The McGill Team Challenge is this weekend, and the fields for both the men’s and women’s 1500m are stacked. 92 women and 80 men are going to be toeing the line. Thankfully, this is not a championship meet, which means we’ll probably not be faced with a bunch of boring sit-and-kick races. The sit and kick is the most misused race strategy out there. I’m not trying to suggest that pulling a Prefontaine is the best way to go either: running from the front is only a good idea if you know you can win. But it seems like everyone out there thinks that if they can keep it close for the first 1200m, they’ll have a chance in the kick. The thing is, most of you are probably over-estimating your finishing speed. The best way to run a 1500 is even splits, with a strong finish of course, but simply figure out what your best possible finish is, start there, and stay there. And remember: you only get one move.
Imagine two runners. Runner A has a range of 3:52-57, and Runner B has a range of 3:56-4:01. Runner A is most likely to win, but there is some cross-over: if A has a bad day and B has a good day, B could win. What is the best strategy for each of them? Runner B will often think, “hey, if I can let it come down to a kick, maybe I can beat this guy!” Runner B would be wrong. Let’s say they run the first 1200m together in 3:12 (4:00 pace), and then rev up for the final 300m. A runner with a top end of 3:52 is likely to have a better kick (45) than one with a top end of 3:56 (46). Runner A is going to win, and in a slow time of 3:57, and Runner B will end up in about 3:58.
Now, if Runner B goes out faster, say in 3:09, and manages to run a 47 to close (even pace), that’s 3:56, which is theoretically as fast as he can go. By not worrying about the other guy, and running an even pace, he’s managed to run to his potential. This is also a better strategy because, regardless of fitness, 3:09 hurts more than 3:12, so if by chance Runner A is having an off day, maybe the quicker pace hurts him more than usual, and he doesn’t finish as well, and hey, Runner B gets him at the line.
Runner A’s best plan is also to run even pace: if he runs 3:05 (3:52 pace) to start, it’s very unlikely that Runner B will be able to follow, or last much longer than 1200m, if Runner B’s top end is truly 3:56. In this case Runner A just has to maintain an even pace, and he will best Runner B.
It’s a bit of a Pascal’s Wager of running strategy, I admit, but I believe it is sound. Of course, anything can happen in a race: it’s not a math problem. That said, if you just worry about running your race as fast as you can, instead of messing around with a sit-and-kick, then you’ll probably have the best chance of beating as many people as possible, including some people you might not be supposed to beat. This is definitely a strategy that works best for running fast, and if your goal is to win, or qualify in a particular place, you might be better off slowing things down if you know you can beat a certain number of runners in the field. If you know you do have a blazing kick, then by all means, use it, but be honest about your abilities, and when you make your race plan, make sure it focuses on you and what you can do, and not on the other guy or girl.
Another aspect to think about in preparing for a 1500m race is the rule that you only get one move. Above I described a race in which both runners made their “move” with 300m to go. The decision on where to move should be based on what type of runner you are. So, for a more distance oriented runner, a longer kick is probably best, or an earlier move. For an 800-1500m runner, waiting until 300m or even 200m is probably best. But the rule remains. Even when running an even-paced race, your effort level is going to gradually increase as the race goes on, in order to keep that pace. Eventually you’ll get to the point where you need to make a decision to consciously change gears. This is your move. It is very difficult to change gears twice in a 1500m, so plan your move accordingly.
If it is a championship race and you need to make sure that you win, then you’ll want to have a plan, but you’ll also need to monitor the other runners throughout the race. If your move is going to come late, and someone moves early, you have to make sure you remain in a position to strike, when your time comes. Covering someone else’s move does not necessarily mean moving yourself. It just means making sure you are not boxed in, and making sure that the other runner does not get too far ahead of the pack. If you are the one making the early move, than you want to make sure you put enough distance between yourself and the late-movers, so that they will run out of real estate when they try to catch you with their kicks.
Good luck to everyone racing this weekend, in Montreal and elsewhere! I’d love to hear your thoughts on 1500m race strategy: maybe someone is willing to call their shot for this weekend?