Two-time Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier Joe Rubio provides tips on staying consistent during your training.
It’s always a great time to think about racing strategy.
To help you prepare for your big day, we’ve sat down with three coaches and asked them for their perspective on four key racing questions. The first installment is with Joe Rubio, a two-time Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon who coaches the Asics Aggies running club.
What are some tips or strategies that runners can try out to prevent them from going out too fast in a race? How can they learn to hold back early and not get caught up in excitement?
Racing consistently usually resolves the going-out-too-fast issue. Going out too hard is generally the result of inexperience. Most experienced racers realize the only way going out too hard works is when they are very fit, they are the class of the field, and they have the mental toughness to see it through. This is not where most runners are in their careers.
A more conservative approach early on usually results in faster overall race times. Going out conservatively does not mean a super slow jog, rather it means going out the first third of the race at the race pace you should be capable of running for the entire distance. Running in this fashion results in a race that feels pretty controlled the first third, somewhat tough the middle third, and really hard the last third. The athlete usually ends up with a finish time that is significantly faster than a race that’s really hard 100 percent through where any gains that are made in the first third of the race are lost in the second third and the last third is a death march. A slow race finish that hurts a lot from going out too hard is not going to inspire any sort of confidence.
Racing fast is all about confidence. Once most athletes learn to run more conservatively early on and finish significantly stronger, they generally adopt this strategy for a simple reason. It feels much better, it’s fun, it sets PRs. That said, there are people who, regardless of the fact that they race faster by going out more conservatively, will revert back to going out too hard and racing slower. You scratch your head with these athletes. Some people are just wired to do things that are not in their best interests. Keep in mind that nearly all podiums and word records outside of the 800m are run where the final third of the race distance is the fastest. The only way to do this is by not killing yourself in the first third. If this is how the best in the world race, it’s a good indication that it’s a very effective strategy to follow.
What do you tell your athletes in terms of drafting? When is a good time to draft off other runners? Is there ever a good time to lead?
Two of my good friends who are former national champions in the 1500m have a saying that they repeat at track meets all the time: “Lead and you will lose.” In most every case, leading is not advised. It takes significantly more energy to lead than to follow. Is there a best time to lead? Sure, the best times to lead are when you are very fit and have the mental toughness to bury people in your wake. Usually this is done during the final third of the race distance. The other time to lead is when you need to bridge the gap between the group you’re in that’s running maybe an inch too slow and the group ahead that’s running just right. For most though, the only time to lead is during the last 60 seconds or less of a race.
What are some things runners can do to train for that final kick to the finish?
We spend many weeks of a season working on finishing strong. This is defined as maintaining or running faster than the overall race pace for the final third of the race distance. If an athlete is actually able to do this, they are considered to have a strong finish. Additionally, if you become proficient at using this race strategy you will be passing lots of people in the final stages of the race because you feel strong and the others who went out too hard are wilting away never to be heard from again. Feeling confident and strong with 400m to go is the best medicine for a good kick.
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Any other racing strategies you can offer in terms of finding a second or two, such as cutting tangents on curves or how to fuel up efficiently in a longer race like a marathon?
The best way to get better at anything is by doing it consistently. We race every 2-4 weeks to not only get regular feedback on where the athlete is in their training, but also to become better at actually racing. Toeing the line once or twice per month enables athletes to become accustomed to racing and have less anxiety about it. They learn where to make moves and how best to respond when the going gets tough. We term early season races as “rust busters.” Even experienced athletes need a few races after their breaks to relearn good habits. In many cases you have very good athletes that you send into lesser events all for the sake of getting back into the routine of racing more to make good habits instinctive. Racing is not an innate ability; it’s a skill that must be worked on regularly to show any sort of improvement.