Developing a fast finish for your road races
By Roy Stevenson

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Up until the last two decades, front-runners have just as easily won distance races as the sit-and-kickers. But today's top breed of distance runner must have a blistering finish in his arsenal or he is not likely to even finish in the medals. It's possible to improve your finishing kick by using some relatively straightforward training techniques and workouts.

INDUSTRY PULSE

What is your biggest running weakness?
  • 1. Speed
  • 2. Endurance
  • 3. Form

First, it's important that you maximize your endurance before you focus on your sprint finish. Many runners believe any weakness they show in the final quarter-mile of their road race is due to a lack of speed, while in reality they really lack the stamina or endurance to sustain a fast finish.

And by maximizing your endurance training, your overall race pace will be faster, possibly cutting minutes from your time. This is a bigger improvement than hoping to shave off a few seconds in the last quarter-mile by sprinting. First and foremost, develop your mileage base before you start tinkering with your speed.

Maintaining good form (aka running efficiency) is crucial to finishing fast. If your form disintegrates, you waste valuable energy and slow down. When you are working on your form, you should be attempting to control your speed and flow, rather than forcing it.

Form checklist

Here are some important checkpoints for maintaining good form during your final sprint. When practicing your sprint finishes, work on two or three of these points at a time:
  • Move your arms forward and backward from the shoulders
  • Keep your shoulders down, arms and face relaxed
  • Keep your elbows at (about) a 90-degree bend
  • Carry your arms between your waistline and chest
  • Carry your hands forward near your chest with a short compact arm swing and back as far as the seams of your pants
  • Relax your wrists and hands
  • Push your chest forward slightly
Preseason sharpening

The best time to work on your finishing speed is once you have completed your conditioning training. Thus, sharpening should mainly be done during a preseason sharpening phase and then capped off during final race preparation with repetition training.

Interval training

Runners traditionally move on to an interval training phase after completing their endurance base. Although intervals are primarily done to improve your lactate buffering capacity, you're still running fast, so these workouts will improve leg turnover and prepare you for the faster repetition training that follows.

And contemporary practice among top American and British coaches suggests the end of interval, tempo or long running sessions is the ideal time to do your fast-speed running. The theory goes that doing sprint work at the end of a hard session when you are fatigued simulates exactly how you feel at the end of a race when you are trying to raise a sprint.

If you want to develop a fast finish at the end of your races, tack one or two sprint sessions each week onto the end of your interval, tempo or long running sessions. These sprint workouts can be as simple as doing four to eight 50-100-meter "stride throughs" where you gradually pick up your pace until you are running at 80 percent to 90 percent of your maximum speed in the final 30-40 meters of each rep. Each "stride through" should be slightly faster than the previous one.

Under-distance racing

Another common technique used by trackies is to step down a distance and race it. Most elite milers will run several 800-meter races in the lead up to their big mile races. Many 5,000-meter runners will often race over 1,500 meters prior to their big 5K race.

Racing advice

Now that you have worked on your sprint finish, realize that you can still blow all this hard work by doing some unwise things in your races. Here's some final advice to maximize this:

Ease into your sprint finish. When you are approaching the final dash point in your cross-country or road races, start your acceleration slowly and ease into it. Although fast acceleration bursts can catch your competitors by surprise, they are very wasteful in terms of burning up the precious little glycogen that remains in your muscles at the end of the race, especially in 10K road races, half-marathons and marathons.

Combine some of these techniques with savvy race tactics and you'll soon be beating runners who previously had your measure.

Roy Stevenson is a freelance running writer who has been running since age 13 in New Zealand, where he was trained by world famous coach Arthur Lydiard. Roy has coached hundreds of runners over the years and continues to help runners.