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New study: Why a fast start can cause a slow finish

It's hard to not get caught up in the excitement of a race start, but going out too fast can lead to a slow finish over long distances.

It’s hard to not get caught up in the excitement of starting a distance race, but a new study suggests that going out too fast can lead to a slower finish.

cross-country running

Anyone who has run a race is familiar with the feeling of excitement when the gun goes off. It’s easy to entirely forget your pacing plan or split band and sprint off as if it were the 100m dash. This obviously isn’t a good idea and many of us know from first hand experience that going out too fast at the start may result in a slower than intended finish.

Thanks to a new study, we now have some science to explain why this is the case. To investigate the problem, researchers from Norway found a sample of exceptionally fit athletes (with an average VO2max of 80.7ml/kg/min) and made them run hard to tire them out.

Athletes were then allowed to recover for a variable amount of time with some athletes much more recovered than others (as determined by the level of blood lactate — lactic acid that appears in the blood — collected in a sample). Participants were then instructed to run again around lactate pace and their running economy was measured.

The key result was that those who were less recovered showed a 5.5 per cent lower (i.e. worse) running economy compared to those who recovered more fully. This equates to a difference of about 30 seconds over the course of a 10-minute run or three minutes for every hour of running.

Applied to the marathon, this could mean 10 or more minutes (of additional running) and could be the difference between a personal best, a Boston qualifying mark, or getting neither.

Note that although lactate was used to indicate the level of athlete recovery and was ultimately showed to affect economy, it should not be considered the cause of it. However, for practical purposes it stands to suggest that going out too hard at the start of a distance race and accumulating extra lactate is probably not a good idea and could lead to less efficiency later on. If you want to finish fast and strong, keep the start under control.