Race Like A Pro: Top Tips From Mike Barnow

Westchester Track Club coach Mike Barnow says a track is not the best surface to do high-intensity workouts. Photo: www.shutterstock.com

The Westchester Track Club coach talks racing strategies, pacing and developing a finishing kick. 

If there’s anyone who knows about racing, it’s Westchester (New York) Track Club’s coach Mike Barnow. Barnow has been helping runners of all abilities since he founded the club back in 1973. He currently coaches elite runner Lindsey Scherf, who won the Gasparila Half Marathon earlier this year.

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?

Our club trains out at Rockefeller Park. We have these long loops. One that I really like is 40 yards over a mile, and I often have my runners doing two laps on there. Depending on their race. For marathoners, I might have then doing 4 x 2 for example. I tell them that I want them to run a negative split for them. So if I’m talking to Lindsey [Scherf], she runs with a group of fast guys, I will tell her to run it just under 12 minutes, so maybe the first lap is 5:55 to 6 minutes. It rolls and it’s hilly. We’ll do three of them and I want the last one to be the fastest of all three. So if she comes through the first lap in 5:30 and their next lap is 5:58. That’s a 28-second slowdown. That’s no good. So I tell them, “Let’s try it again.” They will tell me, “But this is so easy.” And it does feel easy early on. So I like to do long repeats on a loop where you are running the same loop a second time—or even a third time. The clock doesn’t lie. So in a long race, it should not feel hard at the beginning.

What do you tell your athletes at the start line to remember this advice?

I tell them this all the time. I think in the big races, everyone is very excited. The majority of runners go out too fast. I tell them, “Don’t worry if so and so is ahead of you at the beginning. You got to run something realistic early. You can get into trouble. You have to run relatively even splits.” Here’s an example: Lindsey was down at the Gate River Run this year. Before the race, I told her, “Shalane Flanagan is totally out of your league, same with Janet [Bawcom].” Lindsey has this thing in her head that she’s going to beat Janet. I said, “Maybe sometime. I know that Janet was in Kenya for the last few weeks training in warm weather. This is her first race and she will be probably very fit. I think right now that she’s a little bit better than you. I said that if Lindsey ran relatively even [splits], then maybe she could break 50 [minutes for 15K]. The day of the race, I was at practice [in New York] and a lot of the club members were asking how she [Lindsey] did. I told them that the race is going on. I get a text 5 minutes later from her that she got fifth place. I was really thrilled. Then she wrote that she made the mistake and raced Janet. So after practice I called her and asked her how fast she ran the first mile. I was thinking even pace like 5:15 or 5:18, and she tells me 4:57. She said that Janet was ahead of her.

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Lindsey had in mind that if Janet goes out that fast, she will go with her, but I said that next time, Janet will go out too fast and maybe you catch her. So Lindsey admits to me that if she hadn’t have gone out so fast, she might have gotten third or fourth. She ran great despite that opening mile and the warm weather, but she needs to learn from it. Still, I’m really happy with that result and I told her that she should be, too. So from all this, you got to be realistic and your race has to be relatively even paced unless the course is like a Boston course where you know that the early splits are sometimes very fast, because it’s downhill.

About the race itself: When is a good time to draft and when is a good time to lead?

The easy answer is that you want to draft on a windy day. It’s nice if you know a couple of the runners that you are competitors with and you agree to work together and share [the lead] each mile. But you want to make your run for home at a certain point. If you know that someone can outkick you right at the end, then you need to make your move earlier in the race. You have to judge your own level of fitness and who you are racing.

Is there ever a bad time to lead?

Yes. I would say if I have an athlete and they are all about even in terms of fitness. I would tell them do not lead the whole way. It’s hard to judge the pace right. You watch these races where people go out too fast and you say, “Boy, they’d love to have that one back.” They open up this huge lead and the wheels come off. When you get in trouble, you are helpless.

How can you work on your finishing kick in training?

I don’t care what kind of shape you are in; you have to pace your race right. You have to be reasonably fresh at the end. You need to learn by doing. So I have people working on negative splits in practice. So the loop I was talking about, I would want them running something like 6:10, 6:10, and 5:55 for example. Do that a few times.

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Can you do other things besides running negative splits for that kick? Can you do quarters or something shorter?

Lindsey came to me with a similar question. She say that [Renato] Canova was having his half marathoners do 400s and 200s. Really fast stuff. I told her that I don’t want her doing that at all. You don’t need to do 200s for 400s to build up your speed. The thing that I’ve been using for years and years at the Rockies [Rockefeller State Park] is a hill with only like 3 or 4 degrees. It’s an uphill, but it’s not steep. It’s softer surface with no turns. It just climbs, and I have the runners doing 2-minute or 1-minute runs up it and jogging back and going again. I say to them that it should feel like the last 30 seconds of that 2 minutes is your best running. Do it again, and again, and again. That’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve gotten away from the track for quite a few years now. When I was running, back in the ancient times, the tracks were cinder. They were dirt, and you could do a lot of quarters. They are all-weather now. They are great for racing, but very hard for doing intense workouts and not getting hurt. That’s my take. You see on social media all of [Galen] Rupp’s workouts after a race. [Alberto] Salazar has him training after a race. I think all the high school coaches are looking at this. The kids are looking at this, and I think it’s a good way to get hurt. How do you do an intense race on an indoor track, a hard track, and then do a 30 minute workout on the same surface?

Are there any other racing strategies that you can suggest?

How about this: Unless you are in Central Park and run there all the time, I suggest to my runners that they should warm up on the course backwards. They need to know the last 2 miles of the course. Know where you are. If you’ve run the course 5 times and I’ve never been there, then you have an advantage over me. If you start pushing at the end, you need to know where you are. You have to know the finish of the course if you are really competitive. One other thing I would say is to ease into your season. Once you’ve got a few races under your belt and you are more fit, you can be more aggressive. In early-season races, you are so much better of running conservative.

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