Chunking Your Race

By Ryan Warrenburg, ZAP Fitness

A friend of mine recently moved across town, and as she was talking about packing everything up I had a vicarious feeling of dread. The weight of packing up a house full of possessions elicited a physical response of stress in my body as I thought about all the meticulous steps in the process. It’s been two years since we moved and we are just now tackling the final room where we still have boxes of who knows what stacked up in a corner. Part of the reason it’s taken us so long to tackle that project is it’s so overwhelming that it’s hard to know where to start. This paralysis is common and can affect your ability to organize your desk or tackle that backyard project, but the same anxiety can also have a negative impact on your race strategy.

Whether you’re racing a mile or a marathon it’s best to approach the race in chunks rather than standing on the start line and trying to tackle the entire race distance at once. Standing on the start line of a marathon and thinking about an entire 26.2 mile race at once can be a lot like staring at a desk piled with years of clutter and letting the enormity of the task paralyze you with anxiety. The more you can focus on what’s in front of you the better you can concentrate your efforts and get the most out of your races. If you can focus your attention on one desk drawer at a time, or on the first 5 miles of a marathon, the task will be more manageable and your focus will be clearer.


The marathon and half marathon distances are best broken down into four parts. The first part is the opening 5 miles of the marathon or 2 miles of a half marathon. These should be viewed as the warm-up portion of the race, and the first half of this segment should be run a few seconds per mile slower than your goal pace. Standing on the start line of a marathon and thinking about easing into the first 2-3 miles is the best way to set yourself up to feel stronger later in the race. After you get to 2.5 miles in the full or 1 mile in the half dial into your goal pace and spend the remainder of the warm-up phase settling into a steady rhythm.

There isn’t as much of warm-up phase in a 5k or 10k race, but using the first 2-3 minutes to ease in is a great way set yourself up for a strong finish by making sure you don’t start out too fast. It is particularly difficult to recover from a fast start in shorter races because the level of intensity is higher throughout the race. Ramp into your goal pace over the first 2-3 minutes to ensure you’ll feel better and stronger over the second half.

Cruise Control 

After the opening few minutes break your 5k and 10k races into thirds. The focus during the first third of the race is to establish a consistent, relaxed running rhythm. Hone in on your goal pace and keep the effort as even as possible. At mile 1 in a 5k or mile 2 in a 10k you should be fairly comfortable and in complete control of your race. The second phase of the marathon or half marathon should be viewed similarly. From miles 5 to 16 in the marathon or 3 to 8 in the half marathon focus on keeping things as even as possible.

Use this section to run goal pace and to keep your effort as even as possible. This means slowing down a bit on up hills and speeding up a bit on down hills. The effort is more important than the pace because that is what determines your energy expenditure. And the goal in this phase is to conserve as much energy as possible while running goal pace. The more energy you can conserve early the more you’ll have to expend later.

Time to Race

The third phase, from miles 16 to 21 in the marathon and 8 to 11 in the half, is where the race really starts. Think about flipping the mental switch into race mode to stay dialed into your rhythm. It will start to get more difficult through here and this is where mental focus is critical. If you get into this stretch and feel wonderful it’s okay to move forward a few seconds per mile as long as it doesn’t markedly increase the effort. Focus on keeping your form relaxed and keeping your repetition of foot strike high in order to run quicker and dissociate from the discomfort.

Small Tasks

Similarly, the middle of a 5k or 10k is the period where you need to get comfortable being uncomfortable. The effort should still feel manageable though, and you want to feel in control of the race rather than the race being in control of you. The pace should remain even from the first third of the race. As you work through the final third of the race give yourself small tasks to accomplish so you can keep your focus as narrow as possible. Focusing on a minute or two at a time or catching the next person in front of you will help you run faster over the latter stages of a race.

The same is true of the final 5 miles of a marathon or 2-3 miles of a half marathon. Narrow your focus as much as you can; accomplish one small task before moving on to refocus on another small section of the race. You can do more at the end of races than your mind would have you believe, and focusing on small tasks allows you to push through that limitation. Standing on the start line can be overwhelming at times, and can lead to a host of insecurities and doubts. Eliminate the anxiety by unpacking one box at a time; remember you have to take the first step before you can finish the race.

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*This Article Originally Appeared in the September 2017 Issue of Running Journal