Understanding Negative Splits

I received a great question the other day.  A long time runner was baffled by exactly what a negative split is and how they should be done.  This is a great question and there are lots of answers and ways to approach it.  But let me try my best to clear up a few things about this topic.

NegativeSplit

The negative split is considered the “gold standard” technique for races of just about any distance.  Generally speaking, this is when you run the second half of a race faster than the first half.  It can be done in any number of ways from running the first half a few minutes slower than the second half, or by strategically running miles at a particular pace for the first half and then a planned faster pace the second half.  Taken even further, with experience you can even run each mile of the second half faster than the previous one.

Any of these forms of negative splitting takes a lot of practice and experience.  Obviously some require more diligence than others.  Typically the first step to this approach begins with you determining a goal pace for a particular event.  You can use previous race times to determine a pace you are capable of or take a goal finish time and use pacing tools to determine your base (easy) pace for training.  This base pace will be used for the majority of your training runs and will allow you over time to get a feel for different paces.  These tools can also help you determine a pace for your speed work and tempo runs as well as long slow distance training.  Over time, you will begin to know or at least estimate the speed at which you are currently running.

Either by yourself or with a coach you can then sit down and determine a race strategy.  The ability to understand pace by feel will help on race day as you will start the event running a bit slower than what you plan to finish with.  This part can be very difficult as it is very easy to get excited in the moment and amongst other runners and go out a bit fast.  Using your knowledge of paces from training, you can settle in at a comfortable race speed.

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Keep in mind that this is a strategy that should not be used in all daily runs and should generally be saved for speed work, tempo runs, or other strategic training runs.  The majority of your runs should be done at your base pace.  Even the most elite runners still spend approximately 70% of their training running at their comfortable base pace.  There is no need to run negative splits for every run to reap their benefits.  In fact, this type of technique can strain your body and lead to injury.  Easy runs are meant to be easy runs and you will gain the biggest benefits from this type of training as well.  Also keep in mind that beginner runners should focus more on overall endurance training and far less on trying to negative split.  While it is the ideal plan for race day, learning to run at a steady pace is a great strategy as well.

Be patient with your body and yourself.  Negative splits are definitely an art form that is perfected over time!

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17 thoughts on “Understanding Negative Splits

      • Actually, I do have a serious question for you.

        Is there a difference in the type of training benefit you get if you do a neg split where the paces are even (meaning within the block, you run an even pace) versus a neg split where you gradually get faster with each mile?

      • Both have good benefits. Speeding up over time is a form of speed work/interval training. Even pace will help with basic endurance building. By doing both you will make yourself a stronger runner and more knowledgeable about your paces. You really can’t go wrong with either.

  1. I think progression runs in my training helped me keep even (eh, slightly negative) split in my last half. I run early in the morning so my first mile is always a good 30 seconds slower just to wake up, and sometimes my second mile is too. The way you train is how you will race… when I am at the track we have people who go out too fast on the first few reps then struggle to hang on and that is typically what happens in the race too. Gotta remember that even a 5K, as short as it is, is a true endurance event!

    • Oh man 5k’s are tough for me. I can’t handle pacing it and it turns brutal. Like I said, it is definitely an art. Might be easier for me to do this for a full than a 5k 😉

      • I don’t run fulls but I think it’s easier for a half than a 5K, because once you run a few half marathons, a 5K seems so short. A half, you know that if you go out too fast in the first few miles, it will be ugly. In a 5K, if you start too fast in the first mile, yes it will be a bad ending but the ending is a lot sooner :).

  2. Thanks for this, Coach! This is probably the most coherent advice on negative splits I’ve found.

    Still, I have a hard time “feeling” out my pace. Without a watch or app telling me my actual pace, I can’t seem to be at all accurate in sensing it. Sometimes I feel like I am chugging at race pace, but when I look at actual data afterward I was only slightly above my comfort zone. While still other runs I feel the exact opposite: like I am it crawling when I am infact going quite quickly. I find wind, rain, snow, road conditions, time of day, my mood, etc all greatly change the way I perceive my pace.

    Any further advice on finding the “feel” of pace? Or is it just a matter of time and practice and the continued use of gadgets?

    Thanks again!!
    Trevor

    • Thanks for the nice words and great questions. I honestly believe that your pacing will always be a bit different based on all of those variables (time of day, how you feel, what you ate, wind, weather, etc….). The key is to have a goal-ish pace. Let’s say you want to run a 9:00min/mile…keep with within 10 secs + or -. A great way to learn how to stick with this is to go to a track. Divide your goal pace by 1/2 or a 1/4 and practice doing 400’s and 800’s at goal pace. Do this once a week and you will start to “feel” that pace a bit more over time. I hope that helps.

  3. Ahhhh, the art of a negative split. When I can execute it, I always feel amazing in the later miles of the race…I tend to go out too hard and ruin my chances for a negative split out of the gates! I think negative splits also require a great deal of confidence – confidence in yourself and your training that starting slower will, in fact, help you in the long run (pun intended)! Great post, and a great reminder as the spring marathon season begins!

    • You bring up a good point. You really do have to be confident with your training and your plan. It also requires a lot of trust. I totally understand too. To be patient enough to hold back and not get too excited is hard, especially as you run with that first wave.

  4. I strive to do most of my races with negative splits. I’m terrifed of going out too hard, so I normally keep it slow and steady for the first half. I’ve been doing progression runs lately on the treadmill and it helps keep me from getting bored. Being able to adjust the pace myself really helps me learn how my body feels at different speeds.

    • Ah, you are the rare wise runner who knows not to get too excited at the start! Progression runs are a great way to kill some time on the treadmill. I love varying my workouts when I am on the mill.

  5. I can, on occasion run a negative split during a really good half-marathon day, but have never pulled it off for the marathon…I often hear that it is better to target consistent splits during a full marathon, or at least that’s what the pacer groups seem to try to do. I enjoy the negative splits when they happen on a tempo type training run – definitely feels good, but I’ve never been able to duplicate it at 26.2.

    • I agree, a full negative split can be tricky. Pacers have to run even paces or are at least supposed to. But I rarely trust a pace group because they often do their own thing. Being able to negative split a half is pretty impressive 🙂

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