Competitive Running Strategy and Tactics


By Rick Morris


“Tactics is knowing what to do when there is something to do, strategy is knowing what to do when there is nothing to do” – Savielly Tartakower, Polish Chess Grandmaster


You don’t need to be a grand master in the game of chess to formulate a successful plan of attack for your next race, but you should have a basic knowledge of the types of running strategies that are available and be able to determine those that will help you succeed in your competition.
























Strategy and Tactics


There are two related but distinctly separate kinds of planning you need to do – strategy and tactics. You may want to think of them as schemes and maneuvers. Your race strategy is your overall scheme. Strategy is your overall pre race plan of how you intend to meet your goals. Tactics are the maneuvers you make during your race in response to the conditions and specific events taking place at the time. Tactics are your reactions to the moves and actions of your fellow competitors. The quote above is a simple but clear explanation of the difference between strategy and tactics.


Race Strategies


The most important part of your overall race strategy is your planned pacing. There are a number of possible race pacing strategies including: even pacing, even effort, negative splits, surging and front running. Go here for a more complete discussion of race pacing strategies.


The best strategy for you depends upon your race distance, your race goal and your fitness level. For most runners and in most races, running either even pacing or negative splits usually results in the best race performance, but there are always exceptions to that rule. I have outlined my recommendations for the most appropriate race strategies in the table below.


Race Tactics


OK – you have your overall race strategy plan and you’re ready for your attack. The starting gun goes off and you’re on your way. If everything goes according to plan you can stick to your original strategy though out your race. If you planned on running even pacing you can just cruise along to a successful finish. If your race strategy included running negative splits, you can run at a strong but controlled pace early and then pick up your speed for a strong finish. But what if the course conditions change? What happens if it’s much hotter than you expected? What do you do if there are steep hills on the course you weren’t prepared for? How do you handle unexpected surges or moves by your competition? That is where race tactics come in. You need to be able to make tactical decisions on the run so you react properly to unexpected changes in the course conditions or the always changing competitive situation.


Adjusting to Course Conditions


One of the more difficult things to adjust to is unexpected course conditions. Some years ago I was training for a small trail marathon in Colorado. Since this was a fall marathon at high altitude, I was expecting cold weather conditions, so that is how I planned both my training and race strategy. On race day an unexpected warm front moved in and the temperatures soared. My training had prepared me for cold weather running and my race strategy was to run even pacing. I started the race at my planned pace and continued on with my strategy of even pacing. As this very hilly and difficult trail marathon proceeded it became evident that the heat was not going to allow me to continue with my planned strategy. The heat was causing me to use too much effort early in the race. I changed my tactics at that point and slowed my early pace to conserve energy. That change in tactics allowed me to pick up the pace later in the race using negative splits and I was able to successfully meet my goal time.


You should always be aware of changing course conditions and adjust your race tactics accordingly. Here are some recommendations on tactics related to course conditions.


Meeting the Challenge


One thing you can count on in racing is that you will always be challenged. If you weren’t challenged in a race, what would be the point? Your tactical decisions during your race will make a world of difference in how successful you are as a competitive runner. Nearly every challenge you face during a race is related to surging – either a surge from a competitor or your own surge. Click here for an in-depth discussion on race surging.


There will be times in nearly every race where you will either need to answer a surge or throw in a surge of your own. The surges can come anytime and anywhere. There may be a surge intended to create separation right at the start or later in the race. There will always be a finishing surge or kick to the finish line. When should you surge and how should you answer an opponents challenging surge? See below for some recommendations.



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