Negative, positive split vs. steady pace in a marathon – what can we learn from professionals?

Preparing for a marathon often comes up with a pace, and both the words negative and positive split. Everyone has also heard of the guidelines for an easy start and faster second half what is called a negative split. A faster start pace and a slowdown for the second half, in turn, means a positive split. However, for many runners, a negative split distribution produces grey hair.

Data collection and results

When the paces of the Top 10 runners in five different marathons (London, Chicago, Rotterdam, Amsterdam and Copenhagen) are put into comparison, no negative split often occurs. The comparison looked at the average paces of women and men every five kilometres. The results were collected for the last five years. Except for Rotterdam for which the corresponding data were obtained for the last two years and Amsterdam (4) for the most recent year. The difference between the negative and positive splits was set to be ± 5 seconds apart, between the first 10 km and the last 10 km. The mid-race was visually observed.

In men, only 16 runners made a negative pace (210 in total), while 7 runners did the same for women. There were 113 positive split distributions for men and 152 for females. The rest ran at a steady pace all the way (men; 81 and women; 51). Most of the winners in the men ran at a steady pace, while in the women the pace distributions turned to the more positive split side.

Positive, negative and steady

That small group that managed with a negative speed split, dropped the average speed by about 10 seconds per average kilometre. The most negative splits occurred among the top when several runners keeping a very consistent pace together until the end. As well as among runners who started slower than others and did not place on the podium. Some of the runners also noticed speeding up the pace halfway, which, was almost always followed by a slowdown back to the initial pace.

In the case of a positive split, the pace usually started to slow down at the mid-point, around 30–35 km at the latest. The pace slowed to about 10 to 30 seconds per kilometre. Minute drops for the last kilometres were also seen, total fatigue or other problems can be assumed to have occurred. The comparison may be affected by weather conditions and various record attempts. There were no major differences between the marathon results for different years, which offsets the importance of weather conditions. Each selected marathon has a relatively flat profile, with the top ten crossings the finish line in less than three hours.

Thus, very few professionals are capable of a negative split in a marathon. Maintaining a steady pace is very popular, although for many it turns to the positive split side. Among the positive split are also those runners whose pace collapsed completely at the end. If these runners were removed from the statistics, the difference between a steady pace and a positive split would level out. So instead of starting to cut the marathon into sections, you can start with one pace. Based on the knowledge, on the way, you can decide whether the pace can speed up at the end.

what we can learn?

Only professionals were considered in the comparison. But the finish time is practically irrelevant if the performance itself is made to be optimal for one’s fitness level. You can see the pace sailing and most often just collapsing towards the end. In terms of coping, a steady pace in a marathon is also a safe option, if it’s successfully performed.

Maintaining a steady pace in a marathon requires practice, and a strong head so as not to get lost in the ecstasy at the beginning to the other fast pace. In training, it is important to make a clear difference between different pace in exercises, which allows different areas to develop. The body also learns to recognize what each pace feels like. Many have heard of the 80/20 division, where 80% of the total training takes place at an easy pace and 20% at a fast pace. This provides a good starting point; however, it should be noted that not all 20% happen at the same rate. It’s good to have intervals and different tempo exercises, each style is performed at its own pace.

In practice

Light and long runs can well be done by monitoring your heart rate if your heart rate zones are known. For speed exercises, it is a good idea to set a clear pace instead of heart rate, as heart rate may not always give a completely correct picture. In addition to these, many often forget one of the most important exercises; long fast-speed exercises.

The marathon is not run at intervals of a couple of miles or longer tempo stretches with breaks. Long fast-speed exercises are the same length as traditional long runs, but their pace is set faster than the target pace of the marathon. The purpose of the exercise is to tolerate the body enduring speed endurance. Due to the hardness, these exercises are not done weekly.

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