The study mentioned by the instructor showed that a faster start can reap a better race time. So what gives? Well, of course I had to dig up the study and see what the scoop was all about. The study was done in 2006 by researchers at the University of New Hampshire. Their goal was to examine how different pacing strategies would effect performance in a 5K race. Researchers worked with 11 runners from New Hampshire's women's cross-country team. The runners in the selected group were similar in that they all logged about 35 miles per week and their 5K PRs were in similar ranges (18-21 minutes).
The study began with establishing a baseline pace by having each runner run two 5Ks. Next, the runners ran three more 5Ks each one with a different pace strategy. Each runner ran the first mile of the first 5K at their established baseline 5K pace and then miles 2 and 3 were run at a pace of the runner's choosing in order to finish as fast as possible. The second 5K was run in a similar fashion, but the first mile was run at a pace 3% faster than the baseline base. The first mile of the 3rd race was run as a pace 6% faster than the baseline pace.
The results? Eight of the 11 women achieved their fastest time running at the 6%-faster-than-baseline pace during the first mile. The remaining three women ran their fastest time at the 3%-faster start pace. None of the runners ran their fastest race using the baseline pace. Most of the runners who tried to continue with an increased pace did slow their pace some at the end of the race, but they still ended with PR times. When running the slower start, most of the runners kept an increased or even pace going through the end of the race, but it wasn't enough to overcome the slower start and failed to produce any PRs.
So what does it mean? Well, the researchers were surprised by the results. They discovered that the slower start had runners running at only 78% of their VO2Max. The faster starts had runners running at 82-83% of their VO2Max. The higher VO2Max is in the range typically achieved by experienced runners running a 5k. The researchers netted out that less-experienced (beginner and recreational) runners probably should not increase their start speed, because they have not yet conditioned their bodies to the faster speed and may not have the ability to keep or increase the pace throughout the remainder of the race and their times may suffer. On the flip side, elite runners shouldn't change what they're doing, because they're already running that first mile in the higher VO2Max ranges.
So, who's to benefit? The more moderately-trained runner may benefit from a faster start. They're probably underestimating what they're capable of doing. Researchers also, reinforced that their study was based on a 5K. So, starting out with a 3% or 6% faster pace in a longer race such as a half or full marathon, may not have comparative results since you have so much further to run after that first mile.
Runningplanet.com has put together a great chart showing how various types of runners may approach that first mile in a 5K. [Click here] to get more information on the pacing strategies listed in the chart.
So, if you're a moderate runner and you can't seem to break your current 5K time, try uping the ante in that first mile by increasing your start pace by 3% or 6% and see if it improves your results.