Why You Should Include Negative Splits in Your Race Plan

turmeric uses negative splits to PRSix years ago, I ran my first marathon. After racing on the track or cross-country, running a road race, particularly one so long, was a shock to my system. I ran like a deer in headlights for the entire 26.2 miles. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. In fact, it took me three marathons before I figured out (the hard way) that going out hard as I was taught to do in college, is a death-march sentence in a marathon. I knew there had to be another way of achieving my time goals. But what was it?

I looked to my training log for the answer and there I realized that some of my best and favorite workouts were progression runs, runs that finish faster, sometimes much faster than they started. So I decided to apply what I found to be successful in my training to my road-racing. Why not? If it worked for my workouts, racing negative splits might work well for me too in the marathon and maybe even other distances. 

My big experiment came at the 2014 Wineglass Marathon. Instead of going out hard as I had always done in races, I started out at an easier pace. I started around 8:00 pace and over the course of the race gradually sped up to the 7:20s. I didn’t hurt until much later into the race than my other marathons. And the best part was that it resulted in an eleven minute PR and my second Boston qualifier! I decided then and there to use this new race strategy for every marathon and even some half marathons. I think you should try it, too. Here’s why.

1. Go with the Flow. At the start of the marathon, it is easier to start out slower, especially because of the crowds. Unless you can get to the front of the pack right away without starting out too fast, your first mile or two will likely be slower, especially at the bigger races. So why not use your slower miles to your advantage?

2. Less Pressure. For me, telling myself I need to start at goal pace and maintain that for 26.2 miles is a little scary. Placing less pressure on ourselves at the start of the race is a good thing. When you plan to ease into marathon pace and run negative splits, you are more likely to enjoy the first half of the race, while remaining able to really race that second half.

3. Passing Feels Good. When you run negative splits in any race, you’re sure to pass people like crazy! You will conserve energy for the second half of the race and then lay it all out there, often right at the point a lot of other runners will be starting to struggle. Mentally, this helps me pick up the pace even more. Of course, I love cheering my fellow runners along as I pass them too! You can pass people and be competitive and do it with a smile.

4. Stay Focused. Somewhere in the middle of every race, my mind tends to wander and I often lose concentration. By having a goal set for each mile or two to pick up the pace just a smidge more, it keeps my mind occupied and less prone to fixate on how I’m feeling or how much longer I have to go.

Good Company

Not convinced yet? Here are some examples of our favorite marathoners running negative split marathons:

  • Ronaldo da Costa, Berlin Marathon 1998: Ran a world record time of 2:06:05 (which was broken in 1999). He ran the first half in 1:04:02, and the second half in 1:01:23.
  • Desi Linden, Olympic Trials Marathon: 74 second negative split.
  • Galen Rupp, Olympic Trials Marathon: 110 second negative split.
  • Dennis Kimetto: Today’s world record marathon time of 2:02:57, run with a 33 second negative split.
Amy Cragg at the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon ran the second half 38 seconds faster than the first.

Practice Makes Perfect

Of course, we aren’t professionals looking to break world records, right? Well, at least I’m not! Even so, a negative split race strategy has worked for me as well as those Olympians and it can work for you too. Want to give it a try? Here are some workouts to practice those negative splits.

1. Standard Progression Run.  Start at an easy pace. As my college coach explained easy pace, it’s a pace where you can have a full-on conversation. Incrementally (e.g. each mile) increase the effort (e.g. 15 seconds per mile) so that for the last section you couldn’t hold a conversation except a yep or a no in between huffs and puffs (~ current 10k-15k race pace). Progression runs can last anywhere from 15 minutes (5 minutes easy, 5 minutes medium, 5 minutes hard), to the length of a long run. You can increase your pace along the whole run or just a portion of it. Have fun with it. Be creative!

2. Out and back. Run out and back the same distance, but increase your pace coming back. Set a goal for yourself. Running 20 minutes out? Come back in 18 minutes.

3. Progressive Intervals. Run intervals that progressively get faster throughout the workout. Instead of six by 800 at 5k pace, you can do 6 x 800 starting at 10k pace and working down to faster than 5k pace. Don’t let yourself start out too fast! The point of the workout is to never slow down your pace and to run each interval faster than the one before it.

4. Long Run with a Fast Finish. Run your normal long run, but end the last couple miles quickly, at the pace you want to finish your marathon in, or faster. Bonus for more advanced runners: if you do this workout the day after you’ve done another speed workout, you’ll be running on tired legs, which will really simulate the end of a marathon and will teach your legs to push through fatigue.

Planning to negative split a race is far from a guarantee of success, but I hope I’ve convinced you to try it out at least once.

Have you ever planned to race negative splits? Is it something you save for longer races or have you tried out negative splitting shorter races too? Any tips I missed? 

I am a full-time critical care nurse, who, in my spare time, loves to pound the pavement around the west side of Cleveland, Ohio. I am originally from Wisconsin, and ran for the University of Minnesota where I learned how to run smart, healthy, and happy. I enjoy writing about my adventures in running and what I have learned from racing. I hope to be an inspiration to other women to reach high!

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  1. A guy I trained with for Glass City was hoping to run 3:15 or faster ( I had the same goal) we discussed race day strategy and he was addiment about going out with the 3:15 pace group. I said “have fun and I’ll see you at the finish line” GMP was 7:25 ,my first mile was 7:50 and progressively got faster. This strategy worked well for me and I ended up passing the guy at mile 23 and finished with a 3:14. I did a lot of training on super tired legs b/c of how I could fit my runs in due to my husbands schedule.

  2. I used a coach for my recent half marathon (PR) and my longer runs were all progression runs. Race day plan was to start slow and controlled at suggested pace, then to increase pace by 5-10 seconds/mile depending on how I was feeling. Negative splits were definitely a part of the formula. Starting at slower pace helped by giving me longer warm-up and confidence so that by mile eight or nine I didn’t start falling apart. And I did PR, which was plan A+!

  3. I love doing fast finishes in my training runs. I love negative splits in theory, but I’m terrible at executing them in races. At least I’ve gotten to the point where the positive splits aren’t so horrendously lopsided.

  4. Like you, it took me a few marathons (and bad blowup experiences) to realize I needed to pace differently. My 4th marathon was where the first I was able to execute it and it turned into a huge PR and BQ, my first real breakthrough race. Progression runs during training really helped me, and I found the treadmill to be a great tool for this and learning to start slower and finish harder. It was much easier to learn and train my body that way with the machine helping. Once I got on the roads with those runs it felt more like second nature. Over the years I have gotten much more efficient with marathon pacing as well as half marathons for negative splits but have struggled a bit more trying to take that same theory into shorter races!

    1. I agree it isn’t common, nor is it easy, but it worked for me and it could work for others. I think we all look to elite runners as prime examples of how it could be and should be done, right? We watch marathons on TV and see their form, monitor splits, and envy their stride. We may never run as fast as they do, but we can mimic their races during our own. It is just another way of racing that works for some people, and doesn’t for others! Thanks for reading!