Why do track races involve so much strategy? Shouldn’t runners just go at whatever pace gives them the best time?


Why do track races involve so much strategy? Shouldn’t runners just go at whatever pace gives them the best time?

In: 7

Runners need to perform specific breathing techniques along with arm and leg movements to achieve the highest available pace while losing least amount of energy.

Otherwise, they’d exhaust easily.

Drafting is actually a real consideration, even at the speeds on foot. Some experimental data [shows](https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20823445/does-drafting-help-in-running/) that in a sprint, you’d be spending 6% less energy if you were directly behind another runner. Therefore, it might be a strategic benefit to be in second place for most of the race, and then sprint out from behind someone who has been taking the air resistance the entire time.

Even if there wasn’t any direct interaction between runners, so much of physical performance is psychological. It’s nearly impossible to just say “I will close my eyes and run the pace that I intend to run without going any faster or slower.” If you’re in the lead, you might let your guard down; if you’re behind, it might spur you to give an extra 1% you didn’t know you had.

There is a slight aerodynamic advantage to running behind someone. There is a significant psychological advantage/reduction in mental fatigue. Fundamentally the aim is to beat the other runners, not run the fastest possible time.

> Shouldn’t runners just go at whatever pace gives them the best time?

That could work if everybody ran individual solo time trials on an empty track, but real races have multiple runners on the same track at the same time and two people running in the exact same place at the exact same time results in a collision – so the idea of trying to *”run your solo pace (while ignoring everyone else)”* is physically impossible even if you wanted to do so (because you cannot simply run “through” somebody like a ghost-rider in a videogame).

Therefore, you have to consider your best natural solo-pace energy burn-rate in conjunction with the paces of the other runners. Does it burn less energy to overtake someone quickly with *just enough* energy to squeeze by before settling into your most-efficient solo pace, or it less energy to increase slightly above your natural pace and slowly overtake them from the outside over a long timeframe? (There’s also adrenalin and psychology to consider too.) These questions can partially depend upon the specific runner’s strengths and weaknesses, but for the most part nobody has the luxury of *not* considering them unless they are so-fast or so-slow that collisions are physically impossible.

Pack running: Passing and/or maintaining a lane come into play. You don’t want to be boxed in so you can’t get around to the outside without dropping back and having to increase effort for a longer time to move up.

Drafting: Already been discussed here – marginal improvement, but it makes a difference. Especially helpful if there’s a headwind or weather you’d prefer not to take on.

In-lane running (sprints): Hanging back and gauging your opponents’ speed can give you some reserve that you can then use for your “kick” at the end of the race.

Heats: Sometimes all you’re trying to do is come in the top 3 so you qualify for the final heat… and you definitely want to save as much energy for that final if it’s going to happen in the same day.

The fact is your best will not be your absolute best every day. Some days your best is closer to 85% of max, some days it’s 50%. Same goes for athletes… and their opponents.