Control Your Emotions
Research, common sense and almost ever runner's experience will tell you the optimal path to a PR or other fast time is to run an evenly paced race. Start too slow and while you'll have plenty of gas at the end, you simply won't have the leg turnover to make up the seconds or minutes you left on the table early in the race. Start too fast (we've all been there), and you'll quickly get into oxygen debt. The decline is non-linear meaning you'll slow down much more than the rate at which you over did it. If you're trained to run 3 miles at 6:00 min/mile but run your first mile in 5:00 min/mile, be sure you'll lose more than a minute over the final two miles and finish much slower than your 18:00 target. This risk is greatest at the very beginning of a race. You're far more likely to overdo it at the start than say mid-way through the race.
Let's think about the psychology of the racer. You've been training and mentally preparing for the event for months. As the race draws closer, anxiety levels increase. You arrive at the event and see the crowds, the pageantry and your competition. You're well rested and properly fueled. After a warmup and a few nervous trips to the bathroom, you enter the corral fidgeting while you wait for what seems like forever for the start. The start finally comes and it is a stampede. You've got the elites looking to get out clean and rookies who have no idea how to pace themselves. You want to tuck in with a group and chances are that group is going out too fast themselves or you're overly optimistic about which crowd you can hang with. If there is any kind of turn in the first few hundred meters, you need to steer clear of the crowds or risk getting pinned in or worse falling down. It's no wonder everyone starts like their running a 100m dash. The problem here is that fast start leads to your overdoing it in the first quarter to half mile and ruining your whole race. All your training and preparation are wasted. You battle through the remainder of the race well below expectations.
Let's say you didn't overdo it early and have made it to the last third of the race on pace. Now comes another familiar challenge, pushing yourself through the final stages of the race. This isn't just having a blazing kick over the final 100 meters. Anyone can loaf it and blast out a fast finish. Rather the mental negotiation of pushing yourself through pain and self doubt. Funny thing about running is that it is self inflicted pain. All you have to do is slow down to feel better. Pain is a natural defense mechanism against bodily harm. This is an important survival trait. If you put your hand on a hot stove, you certainly want something to tell you that isn't a good idea and you better get your hand out of there. Pain is good in that context. Pain isn't so great when you're striving for a great race.
So if the key to running fast is even pacing and the biggest risks to even pacing are starting too fast and not being able to push through the final stretch. What can you do about it. Like many things in life the key to success is often doing the opposite of what you want to do. In other words, chill out when you want to fly and push hard when you want to lay on the ground and quit. Easier said than done. The key is to develop a "feel" for a race where the first third feels almost easy, the middle third is steady and in control while the final third has you squeezing out very ounce of effort you can. Remember you're expending energy throughout the race so you level of effort will need to increase to maintain a steady pace. Here are things you can do before or during the race to get that feel for holding an even pace through an ever increasing effort.
Visualization is the practice of imagining a desired outcome prior to the event. The idea is to tap into the power of our mind's ability to control our bodies by "programming" the outcome we want in our heads. When the event comes our minds are so conditioned to the outcome, it becomes second nature and we execute it flawlessly even through we've never actually done it for real.
Visualizing requires finding a quite place, getting relaxed, taking a few deep breaths and clearing your head. You want to mentally walk through the entire event imagining the outcome you desire. Visualization is a proven technique for mastering the mental aspects of athletic competition.
Practice in training
Use your workouts, especially the hard ones as an opportunity to practice even pacing getting the feel of properly distributing your effort. In intervals, tempo runs or long runs shoot for even splits. Notice how it feels throughout the workout and apply that feel to your next race.
Progression Runs and Fast Finish Long Runs
A common technique for marathoners and half marathoners is to finish some of their long runs at race pace. This teaches you to run race pace when you're fatigued yet doesn't put the same stress on you as a full race. Another similar technique is called a progression run. This run starts very slowly and builds throughout the workout to a point where you are running race pace for faster. This workout teaches both your body and mind how to progressively ratchet up your effort throughout the run. As with fast finish long runs, this is a very difficult workout and should not be overdone.
If you use a GPS watch, let it help you regulate your pace in the early going of the race. You should have an semi-accurate reading within the first 100m or so. If you get out too fast or too slow, don't panic. Remember you have a long time to get your pace in check so don't kill yourself speeding up or slowing down if you are off. Also, a GPS watch can help keep you on track in the lonely middle miles of the race.
Key off others
Let others do the work. We know everyone starts too quickly but once you've navigated the early goings of the race, find a pack to pull you along. Don't push the pack but rather let them do the work saving both physical and mentally energy. Keep a close eye on the pace. If the pack does slow down, you'll need to push it along or break out.
Don't tense up at the end
If we can overcome our natural urges to slow down, we often overdo it by tensing up which is actually counterproductive. As you push through the final stages of the race be sure to remain relaxed and let your effort flow naturally. Pushing too hard causes us to tense up and creates a natural breaking mechanism.