There are few things more romantic in distance running than flying down the final straightaway, people cheering from the side of the road, while blowing past competitors on the way to the finish line. We all love the feeling of finishing a race strong. Even if you aren’t the type that relishes in making your competitors eat your dust over those final 100 yards it still feels good to have a strong finish at the end of a race. If you watch the Olympic Track and Field Trials this July on TV or the Olympic Games in August you’ll notice that nearly every distance event on the track will come down to that final sprint over the last 1-2 minutes of the race. Many people assume it’s necessary to be a fast sprinter to be able to sprint fast at the end of a race. While that can help, there are far more important tools to hone both mentally and physically in order to dust the competition at the end of races.
Mo Farah has dominated world 5k and 10k running for the past 5 years and will be the odds on favorite to repeat his double Olympic gold performance from London four years ago. Farah has been so dominate in large part because he has the most lethal kick on the planet. Many are quick to attribute his finishing speed to his ability to sprint fast, but his strong finish has as much to do with Farah’s strength than his foot speed. Farah is very fast to be sure, but he’s also able to run very close to his maximum speed at the end of races, and that has everything to do with his strength. Farah’s primary training partner, American Galen Rupp, is noted to be a faster sprinter than Farah, but Rupp has never beaten Farah in a finishing sprint because Farah’s strength enables him to run much closer to his top speed at the end of races.
The basis for training distance runners is exactly that, running distance. If you’re serious about improving your finish you should start by trying to increase your aerobic strength. Most people would be served best by simply running a bit more to develop their aerobic engine and improve their efficiency. It sounds simple, but it’s the most over looked, and underrated, way to improve your strength late in races. Beyond the mileage you want to focus your harder running primarily on tempo work, particularly progressive runs. Progressive runs teach you to run fastest at the end of your run or your races. For many people going out too hard in races is the biggest culprit for sapping their finishing speed. Learning to start a little slower will enable you to finish faster and improve your race times, and a progression run is a perfect way to practice that strategy. It’s not to say you should stay away from all things fast, tempo based work is too often neglected, and that will leave you weary-legged in the later stages of races rather than charging strong to the finish.
Focus on Long Run
As you look to increase your training volume you also want to increase the length of your long run. Even if you’re more of a 5k runner, longer runs up to 2 hours will yield big benefits when it comes to finishing strong at the end of races. Adding pickups late in your long run will add to the benefits. The idea for the pickups is to pickup the pace for 1 to several minutes at a time toward the end of the long run, targeting somewhere between 10k and half marathon effort on the pickups. In between each pickup you should resume your normal long run pace for about 5-6 minutes. The pickups recruit fast twitch muscles late in the run when your slow twitch fibers are fatigued. This strengthens the fast twitch fibers and helps improve running economy and leg speed. In addition to helping you improve your speed these pickups will train your body and your mind to pickup the pace when you’re feeling tired late in a race – another great tool to have in your bag for the finish.
While the physical preparation prepares the body for finishing strong, the mental component to a fast finishing kick is equally as important. In the final minutes of long distance races the battle between your mind and body is fierce. It’s at this point where you’re at your most vulnerable, where the smallest lapse in focus can lead to slowing down dramatically. Try picking a word or short phrase that you can repeat in your head to maintain your focus late in races. It can be something simple like “drive” or “push,” something that keeps your mind from wandering. In the final few hundred yards a small lapse in focus is all it takes to ruin your finishing kick.
It is also helpful to think about running through the finish line rather than just running to the finish line. We’ve all seen the person (or been the person) that makes the final turn and as soon as the finish is in sight immediately struggles. That is the difference between thinking, “just get to the line” and “stay strong, run through the line.” The latter will help you power right through to the finish while the former is an invitation to slow down and just survive. We’ve also seen the person (or yes, been the person) that contorts their body in every possible way to get to the finish. That kind of full body tension is counter productive and can lead to the aforementioned struggling to the finish line. You want to think about staying relaxed in your upper body, and driving your arms powerfully toward the finish.
Think about being strong and powerful rather than simply wishing to be done and you’ll be more strong and powerful. Train your body and your mind to be strong and powerful and you will find yourself flying by your competitors as the crowd cheers you to the finish.