We’ve all been there: you’ve run your entire race neck-and-neck with another runner, only to have them speed up and leave you in their dust in the final few hundred metres. Or perhaps you’ve been the one to unleash a monster finishing kick on your opponent. Either way, you’ve likely wondered how you or your fellow racer managed to sprint at the end of the race, despite being exhausted. Many runners believe you’re either born a kicker or you’re not, but this isn’t true. You may never be a sprinter, but with the right training, you can improve your performance in the last stretch of a race.
The science of the kick
When we talk about a finishing kick, what we’re really referring to is finishing power. This is different from pure speed, which can only be maintained for 60 to 80 metres by most runners. According to Steve Magness from The Science of Running, your ability to kick comes down to how economically you run, how much left you have in the tank at the end of a race, your ability to increase motor unit recruitment, and, of course, your motivation.
Basically, at the point when it’s time to start kicking, a more economical runner will have more energy available to speed up because they haven’t tapped into their anaerobic reserves as much. On top of that, a runner with a larger tank of anaerobic energy will also have a better finishing kick, because they have more to draw from. If you’re a very efficient runner but have a very small reserve of anaerobic energy, you won’t have a whole lot of juice to power you to the finish. Your ability to kick is also determined by how many muscle fibres you’re able to call on when it’s time to speed up. Just like with anaerobic energy, if you get to the point in a race when it’s time to kick and you’ve cycled through everything, there’s nothing left to increase force production.
Finally, your ability to kick is highly dependent on your degree of motivation. Our bodies are tightly controlled, and will always prevent us from pushing ourselves to the point where we risk injury or death through a series of safety mechanisms. Magness explains that your body will start to shut you down long before you actually reach a dangerous level of exertion, so you never fully use up all of your reserves. If you’re highly motivated, you can push yourself a bit beyond that point and unleash a strong finishing kick despite the fact that your body is trying to work against you.
How to improve your kick
In order to train your body to have a better finishing kick, you have to teach it to recruit as many muscle fibres as possible, then learn how to use those fibres at the end of the race when you’re already tired. Plyometrics are a great way to train muscle fibre recruitment, as well as short, hard sprints and hill sprints. These types of workouts are very different from the type of aerobic training distance runners are used to doing, and you should take enough rest between sprints so you’re not still breathing heavily when you start your next interval.
Another way to train yourself to have a better finishing kick is to do some of your workouts faster than race pace. For example, if you’re training for a half-marathon, you could do some of your interval sessions at 5K pace. This will train you to have a second, faster gear that you can tap into on race day. Finally, if you want to finish strong in a race, it’s important to stay relaxed. If you force yourself too much to speed up, you’ll likely end up overstriding and tensing up, which may even slow you down.
- More economical runners have more energy available at the end of a race to kick. This comes with time and training, so the more you run and train, the more energy reserves you have available to you, even when you’re tired.
- Better muscle-fibre recruitment also helps improve your kick, and doing harder, shorter sprints or plyometrics and strength work teaches your body how to recruit more muscle fibres effectively.
- A large part of your ability to kick at the end of a race comes down to motivation, and if you’re motivated enough, you can push your body beyond what it’s telling you to do (i.e. stop), and crank up the speed even when you’re exhausted.