Ask Stew: Should I Start Out Fast on My Timed Runs or Do a Negative Split?

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Midshipmen take part in a 1.5-mile run.
First Class Midshipmen Jock Tracey and Jordan Bethke set the pace in the 1.5-mile run during the Explosives Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Summer Cruise Physical Screening Test (PST) at the Admiral Prout Field House track on Naval Base San Diego June 1, 2011. The goal of this portion of the PST is to introduce Midshipmen to the high physical standards of the EOD diving community. The EOD Summer Cruise is used to identify potential EOD officers from Reserve Officer Training Corps and the United States Naval Academy the summer prior to their senior year. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Benjamin Kittleson/Released)

How should you do the timed run event for a military fitness test? Do you just run it, or do you have a strategy to pace yourself and score your best? There are many ways to prepare and train for the test that will help you discover which method works best for you.

Here is a great question from an active-duty sailor. The answer depends on you and your ability and actual training method.

Hi, Mr. Smith. Do you recommend starting out fast on the timed runs or trying to pace yourself out then negative-splitting the back half of the timed run event? I have tried both and am not quite sure which works best. Both are hard. Which one gets easier as I get into better running shape? Thanks in advance. Jeremy (Navy)

Running is difficult, especially if you do not train for it regularly. The way you plan to take the test also should be part of your training and preparation. Here are my thoughts about the two methods you asked about as well as what I consider a preferred method, one that is a hybrid of the negative split.

If you ask an endurance athlete or competitive runner, you will learn that many prepare themselves to use the negative-split option. Most world records in medium-distance runs are done with negative splits.

The negative split starts out at a set pace that is easier than what you'll do in the second half of the distance run. This approach prevents you from burning yourself out too quickly.

Some runners prefer a gradual increase in speed for each lap of a 1.5-mile timed run, so they start off a little slower than their goal pace, reach their goal pace about midway through the run, then go faster than goal pace on the last lap or two. You cannot do this method well unless you train this way by running progressively faster with your timed running sets of 400-800 meters in length.

Here is how a nine-minute goal pace might look like if you do a negative split version:

Lap 1, 2, 3: midway time of 4:45 (that's a 9:30 pace if you maintained it)

Lap 4, 5, 6: pick up the pace for the next three laps to achieve a 4:15, which is about 10 seconds per lap faster than the previous three laps.

On the flip side, going out of the gates faster than your goal pace, then settling down to goal pace or just under goal pace, is another option that I have found to be extremely difficult, as it produces significant buildup of lactic acid that will challenge your muscles to move faster. This approach increases the heart rate at the start of the run.

Once again, you need to train for this and "embrace the suck" of this method, which many find to be the most challenging. A lot of runners wind up running much slower than they had planned and do not score as well after this initial burst of speed at the start of the timed run event.

Another option is goal pace running, where you take the 1.5-mile timed run event and divide it by six laps and strive to hit that pace every lap from beginning of the run until the end.

The beauty of this method is that, like the first half of the negative split, you are not burning yourself out by starting too fast. If you have anything left in the tank, you can push yourself on the last lap and perhaps beat your goal pace by a few seconds and run faster.

Here is how that approach would look if you wanted a nine-minute, 1.5-mile timed run, for instance:

Lap 1: 90 seconds

Lap 2: 90 seconds (3:00)

Lap 3: 90 seconds (4:30). The halfway point is half of your goal for the test.

Lap 4: 90 seconds (6:00). Six-minute mile; right on pace.

Lap 5: 90 seconds (7:30)

Lap 6: 90 seconds (9:00). If you wish, try to run this last lap at 80-85 seconds and beat your goal pace on the final lap.

Consider this a negative split option since you can stay at your goal pace or push the last lap. Training for your goal pace a few times a week will enable you to be in the condition you need to run faster and longer at that pace.

What you ate or drank prior to the PT test will determine your fuel levels and determine whether you have the fuel in the tank to push that last half of a negative split or the last lap of a goal pace hybrid option. As amateur runners, preparing like a competitive runner may not be the best answer. A compromise may be a better option for the typical military member who's taking a semi-annual fitness test.

Related articles:

Goal Pace Running

Speed Intervals

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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