Make A Break For It

How to put on a spurt in a race, no matter how fast you are

Posted: 7 October 2002
by Ed Eyestone

One piece of racing advice I dispense regularly, and one which is regularly ignored by many of the runners I coach, is to race at an even pace. But there are certain occasions in a race when a well-timed burst of speed is an even better strategy. The key is knowing when to surge. Below, I've outlined six surging strategies, and weighed the risks and benefits of each. Check them out, and give one a try the next time you're in a race.

At The Start

Some runners believe they can run as hard as they want for the first 15 seconds of a race without suffering any ill effects. This is true - but only if the race is 15 seconds long. That's because you have only 15 to 20 seconds worth of phosphocreatine in your muscles to use for sprints. Once you've exhausted your supply, you can't restock it until you come to a complete stop.

So, the only good time to sprint at the start of a race is when (a) the race is a sprint, or (b) the geography of the race makes it crucial for you to get to a certain turn, hill or trail before it gets bunged up with runners. (This sometimes happens in cross-country races, but seldom on the road.)

Around A Turn

It's a natural tendency to slow down as you go around a bend. If you start your surge just before you enter the turn, and continue accelerating through the turn, you will open a gap on your unsuspecting opponents every time.

Up A Hill

Surging from the bottom of a hill can leave you exhausted by the time you get to the top, so don't bother. But surging up the last third of a hill will keep your momentum from stalling once you reach the top. This will allow you to continue your surge down the other side of the hill, at which point you'll have gravity on your side – and a gap between you and your competition.

When Fatigued

In the middle of a race, particularly a long one (such as a marathon), runners often get bogged down. A quick surge when you're battling this kind of fatigue makes sense for two reasons. First, when you make the conscious decision to change your pace, you'll get an adrenaline burst that will push you on. Second, when you run for a long distance at the same pace, you tax your slow-twitch muscle fibres over and over again, while your fast-twitch fibres go passively along for the ride. If you shift to a higher gear, you often feel better because you switch on your fast-twitch fibres, which are relatively fresh.

Against Fast Finishers

Just as a boxer can set up his opponent for a knockout with a series of body blows, a well-timed surge in the middle of a race can finish off an opponent even if he or she has a faster finishing kick.

For all your opponents know, you're taking this surge all the way to the finish line. This uncertainty can be very unsettling to those around you, and may cause enough doubt for them to let you go. This enables you to build a gap that you can simply maintain as you settle back into your normal pace.

If your opponents are likely to call your bluff, wait until you know you can carry it all the way to the finish line. A sustained surge can take the kick out of many runners' legs. Try surging with three-quarters of a mile to go, increasing the intensity every quarter of a mile.

At The Finish

"It's fun to pass people at the end of a race", my wife, a one-hour 10K runner, has told me. And even though she averages 10-minute miles, during the last 400 metres she sprints like Michael Johnson. Bold move or needlessly risky? It's your call. Just be aware that your muscles will be fatigued, so a mad dash to the finish can increase your risk of injury. My wife could probably run a faster 10K if she simply increased the tempo throughout the race, sacrificing her blistering final kick. But would she have as much fun at the finish? Probably not.

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Discuss this article

According to the RW article "Make a Break for it", It's a natural tendency to slow down as you go around a bend. If you start your surge just before you enter the turn, and continue accelerating through the turn, you will open a gap on your unsuspecting opponents every time.

What utterly stupid advice! You slow down as you go through a turn for a damn good reason - namely, because you are vulnerable to mis-stepping, you are putting extra stress on one side of your body, you are out of balance etc. To suggest that you accelerate (and thus immediately enhance your liability of injury) is really clueless.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 15:56

When I read it I thought 'and now that everyone knows you won't get any benefit because everyone will be doing it.' Clearly you thought the same and have made this thread to stop others from surging leaving you the benefit of a speedy bend!

Very cunning!!
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:05

No, I always surge past at the top of a hill. That's really demoralising. And it makes those weekly hill sessions seem like something other than pointless self-torture!
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:06

I guess it depends on the bend, but I can see it working. Same with crest of a hill and stuff.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:07

doh. Ya beat me.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:07

It does sound daft to me.

I might make a move just before or after, but I'm not going hell for leather round a hairpin thanks.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:08

if you're aware of the very slightly increased risk of 'mis-stepping', aren't you less likely to? And it's hardly "clueless". Common sense, rather.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:08

maybe RW were saying that peeps slow down more than they need to to account for the 2increased risk of mis-stepping", and so a sly old dog could, in fact, go a little quicker than them and still be safe?
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:11

ie, some of the slowing down is actuially psychological? Dunno, haven't read it, just surmising.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:11

Well, I would argue that it's clueless to offer this as advice since I reckon that it increases the risks without commensurate reward. There are plenty of other tactics that will get you past the person in front without doing something silly. Of course, it depends on your race pace - at 10 min miling I don't think there's much additional danger, at sub-6 you're moving quite fast. But YMMV.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:12

aren't you better to run an even paced race rather than doing all this "surging", not that I could ever surge up a hill ever!!!! takes me all my time to keep going up it running:((
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:12

I dont think its bad advice.

In cross country I always pick up my pace on tight windy bits - for the very reason you state - lots of people slow down and pussyfoot around like a roadrunner in the wrong race so you can make up a lot of ground with not that much effort.

In off road running the best places to pick up pace are often the places where your most likely to slip - loose rocky slippery downhills is another great place to make up ground whilst people fanny around worrying about there foot slipping.

Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:17

Surging can break the guy behind you though. If I can hear someone breathing hard on my shoulder (and I'm able) I'll give a little dig just to put some distance between us. Often, once there is a gap, it'll increase.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:18

Surging can also break you. Just cast your mind back a few weeks to the NY marathon.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:19

Wow - I can't even remember me running that !

Old age eh ?
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:22

Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:22

Wassat you say Sonny Jim ?
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:23

What's all this 'breaking' people nonsense?

Whatever happened to old-fashioned good manners?
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:23

Well I'm not gonna wait for people to catch me up that's for sure ! ;-)
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:25

[pads off, tail low]
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:26

'cept Jj.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:28


"passing people"

Nope, you've lost me.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:29

I think it means when you go past spectators, Nessie.

Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:38

Ah, thanks Swervey.
Posted: 17/11/2004 at 16:39

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