No matter what the distance – from 800ms to the marathon – the hardest part of any race is always the third quarter. It’s after the start but before the end and its where a good run can be won or lost. But with the right coaching and a good race plan you can make the third quarter work for you.
Why is the third quarter so hard?
The first quarter speaks for itself. You set off with fresh legs and lots of energy. The second quarter you settle into the pace. For the final quarter you’re working hard yet you know its almost over. But the third quarter – that’s the one that bites. As fatigue sets in, your concentration starts to falter. If you have misjudged the early pace (even slightly) this part of the race can feel disproportionately harder. Any gaps in your endurance show up here and its where you can lose vital seconds or more if you don’t get it right.
So how do you make the third quarter work for you?
Here’s a few essential tips that can make the difference.
Make your training specific
Firstly, your training should be specific to the event you want to run both in terms of pace and distance. The most efficient way to run (and generally the fastest) is to maintain a steady consistent pace through the whole run (including the third quarter where most people slow). Even better, to run negative splits (when you run the second half faster than the first). To start you need the basic aerobic endurance to complete the whole distance comfortably in training. In practice this means incorporating a regular long run into your week. By long I mean longer than the race distance (unless you’re training for the marathon when slightly different principles apply). How much longer depends on the event and your fitness. Even for beginners running 5k to half marathon, this should be manageable with a good training plan set over a sufficient period of time.
Develop some pace
Next at least some of your interval sessions should add up to race distance or beyond, especially for 5k and 10k. For half marathon and over it’s a mix of faster paced running at the end of your long runs as well as some longer interval sessions. Again, what’s right for you depends on your current level of fitness and running volume. Whatever you do, don’t suddenly increase the length of your sessions. However, with good coaching to develop consistent training it should be more than achievable.
Finally, at least some of your training needs to be at your target race pace. If you can’t run the pace in training then its unlikely to happen in the race. Running at race pace, particularly at the end of a hard session, will develop both the physical fitness and the mental strength to push yourself through that critical third quarter.
Make a race plan
Then, perhaps most importantly, you need to put it all into practice with a good race plan. Whether its running for time or running to win, all good race plans should have several contingencies and play to your strengths. Focus on key points throughout the race, one of which should always be the third quarter, not just the start and the finish.
Looking back, I realise how lucky I was as a young athlete to have an outstanding coach. He knew it was as important to learn how to race as it was to train. At that time, I was an 800m runner who’s advantage was my strength rather than my speed. My race plan relied on listening to the split time at the bell. If it was faster than 65s I ran hard from 200ms to go. If it was slower than 65s I ran hard from the bell, using that third quarter when everyone else was finding it tough to my advantage. Even if I didn’t win, invariably I ended up with a good time.
I learnt from an early age the importance of making the third quarter work for me. So maybe that’s why I always think about the third quarter in my coaching. It was often the point at which I won the race. Now its my role to coach you to think about the third quarter too and make it work for you.