Coach Culpepper: Making Good Mid-Race Decisions

Photo: Ryan Bethke

Have a plan (and a backup plan)

Making good mid-race decisions starts with first recognizing that running a successful race requires a race-day plan. Not only things like what to wear, weather considerations, transportation, parking, meal planning, etc., but also developing a race strategy to meet your specific objectives.  You’re unlikely to be successful without first knowing what your goal is and then developing a plan that will help you reach it. This applies to your pacing range, fueling and hydration, route considerations like hills that will affect your pacing/effort level, and weather elements that will play a role. It is also important to note that things may not go according to plan. That’s OK and should not be a surprise—the key is having one and being open to making alterations mid-race.

Small adjustments make a big difference

When racing, small adjustments are magnified and have a larger effect then in training. Missing a water station in a marathon, for instance, can result in major consequences later. Or adjusting your pacing by a mere 5 seconds per mile can translate to minutes saved later in a race. Recognize going into the event that your adjustments should be subtle, with a level of finesse. Almost without exception, a mid-race adjustment should not be more than a slight alteration to your original plan. Increasing or slowing your pace, latching onto a group that is near you, tucking in behind a fellow competitor or altering mechanics to help conquer a hill should all be modest. Mid-race is not the time to make an aggressive move, attack a hill or to convince yourself that you should bank time for later. When the circumstances demand that you make a decision, remind yourself to adjust with finesse and  to not waste precious energy and focus.

Trust your instincts—within reason

Most breakthrough performances are a result of an athlete trusting his or her instincts and allowing body and mind not to be limited by preplanning. Many of my best races—and those that propelled me to a new level—happened by trusting my instincts during the race itself. I can tell you, however, that in most instances this happens mid-race and beyond. Do not make the mistake of trusting your instincts too early in a race when your body and mind can trick you. I have heard too many times that a runner felt good the first few miles so they decided to just go for it and see what happened. This rarely works out. However, there can come a time mid-race when everything inside you is telling you to go and holding back would be a mistake. Or you know instinctually that falling off a pace group at a critical time in the race would lead to a total deterioration mentally and physically. The key is recognizing in that moment if your instincts are truthful even if not necessarily logical. Having a plan is imperative, understanding that adjustments must be subtle is critical but also listening to your instincts and trusting how you feel is essential. This is the art form of racing: Balancing the three aspects in just the right combination for that day and for those circumstances. It takes practice but when honed will lead to achieving greater results than you could have imagined.

Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper won national titles from the 5K to the marathon. His first book, Run Like a Champion, is available at

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