HOW TO: Cross Every Finish Line Feeling Strong!

It takes a lot more than a picture-perfect smile to nail crossing that finish line. Here’s how to make sure you conquer it in Insta-worthy fashion. – By Kristen Dold, Illustrations by Dale Edwin Murray

Dale Edwin Murray

It doesn’t matter whether your race is just a 5-K or a whopping 42.2km – every runner craves that triumphant, arms-in-the-air photo finish. (Because looking like a slumped-over, sweaty mess isn’t cute.)

If only a grand finale were as easy as throwing your hands up: “Runners often have a lot of misconceptions about what it takes to finish strong – it involves planning, proper pacing, and some surreal mental and physical fortitude to keep going when your body wants to slow down,” says Ryan Warrenburg, head coach for ZAP Fitness Coaching. And while a lot has to go right to feel good at the end of a race, it only takes a few missteps (sometimes in the first few minutes or kilometres) to throw your body and brain off track, torpedoing your dreams of crushing a PB or dominating a new-to-you distance. Achieve your goals – and snag that victorious finish-line photo – with a smart race-day plan of attack.

At the Starting Line

Dale Edwin Murray

It’s tough not getting swept up in the excitement of a starting line (music pumping, crowds roaring, legs feeling fresh AF), but gunning it out of the gate – especially if you’re running a half or full marathon – will almost always add extra time to the clock later on, cautions Jason Fitzgerald, a 2:39 marathoner, and founder and head coach of Strength Running.

“You can’t win a race in those first few minutes, but you can lose one – speeding up too early wastes precious carbs you’re going to need during the last leg of the race, and it creates muscle damage that will cause a slowdown as you try to recover.” These simple strategies will help you simmer, so you can hit a full boil later.

Pause the Pump-Up Jams

Whether it’s a new course or one you’ve run time and time again, your tunes at the starting line matter. Adjust your playlist so the first few songs promote control rather than high-energy frenzy, says Boston Marathon psychologist Dr Jeffrey Brown, author of The Racer’s Brain. You can even choose ones with a slower tempo – science shows we often match our stride to the beat of the music, so playing a song with a slower pace can help keep you from going hard like a beast.

Seed Yourself Correctly

While it’s exciting to start near the front of the pack, slower runners risk getting pulled along at too fast a pace, says Lisa Reichmann, a running coach. If your event doesn’t have pens or signs that instruct where to line up according to your expected pace, try to gauge where you should be based on your usual finishing place. (If the course around you tends to be jammed from beginning to end, you’re probably a mid-packer – line up there.) Chronic fast starters should err on the side of beginning further back, to force a first-kilometre slowdown.

Start Slowly

Tech addicts, this is where your watch can be crazy helpful. Run six to 12 seconds slower than your target pace per kilometre for anywhere from a few minutes (if you’re running a 5-K or 10-K) to a few kilometres (if it’s a half or full marathon) before easing into your goal pace, says Reichmann.

When You Crush That Halfway Mark

Dale Edwin Murray

Getting to the middle of a race can stir feelings of badassness for making it this far, coupled with a hit of exhaustion because, damn, you still have a long way to go. “When you’re starting to tire but the finish is still far away, ask yourself what you need. More fuel? A different pace? A mental boost?” suggests running coach Julie Sapper.

The answer is probably one of those three – but a fuel check is a good place to start. “A common mistake in longer races is to skip water or gels because you don’t feel like you need it,” says dietician Dr Kelly Pritchett, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise science at Central Washington University. “But it then becomes impossible to catch up on fuel, and you’ll feel wasted by the end of the race.” Make sure that isn’t you, with these tweaks.

Fuel Up Early

Many 5-K and 10-K runners can get away with drinking just water, but if it’s hot, you’re a salty sweater, or you tend to cramp up, sip a sports drink mid­-race, says Pritchett. Half- and full-marathoners should practise their fuelling plan several times before race day to avoid tummy trauma.

“We suggest 30 to 60 grams of carbs (from energy gels, chews, or bars) per hour, starting 15 to 30 minutes into the race,” says Pritchett. “Bring a variety of options, and save your favourite for last as extra motivation.”

Pace Like a Pro

“If you’re running a flat course, focus on even pacing with a kick at the end,” says Reichmann. “If the race starts downhill and then moves uphill, plan for a positive split, taking extra time for the incline so you don’t burn out before the final leg.” And while it may sound obvious, don’t forget to revise your strategy depending on the weather: if it’s an unseasonably warm day, slow your pace or you may not finish at all, says Reichmann.

Find Productive Distractions

When exhaustion hits and pain’s on the brain, Nikki Reiter (biomechanist and coach for The Run SMART Project) tells her runners to focus on form cues for a reset. “If your turnover is slowing down and you’re starting to hunch over, think Run tall, Faster feet, or Push from the toes, to distract yourself and get your form back.”

The Safety of a Swift Kick

Is it smart to sprint across the finish line? Here’s what the experts say.

We love a dramatic ending as much as the next runner, but are finishing kicks – those final sprints to the line – a good idea? “If you’re not fighting for a place in the Olympics, I tell middle-aged runners to skip the sprint and put that extra fuel towards a sustained increase earlier in the race,” says Dr Paul Thompson, chief of cardiology at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. Sudden acceleration causes a surge in heart rate, and if you have a pre-existing condition, the strain may put you at increased risk for a heart attack or cardiac arrest. (Keep in mind that these events are still super-rare.) If you’re young and healthy and have been training consistently with lots of speedwork, you can sprint the last 100 metres, says Thompson.

For the Grand Finale

Dale Edwin Murray

With most of the race behind you, it’s finally safe to max out your engine. “For both short and long races, I suggest following the two-thirds rule – if you’re controlled and have some extra fuel left in the tank with just a third of the race left, it’s okay to pick up your speed,” says Warrenburg. Sound like you? Here’s how to kick it into high gear.

Tap Your Performance-enhancers

The last leg of the race is the time to blast the mood-boosting tunes, feed off the energy of the crowd, and visualise yourself finishing with power and strength. “At this point, a lot of runners will think I’m hitting the wall; so imagine it’s made of Styrofoam instead of bricks – you can just push right through it,” says Brown.

Add Speed

Gradually “I’ve seen people decide to throw the kitchen sink at the race with too much course left, and it can go horribly wrong,” says Warrenburg. A better approach: ease into a quicker pace using the conservative guidelines below.

Nail a fast finish

Sail across the finish line by strategically ramping up your pace.

5-K
Pick up the pace by a couple of seconds per kilometre every couple of minutes.

10-K
After 6km, pick it up by a couple of seconds per kilometre every 3 or 4 minutes, for as long as the pace feels manageable.

Half marathon

From kilometres 14 to 18, drop the pace by 3 to 6 seconds each kilometre as it feels sustainable. Speed up more after kilometre 18.

Full marathon

Same as a half, but speed up between kilometres 30 and 35, and consider bringing it in faster if you feel good after that.

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