by Ian Stokell

Once you reach the level of fitness to complete a race, triathlon becomes 90 percent mental. But motivation is an inexact science. What motivates one person may not work on the next. Two things do ring true though: one, the longer the race goes on, the harder it is to motivate yourself, and two, it helps if the motivational conditions during a race get easier physically, not harder.

When you’re young, it’s easier to accept the punishment to the body in pursuit of a PR. Personal bests and other outcome goals are easier at a young age, where the body is still strengthening and reaching its peak. With older age groupers, however (unless you are new to the sport), lifetime PRs are in the past, even if great personal performances are not. Those of us in the 50-plus set often have to look elsewhere for motivation tools to reach the finish line.

The two most common run strategies—negative and even splits—are often touted as the best. For older age group athletes, however, I would argue that controlled positive splits have a place. First, let’s look at the motivational issues with these two strategies.

Strategy 1 – The Even Split: As soon as your legs are functioning properly after transition two, find your goal running race pace, grit your teeth and stick with it. This strategy neither takes into account the mental toll on older age groupers of a long triathlon, or the inevitable muscle and physical fatigue.

Strategy 2 – The Negative Split: Running the second half of a race at a faster pace than the first half is called a negative split. It’s even more unlikely than an even split. Apart from the physical aspect, the longer the run, the harder this strategy becomes mentally. One thing is guaranteed on longer triathlons: you will hit some hard physical and mental patches on the run.

The third strategy, which for some reason has received a bad rap, is the controlled positive split. With the positive split, you run the first third or half of the race slightly faster than the last third, or second half. You set your overall race pace goal for the race, then go out slightly faster for the first third of the run than your goal pace. You can expect a tough time somewhere around, or a little after, the half way point. Because you have gone slightly faster than your goal pace while you were feeling fresh, mentally, you know that soon you’ll be able to go slightly slower for the rest of the race and still reach your race pace goal. However much faster than your race pace goal you ran in the first third, you can slow down that same amount relative to your race pace goal in the last third.

The bottom line? It’s easier to stay motivated once you hit the tough middle stretch, knowing you can actually slow down and still achieve your goal. Hitting the tough times knowing that you nhave to either maintain the same speed or actually speed up? That’s a hard thing mentally to do.

Let’s say your Ironman 70.3 race pace goal is 10 minutes per mile, or a 2:10 half marathon. Running the first five miles at a 9 minute mile pace and the middle three miles at 10 minute mile pace, will allow you the luxury of running the last five miles at a much more realistic and manageable 11 minute mile pace while still reaching your race pace goal. The key is to go out only slightly faster so as not to burn out later in the race.

Everyone is different with what works for them motivationally in order to complete a long race successfully. You may love the challenge of negative splits. For most age groupers, achieving your race pace goals after a long race using a negative split or even split approach may just be unrealistic.

Give controlled positive splits a try. As always, try it first in training. Try it in a half marathon training run and see how it feels. Then try the strategy in training, running 10 miles off the bike. You never know, it might be just the motivational tool you need to make it to your next finishline.

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Ian Stokell holds a MA in Physical Education and has been a sports writer for more than 30 years. When he isn’t working with pro triathlete Lesley Paterson on a new film project, you can find him training hard to keep up with his fellow 50-54′s. Follow him on on Twitter and email your questions to iantriathlon@gmail.com.