Key Race Points in Distance Running
When I began running competitively for the first time, I felt as if running faster meant progressing through exponentially-increasing levels of pain. My attitude toward distance running then clearly indicated that I was in the first phase of aerobic fitness, which is the initial improvement phase most people reside in and never progress beyond for most of their lives. It is in this initial fitness phase that the most rapid improvement is experienced. For example, in my first semester of high school cross country running, I dropped my 5-kilometer from 30:23 to 22:58. In this phase, people have a very indefinite idea of their physical ability, because it can be in constant flux due to the lack of a consistent exercise regimen. Because of this level of unpredictability, the following advice is best applicable to those progressing through the second and into the third phase of physical fitness.
The second phase is reached when an exercise regimen has become ingrained and habitual (usually over one or two months). In this phase, a runner is much more likely to be able to predict their pace over a given distance and maintain it relatively evenly (basically, to be able to run a certain speed without walking or significantly changing your pace). The third phase is when a runner has tuned themself so they can run a highly predictable pace (usually from four months or more of consistent exercise).
For runners in these two phases, seconds matter, and they can begin to analyze their pace in a given race and see when they tend to slow down. These key points in a race are usually in the latter half or third of the race, when the runner starts to get tired. In a 5k race, for example, runners typically slow down at around 1.5 or two miles. Only extremely high-mileage runners (runners that typically run more than 80 miles per week) can avoid this tendency, entirely, but there are some techniques that can reduce the time lost at key race points for all types of runners.
The first method of improvement involves mental focus. When you get tired, your mind naturally releases its focus and ipso facto relaxes the physical effort of the body. Recognizing and understanding this gives you the ability to override the mental tendency to slacken pace when you get tired, but it takes conscious effort to do this, because it involves directly working against nature. Also keep in mind that it is very easy to maintain focus and run quickly at both the beginning and end of a race, but you are at an advantage over other runners if you can master a level pace at the central points of a race.
Second, you can train your body to run a level pace in the middle of a race more easily; this also makes your mind habitually want to move faster in the middle. The best two methods of achieving this effect are speed workouts and tempo runs (also known as fartleks). Speed workouts involve running a repeat of a specific length at a faster pace than your race pace. Tempo runs are essentially a moderate-length distance run in which you run a faster pace for a length of time, then slow down and speed up for specific time intervals. For both of these types of workouts, if you focus on a higher level of effort in the middle and end, you will develop the habit of running at a more even pace, and this will translate to an improved race time.