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Tuesday, April 9, 2024
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Coach Tip Tuesday: Negative Splits are Positive Things

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The Negative Split.  The way runners talk about it, you almost would think it’s a character from mythology like Thor, Zeus, Athena, or Poseidon.  And in some ways, it can be compared to mythology; the negative split is talked about with great reverence, but isn’t actually achieved on a broad scale by a lot of runners.  Because of that, it can feel elusive and nebulous, making it feel unattainable or like it is a myth.  But negative splits are actually very real things.  If runners embrace what it takes to successfully run one, it can be a profoundly transformative skill both in terms of their results and in their emotional growth as athletes.

What is a Negative Split?

A negative split is a race strategy that involves completing the second half of a race faster than the first half.  For instance, if an athlete runs a marathon in 4:00 and runs the first half marathon in 2:02 and the second half marathon in 1:58, that is a negative split.

Conversely, a positive split is when an athlete runs a race and the second half of the race is slower than the first half of the race.  If we reverse our marathon example from before, if an athlete runs a marathon in 4:00 and runs the first half marathon in 1:58 and the second half marathon in 2:02, then that is a positive split.

In order to run a race with a negative split, an athlete must speed up over the course of the race.  This can be challenging, as the second half of the race is also when the athlete has the most accumulated fatigue in their body and in their mind.  As such, it requires much more effort to run faster at this stage of a race, and it is a skill that must be learned with time, practice, and training.  

At the same time, while running harder and faster when you are feeling tired is definitely a challenge, it’s actually physiologically easier to run faster/harder once the body has properly warmed up.  The body is only fully warmed up after several miles or a longer duration (20+ minutes) of running.  Once an athlete is properly warmed up, it’s easier physiologically on their body when they push it to run harder and/or faster.

Why is a Negative Split a Good Thing?

Perhaps it’s paradoxical because of its name, but a negative split is actually a positive thing in running.  As of the time of this writing, every current world record from the 1500 meters to the marathon in running has been set by running negative splits.  This is not a coincidence.

When we look at the habits and results of elite athletes, professional athletes, and world record-holding athletes, it becomes very clear that how athletes run races is just as important - if not more so - as the final results of a race.  Without an effectively deployed strategy (aka “the how”), the best results do not happen.

I certainly advocate for and tout the benefits of negative splits to the athletes I coach.  The workouts I write for athletes on Performance Coaching or Custom-Built Training Plans contain workout progressions designed to help athletes refine this skill so they can have it in their Athlete’s Toolbelt to deploy on race day.  

That being said, over the course of my career, the majority of age-group athletes I coach have had positive splits in their running races.  This is for a few reasons:

  • They don’t value the ability to run slow.
  • They don’t fully develop their self-awareness as it pertains to how they execute their workouts. 
  • They let their emotions guide their race execution.  (At the very least, they let their emotions guide the beginning of their race.)
  • They try to “hang on” to their desired pace for as long as possible starting at the beginning of the race.
  • They don’t actually take the time or mental energy to fully develop, practice, and execute a planned strategy in their workouts or races.

None of this means that athletes who run positive splits are not good athletes.  But good athletes become great athletes when they start honing in and taking the time to practice and fully develop advanced level skills.  A negative split is not something that just happens for athletes; it takes a very real amount of time, effort, and patience to execute it.  

The hard truth is that many age-group athletes - who are using their workouts for more than just the physiological benefits they provide (there’s a reason the phrase “running is cheaper than therapy” is so popular) - don’t have or want to carve the mental and temporal space that is necessary to fully develop advanced level skills such as the negative split.  This being said, if age-group athletes want to continue to see progress in their running results over time and want to feel the best they possibly can while they are running, there is immense value in carving the time and mental space to develop the skill of running a negative split.

How Can You Learn to Run a Negative Split?

Running a race with a negative split might be difficult, but it’s not impossible.  It is a skill that can be learned with time, patience, and dedicated training.

Try it When It Doesn’t Matter

One of the easiest and best ways to start testing out skills in situations that aren’t as important to you as races are.  You can try to finish your easy endurance runs at a slightly harder effort than you started them.  You can use the Warm-Up of your workout to run a very easy effort.  Then you can finish a run at a more moderate effort than what you started at.  Really dialing in on different effort levels can make variations in pace (in this case, running faster later in a run) easier to obtain.

Incorporate Training Runs with Structured Progressions

When I have athletes practice the skill of negative splitting in training, I like to start by incorporating shorter intervals into their workouts at increasing effort levels.  An example of a Main Set of such a workout would be: “5 x 400 meters increasing effort as: RPE 4, RPE 5, RPE 6, RPE 7, RPE 8.”

Once athletes get comfortable with that type of structure and progressively building their effort levels, I will often write a progressed version of the same workout, which might have Main Sets that look something like “5 x 400 meters descending pace”.  Sometimes I give guidance on the pacing for the first interval and then let the athlete self-pace the remaining intervals so they get practice determining their efforts and paces on their own.  (This is a really important way to develop an athlete’s self-awareness.)

Incorporate Training Runs with Structured Negative Splits

Once you’ve developed a feel for what starting off slower and finishing faster feels like, you can start to incorporate specific pace targets in your training by doing training runs that have paces planned to result in a negative split for the workout.  An example of a progressed version of the aforementioned workouts might be: “5 x 400 meters descending pace as: 9:03-9:05, 8:58-9:00, 8:53-8:55, 8:50-8:52, sub-8:48.”

This - running on pace - can be much more challenging than running on effort because you will need to pay attention to your pace throughout the workout.  Running based on targeted paces requires a lot of focus, which in and of itself is challenging for athletes.  In addition, aiming to hit specific paces means that you will be pushing yourself harder as you move through the run in an attempt to hit said planned pace targets. 

 As athletes demonstrate proficiency with this type of workout, I progress them to more advanced versions of structured workouts with a goal of a negative split.

Accurately Assess Your Current Abilities

If you want to run a specific time in a race, you must have an accurate (not an optimistic or a delusional) sense of what your current abilities are.  You must understand what you are actually capable of and what’s actually realistic for you so you don’t start off your race at a pace that is too fast for you.  As simple as this sounds, I’ve found that this specific ability (to accurately self-assess one’s ability) can be one of the hardest things for athletes to do.  In some cases, athletes are in full denial that their current abilities are not in alignment with what they want their abilities to be.

If an athlete wants to have a negative split in their marathon and makes the assessment that 4:00 is a finishing time that is within their current capabilities, it’s helpful if the athlete runs a pace for the first 10-15 miles that is going to net them a finish time of 4:00-4:04.  (A 4:00-4:04 finish time translates to a 9:09-9:18 pace, so they should aim to run the first 10-15 miles of the marathon in those pace ranges.) 

Once they are in the final 10 or so miles of the race, they can pick up the pace slightly for each remaining mile so that they end up running a split in the second half of the race that is faster than their first half.  If the athlete runs an 8:46 pace at the start of the race (which, if maintained, would translate to an overall finish time of 3:50), that is too fast for their current abilities and the highest probability is that they will positive split the race because they overran the beginning of it and ran too fast compared to what they were actually capable of.

Negative Split = Positive Experience

Achieving a negative split in a race is an incredibly empowering experience, both physically and mentally.  Not only does it translate to a tangible result that the athlete can “latch” on to, but it is very powerful mentally for athletes to finish feeling strong.

Even if an athlete doesn’t actually achieve a negative split time-wise or result-wise, being able to finish a race going harder and feeling stronger than they felt at the beginning of the race creates a potent feeling that could be called an emotional negative split.  I’ve learned from my career working with athletes that these types of mental wins are just as important - if not more important - than tangible results.  If athletes finish a race feeling strong, they have a higher probability of feeling satisfied with their race performance.  This snowballs into increased and/or continued motivation over time to keep up their training for other goals that they set for themselves.  The value of the impact that a mental win such as this has on an athlete cannot be understated.

The Bottom Line

Negative splits may seem like a mythical skill that only elite runners can achieve, but that’s not true.  Any runner of any ability can practice the skills required to run a negative split in their training so that they have this tool in their Athlete's Toolbelt come race day.  Fully embracing the idea of approaching a race with a thought-out, tactical plan of going slower at the beginning and building to stronger effort and faster paces by the end of the race is a game-changer for any athlete who decides to take on this challenge.  Give training for executing negative splits a try and see if you don’t have a more positive race experience and feel more satisfied with your race results.


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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