Whether you’re planning to cross the finish line in just over 2 hours or trying to break 4 hours for the first time, there’s a tried-and-true racing strategy you can use to run your best marathon this fall. It’s called negative splitting, and the concept is simple and straightforward: Run the second half of your race faster than the first.
And if finishing strong for the sake of running your best marathon and bragging about it to all your friends isn’t enough, Strava and New Balance will sweeten the pot a bit. If you can keep enough gas in the tank to run the second half of your next marathon faster than the first half—and prove it—New Balance will send you a free pair of shoes. Take on the Back Half Challenge >
Why run negative splits? For starters, the numbers don’t lie.
The current men’s marathon world record? Negative split.
Women’s world record? Also, a negative split.
All six marathon medalists at the most recent Olympic Games in Rio? You guessed it, they all ran negative splits.
Smart pacing and patient execution will help you run your best marathon. But it’s easier said than done.
“It takes mental willpower to run a controlled, smart first half and mental toughness to pick up the pace in the latter half,” says Michelle Meyer of San Francisco, a 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon qualifier. “It also obviously requires the physical training that you have to put in beforehand to have the knowledge of how fast you are capable of running your race.”
Mark Coogan, a New Balance coach who represented the U.S. at the 1996 Olympic Marathon, put his patience into practice when he qualified for the team at the Trials that year in Charlotte, NC. The margin for error was thin, and the difference between a strong finish and a big blowup could make or break Coogan’s Olympic chances. “I knew I was having a good race” says the now 50-year-old Coogan. “And I felt like I had strength and could close hard. Coogan passed Keith Brantly in the final mile of the race, finishing in second and securing his spot on the Olympic team. He ran the second half of the race three minutes faster than the first, crossing the finish line in a personal best 2:13:05.
Despite the evidence from the elites listed above, most runners finish the second half of marathons slower than they started—a lot slower—to the tune of 10-15 minutes on average according to Strava data from the most recent editions of the New York, Boston, Marine Corps, Cal International, Portland and Chicago marathons. On the other hand, the number of runners who negative split marathons is staggeringly low, usually falling between 1 and 8 percent of finishers.
Why is this?
“I think many runners have a plan to negative or even-split a race, but they get carried away early on and deviate too much from their plan,” says two-time Olympic marathoner and New Balance athlete Reid Coolsaet of Canada. “The marathon feels relatively easy early on, and many runners get excited and push the pace too much. Some athletes pick over-ambitious goals as their fitness over shorter distances points to marathon performances they don’t actually have the endurance for.”
Coogan concurs, saying many marathoners, even the best ones, often commit the grave mistake of stepping to the starting line without a realistic sense of what they can actually do. He cites his own Olympic race in 1996 as a prime example, where he went in thinking he could medal, when he really should have been happy to finish in the top-10 or 15. Coogan says he went out harder than he should have in that race and blew up spectacularly, finishing 41st in a disappointing 2:20:27.
Early excitement, as Coolsaet alluded to, is an emotion that can be challenging to control, whether you’re a seasoned racer or a first-time participant. Developing the discipline to stay focused on your own objectives, especially in the opening miles, can be the difference between finishing strong and doing damage control in the final 10K.
“I think a lot of runners get excited in a marathon,” says Anoush Arakelian, who ran a near 4-minute negative split at last fall’s Philadelphia Marathon on her way to a 3:16:28 finish. “Sometimes we start too far up in the corral, or try to keep up with others, instead of focusing on our own race. By the time you reach the half, oftentimes people are totally spent and by mile 20, you have to slow down in order to just finish the race.”
And then there are those runners who think they can bank time in the first half of a marathon, thus giving them a cushion to sit on later in the race when things start falling apart. But it doesn’t exactly work that way. Banking time in a marathon almost always backfires: You run the risk of going anaerobic too early in an event that’s primarily aerobic, fuel stores get quickly depleted and muscles incur a tremendous amount of damage. The usual end result? You run full-steam into the vaunted wall and end up shuffling across the finish line.
“When you start to tire in the marathon your form will go which will make you more susceptible to injury,” adds Coolsaet. “On top of that, when you tire in a marathon things can quickly go from bad to worse, and slowing down gets compounded.”
Negative splitting isn’t something you can just hope to do on race day. It takes a tremendous amount of discipline to run within yourself when you take off from the starting line and a lot of practice to know what you’re capable of before you even get there. In essence, race day should be an extension of some of your most challenging, confidence-building workouts. And, as with most skills, the most surefire way to hone your ability to finish stronger than you started is to practice it with purpose before you get to the starting line.
“The strongest second half I ever ran was when I achieved my personal best,” says Coolsaet, who clocked a 2:10:28 at the 2015 Berlin Marathon. “I took the lead after the pacemaker dropped off around 29K and knew I was running fast as the pack thinned out really quickly. I was able to run strong towards the end because of the consistent and purposeful training I had going into that race.”
Want to own the back half of your fall marathon?
Incorporate these three workouts into your build-up and learn to negative split like a pro:
Fast Finish Long Run
It’s as easy as it sounds: Finish off the last four miles of your long runs at goal marathon pace (see the McMillan running calculator here) or slightly faster. “The more long runs with fast finishes you can do in preparation for the race, the better,” says Meyer. “By finishing a long run with four miles that are at race pace or even slightly faster, this will prepare you to finish strong and will make those last several miles feel easier come race day.” Coolsaet also practices finishing fast in his long workouts, aiming to progress the pace every 30 minutes. “To help finish strong most of my long sessions are set up to run faster towards the end,” says Coolsaet. “The longest session we do is a 90-minute run where each 30 minute section is faster than the previous one. We usually end this session at marathon pace or slightly faster.”
This was one of Coogan’s key marathon workouts that gave him the confidence that he was ready to finish fast. “This workout trains your body to run fast when it’s tired so your body and mind know what to expect,” Coogan says. “You’re wiring your brain correctly.” Following a 2-3 mile warmup and strides, run a 5K at a pace that’s 10-15 seconds per mile faster than your goal marathon pace. Rest 5 minutes, then run another 5K at the same pace as the first one. Rest 5 more minutes. Finish with one final 5K at the same pace as the first two or slightly faster. Cool down with a couple miles of easy running.
Coogan and Meyer are both big proponents of simulating the race course in practice, especially if it’s a route like Boston or New York, both of which feature challenging second halves. Meyer likes tempo runs that have an “easy” first half and a tougher or slower second half, where she’ll try to pick up the pace slightly even though the terrain is more challenging. Coogan has done long runs that feature a downhill start and hiller finish (much like Boston) or he’ll even have his athletes finish the last few miles of a long run on the track if they’re preparing for a flat, fast course. “You want to simulate the race as best you can in training without going into race mode,” advises Coogan.
Run the second half of your next marathon faster than the first half, and our partners at New Balance will send you a free pair of shoes. All you have to do is keep enough gas in the tank for a negative split, finish strong and you get the NB running shoes of your choice. Take on the Back Half Challenge >