on Empty." As you might guess, itís really psychologically draining to have to run under these conditions and it makes your run, no fun.
On the other hand, if you start off slowly, you get to pass all of those rabbits that took off so fast. And, because youíre not burning all of your fuel up front, you have plenty of umph left for the later part of the race. You'll find that you're passing other runners like theyíre standing still and feeling like the fastest runner around - at any pace! A woman who I met at the Boston Marathon Expo wrote me an email afterwards saying that she used the Chi Running Focuses during her marathon and found herself to be the only runner in a sea of walkers at the end of the race. By being smart with her running she was able to finish a difficult race feeling incredibly positive about her experience.
Starting a run or a race slower than your normal pace takes discipline and surrender. The discipline to monitor your pace and the surrender it takes for your ego to let a crowd of people pass you. But if you can hold to your plan and remember why youíre running slower and why they're running faster, you can rest assured that youíll be seeing most of those runners later on. As the fast starters fade into the distance and their pacing eventually begins to take its toll, I just pretend that I'm reeling them in like fish. It's then, very energizing to cheer everyone on as you pass them. Try it ... you'll like it.