A recent paper analyzed the races of Olympic finalists and semi-finalists in the 800m and 1,500m, and findings revealed an interesting nugget about race tactics: a runner’s kick is noted as their ability to accelerate in the final 100 to 200 metres of a race. But Canadian physiologist Trent Stellingwerff and his partners show that a kick is not so much an acceleration, as it is the ability to maintain speed, or to limit deceleration.

What you can see in the graphs is that the difference between becoming a finalist versus a semi-finalist lies in the final 200 metres of a race. Most of the splits are fairly similar through the first three quarters of the races, but the final quarter determines the winner. And it’s not about who speeds up, it’s about who doesn’t slow down. 

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Stellingwerff said on Twitter today, “The perception of the winning “kick” is deceiving, as it presents as an acceleration; instead (for most) it is the maintenance of speed relative to those who are slowing.”

The study concludes that the best athletes have the physiological capability to change their pace and respond to surges through several consecutive rounds. 

Melissa Bishop
Photo: Claus Andersen/Athletics Canada

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So you’re not an Olympic-class middle-distance runner but you’re interested in learning to vary your pace in workouts and races? Here are some ideas for how to incorporate pace change into your training: you can add strides to the end of a run, which will incorporate some easy speed work, start your run slowly then add a pick up in the middle before returning to an easier pace, or do some hills. All of these slightly varied workouts can help runners get comfortable with shifting gears during a race. 

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