Running Tips – How to Develop a Race Strategy

Many runners approach a race with a strategy laid out before they even get to the starting line. They know what pace they want to hit for each section of the race, they know where they want to run conservatively and the points where they want to push themselves, and they often have different goals in mind depending on how they feel on the day. You don’t need to be a seasoned racer, or have professional help to plan out your strategy for a race, though. Here are tips on how to develop a race strategy for any event.

Running Tips - How to Develop a Race Strategy

First, set your goal. Be realistic, but don’t be afraid to want to push yourself. Most of all, you have to believe you can do it. Should your goal always be a PR? It’s so tempting for runners to always go for a better time in every race. You know rationally that you can’t run a PR every time you race, so why not adjust your goals so you’re not continuously disappointed? Pick the goal race for your season that you really want to try to set a new best, then base your racing around that goal event. What can you set as a goal instead of a PR? How about racing the second half of your race faster than the first? Or trying to take a certain amount of time off your last couple of miles of the race? You could even be crazy and make your goal to just have fun in the race – enjoy every mile, high five every kid cheering, thank every volunteer on the course. Your goal is personal, but whatever it is, commit to it fully in order to make it happen.

Know your course. Even when you can’t run parts of a course in advance of the race, the beauty of our age of information is that the entire route with elevation and turns is just a couple of clicks away. Take a look at the course as early as you can. Break it up mile by mile. See where the hills are, check where the fluid stations will be along the course. Take note of any sharp turns you’ll have to make. Studying the course will help you with two things:

The first is training specifically for the race. If you know where the hills are going to be on race day, you can plot training runs that mimic the course. If all the hills are at the end of the course, you might benefit from incorporating hill repeat workouts, so you’re accustomed to running hills when you’re already tired. If the hills are in the middle, you can experiment with different paces to see how fast you can run those hills and still have energy for your finishing kick. If there are several sharp turns in the course, practice maintaining speed around corners, as well as finding the right trajectory to minimize the turn as much as you can.

How to Develop a Race Strategy

The second way knowing your course in advance will help is to be able to plot your pace for each section of the race. Work out what your average pace per mile should be for your time goal. Now, look at the stats of a recent training run, or any race for which you know your splits. Was every single mile exactly the same pace? Of course not. Some miles were faster and some were slower than your average pace for the event. So, plan for that fluctuation. Choose the hilly miles to add time to your average pace. Choose the downhills, or the long straight miles to make up time and hit a pace that’s faster than your goal average pace.

Have a backup plan. Many people select two or three goals for race day – their ideal goal, or “A goal”, then one or two back up goals. You can’t control everything, and even if you’ve trained perfectly, you’re injury-free, you’re well-rested and appropriately fueled, you might get to the race and it’s 20 degrees warmer than expected. Or you wake up feeling ill. Listen to your body and make a decision on the day of the race as to which goal you’re going to go for.

Having a race strategy in place before you get to the starting line could be the one thing that guarantees success for your race day goal. You’ve heard the adage, ‘Failing to plan is planning to fail,’ so make sure your plan is to succeed from the outset. Know what you want and go out there and get it!

 Do you plan out a strategy for your races?

What are some of the non-PR goals you’ve set for yourself?


  1. Love these tips. I’m still thinking about running and what I want to do.
    Carla recently posted…It Starts With FoodMy Profile

  2. Good tips! The more I strategize, the more I stress myself out, so I just run and re-evaluate how I’m feeling at each mile
    Karen recently posted…National Running Day and a running surveyMy Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      You know, I felt the same way about over-thinking races, until I trained for the marathon last year and rather than just long runs in my training plan, they were long runs broken up into pace segments. I’d never tried to hit certain paces during long slow distance runs and it made it so much more bearable, fun and gave me extra confidence when I nailed the paces. Even when I didn’t quite do the times I was going for, it was still helpful because I knew it was a better quality long run than if I’d just walked out the door and thought, “I’ll just run 18 miles.” It was a little lightbulb moment that I could take that same pacing strategy and use it for any race. I’ll never look back!

  3. Great post! I found I ran much better on a course I always run and was unprepared for the last course (strategy wise). I haven’t been good about setting specific goals and am beginning to work on it 🙂
    Susan Fishback recently posted…Simply Kid Chefs: Cheese-Stuffed Pork ChopsMy Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      Let me know if you use these tips – I’d love to hear if they work for you during a race! I really think knowing as much as you can about a course is so helpful. Even driving the course if you can’t run parts of it can be a good way to familiarize yourself . As a passenger in the car would probably be better! 😉

  4. Great tips! I try to have a goal in mind, but not be too attached–generally speaking, my goals are challenging but realistic and, well, everything from weather to stomach issues have to be right on or it could alter the outcome. So I go in knowing what is possible, but also try to relax and just do the best I can. Knowing the course is crucial.
    Lisa @ RunWiki recently posted…The Importance of Silence, Listening, and TrustingMy Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      Yes, knowing the course is so, so important. I’m working on being less attached to my goals. My problem is that I have been setting three goals – A, B and C – but if I don’t hit the A goal I don’t really celebrate if I make the other two. It’s a work in progress!!

  5. I love the idea of having multiple goals for a race! I completed my first half back in April, and my goal was to finish! I figured after I complete one then mayyybe I’ll be up for working for a time on half #2. I’m racing this weekend… It will be my first 5k since Halloween. I’m actually a little nervous because I’ve been running for distance for a while now. My last 5k time was around 34 minutes so I’m shooting for around there. I plan to incorporate some speed work into my running routine this summer and improve my 5k time by August. Great post!
    Caroline recently posted…Summertime Songs {southern style}My Profile

    • Carly Pizzani says:

      I hope you rocked that 5K, Caroline! Speedwork will be so helpful for that distance. I bet you PR it a couple of times this summer with the right training.


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