Race Ready: 9 Tips for Running Your Next PR

A top U.S. running coach shares advice for shattering personal race records

While the elite runners of the world are usually racing to be the first to cross the finish line, the average runner participating in a local 5k or even a marathon knows they’ll likely be finishing behind a few handfuls of other runners.

But what both elite and average athletes have in common is that above all else, their number one competitor is the clock.

Each race is chance to better your best. But as you may have already discovered, breaking a personal record (PR), or a personal best (PB) as some runners like to call it, is hardly as simple as saying, “OK, I’m going to run this race faster than I did last time.”

If only it were that easy, right?

For a majority of runners, running a PR requires a great deal of work, including steadfast dedication to a specifically designed training plan as well as mental preparation.

What exactly does it take to run a PR? I got the inside scoop from Jason Karp, PhD, creator of the Run-Fit Specialist certification and author of five books, including 101 Winning Racing Strategies for Runners and Running a Marathon For Dummies

He suggests that runners who are aiming to break a personal record at their next race follow these important strategies.

Strategy 1: Visualize your race before it happens.
Karp says that this is an important part of calming your nerves. “It allows you to experience it beforehand, making the experience familiar,” he said.

He adds “Practice visualizing your race each day for a few days before it, seeing the whole experience. Try to use all of your senses in your visualization. See the track or race course, feel the contraction of your muscles as your legs push forcefully against the ground, feel your arms pumping and driving you forward, see yourself blowing past your opponents, hear your feet touch the ground, smell the air, see yourself react to other runners’ moves, feel your pace, taste the experience.”

Strategy 2: Know what pace you can sustain in the race.
Karp says that it’s imperative for runners to use their workouts during training as a means of identifying a potential average race pace. “I see runners all the time ignoring the workouts they have done when they get to a race, and start the race at a pace they cannot sustain the entire distance,” he said. “Learn from your workouts and know going into the race what pace you can expect to sustain.” And don’t forget to account for the course terrain and weather.

Strategy 3: Have specific, meaningful goals in mind for your race.
According to Karp, setting several specific goals for your race will help you get away from thinking about the race as a whole, which might lead you to feel overwhelmed. “It also allows for something positive to be taken from each race, even if the overall outcome is disappointing,” he said. “Have one or two goals for each race that are within your control.” 

Karp says these goals might include achievements like: passing two runners on each hill, staying in the moment during each segment of the race, controlling yourself at the start and not going out too fast, running even splits, passing two runners in the last quarter mile of the race.

Strategy 4: Control your nerves at the starting line.
“Every runner gets nervous before a race,” Karp said. “That’s perfectly normal, being nervous means that you care. The important thing is to not let your nervousness get the better of you and prevent you from running a winning race. Acknowledge that you’re nervous, but use it as fuel.”

Strategy 5: Run even or negative splits.
“The best way to run your fastest possible race and beat others is by running the second half of the race at a pace that is equal to or slightly faster than the first half,” says Karp. Running negative splits is extremely challenging, and according to Karp it requires a great deal of forward planning. “It requires accurate knowledge of your fitness level, confidence to stick to your plan when others have taken the early pace out too fast, and a good dose of self-restraint,” he said. “The most economical racing strategy, when you want to achieve a specific time rather than a specific place, is to prevent large fluctuations in pace and run as evenly as possible to keep muscle acidosis as low as possible until you near the finish.”

Strategy 6: Stay close to your opponent at all times.
“If a large gap opens up between you and your opponent, it can be very difficult to close the gap and beat him or her,” said Karp. He suggests doing whatever you can to stay close to your opponents at all times. “If your opponent does get ahead of you, know how much rope you can give him or her where it’s still safe for you to make up the distance before the finish line,” he adds. "Don’t give them any more rope than that.”

Strategy 7: Keep changing the pace.
Karp says that running at an even pace is the absolute best strategy when your main focus is the race against yourself and the clock. But if (like the many elite runners mentioned earlier) you’re aiming to beat other runners and you’re more concerned with placing in a top spot, switching up your pace is actually a smarter strategy. “Keep changing the pace on your opponent, in effect turning the race into a very hard fartlek,” he said. “This strategy is very debilitating to other runners, but if you can handle changing the pace throughout the race, this is a very big weapon to have in your arsenal.” Though do be aware that since this strategy is quite demanding, you’ll need to make sure that you practice it in training.

Strategy 8: Own the process.
“Racing isn’t something that just happens,” says Karp. “To run a winning race, one that you can be proud of, you must take ownership of the process. Don’t just let things and other runners pass you by. Know when to hold back and when to take control of certain moments in the race. Avoid going into the race thinking, ‘I’m just going to run and see what happens.’ Rather, go into the race thinking, ‘This is what I want to accomplish, so this is what I’m going to do.’ Become an integral part of the racing process and take responsibility for your thoughts and actions, before, during and after the race.”

Strategy 9: Become your own hero.
Karp explains, “There is a moment in every race when it starts to feel uncomfortable. While it’s a natural human tendency to back off from physical discomfort for self-preservation, one of the things that makes runners unique is their penchant for seeking it out.”

Karp says that when discomfort really starts to set in, that’s the moment in the race when you’ll learn about yourself; if you’re really willing to do what it takes to accomplish the goal you set.

He continues, “Do you back off from the pain, or do you address the pain and push through it?  Racing gives you a chance to discover the answer and, in so exploring, become the person you want to be. You want to walk away from your race feeling like you gave it everything you had. You want to be proud of yourself.  Racing gives you the opportunity to become someone better than you currently are.”

According to him, that’s not such a bad way to spend part of your weekend.

Actually, it’s pretty incredible.