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.
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.