How to Improve a Stronger Race Finish

finish strong at races

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Most runners don't expect a podium finish when they participate in a running race. But that doesn't mean finishing strong doesn't matter. It's satisfying to feel fast and steady when you cross the finish line.

But often, we lose steam and end the race gasping for breath and feeling spent. So how do you train to gain speed and finish fast? Use these tips to improve your finishing kick and feel confident at the end of your races.

Tips to Improve Your Race Finish

Regardless of your experience in the sport, every runner wants to feel proud of their race-day accomplishments. These training strategies are used by athletes of all levels to improve speed and endurance so you finish with confidence.

Practice Finishing Fast

Practice running negative splits during some of your runs. A split is a time it takes you to run a specific distance. For example, if you run a mile in nine minutes, your split time is 9:00. A negative split is a split time that is faster than the previous split time.

For example, when you run negative splits during a three-mile run, your first split (mile) might be 9:00. As you continue to run, increase your speed just slightly so that you finish your next mile in slightly less time. For example, if you reach mile two at 17:55, that means that your second mile split was 8:55. You might try to increase speed again to 8:50 for the last mile, finishing the workout in 26:45 with negative splits.

Running negative splits can be tricky for a newer runner. If you have less experience, you might want to focus on running consistent splits first (meaning that each time you run the distance, your time stays the same).

Once you know what a reasonable split time is, then focus on negative splits. Complete your first split at a fast but manageable speed. Then increase your speed on subsequent splits so that your last split is your hardest and fastest.

Improve Mental Toughness

While it might sound easier said than done, learning to tolerate physical discomfort to reach your goals can have a big impact on your ability to finish strong on race day. There are specific strategies you can use to boost your mental toughness.

On your training runs, practice framing each challenge as an opportunity to improve. Self-dialogue is one way to do this. Your internal self-talk can make a big difference in your ability to withstand difficult tasks.

For example, if you often quit long runs before you reach your goal mileage, you may have a habit of practicing self-talk where you list the reasons why quitting makes sense.

Instead, use the internal dialogue to remind yourself that finishing your miles improves your physical and mental endurance. Picture yourself crossing the finish line at your next race, proud of the training miles you put in to get there.

You can even practice this technique on race day. Repeat a mantra to yourself that helps push you through to the finish.

There are also other methods that will help boost mental toughness. You might try to focus on intrinsic goals, learn to ignore distractions on your runs, and practice overcoming running challenges.

For example, include speed work in your training to improve strength and confidence. Doing a few miles of your long runs at race pace is another way to build your confidence and strength.

Run Hills

Doing hill repeats will make you stronger, as well as improve your running efficiency and increase your lactate threshold. Hill repeats are exactly what they sound like. You choose a hill—or a series of hills—and run up the incline several times.

For example, you might have a hill in your neighborhood that is roughly 200 meters in length with a steep incline. After a short warm-up, start at the base of the hill and run up and over the crest of the hill at a challenging pace. Then turn around and slowly jog to the bottom, take a short break and repeat.

Runners might complete six, eight, or more hill repeats to build strength and endurance. The training means you'll feel a lot more confident and strong in the home stretch of your race. Once you've built an endurance base in your running program, you can incorporate hill training once or twice each week to gain benefits.

Increase Strength and Power

Tired, sore muscles can derail a strong finish. In the final stretch, your muscles are fatigued, but they still need to work hard to cross the mat.

One of the smartest ways to improve muscular strength and power is to include strength training in your weekly workout schedule. But don't worry, you don't necessarily have to go to the weight room.

Body weight exercises force you to use large muscles at the same time. Incorporate exercises like lunges, or squats at the end of your runs. You might also practice plyometric drills, such as high knees or skipping, into your training to build strength and explosive power.

Find Your Next Gear

Do you do all your training runs and races at a consistent pace? Many runners do. While consistency can be good, there comes a point at races when you don't have to hold back anymore. You should find your next gear and increase speed for a strong finish.

The tricky part of this strategy, however, is finding your sweet spot. The place where you should pick up the pace is different for everyone. It might also depend on the distance of the race. For example, you might have more energy to sprint to the finish after a 5K rather than a marathon.

During your tempo runs, practice picking up the pace at different distances from your finish spot. Use your training journal to jot down the distance where you increased speed and add notes about whether or not you were able to finish and if you had energy at the end. If you had a bit of energy when you completed the run, try picking up the pace sooner next time.

If you've done some training to run faster, then it will easier to get into gear with confidence on race day.

Divide and Conquer

You'll be more likely to finish strong if you don't focus on the finish line when you start your race. Instead, divide the race into segments with a clear goal for each one.

When you start the race, focus on running a conservative but steady pace. It's easy to start too fast because you're usually feeling strong at the start of the race. But a fast start can lead to a slow, exhaustive finish. Instead, have a conservative goal of running slightly slower (ten seconds or so) slower than your race pace for the first mile or so.

Then during the middle miles start "fishing" for other runners in front of you. Imagine yourself hooking a runner in front of you with a fishing rod and start reeling them in as you pass them by. Once you run past them, find another one to catch and pick him or her off.

Practice this trick until you reach the spot at which you've decided to pick up your pace and get into a new gear.

Finally, cross the finish line feeling fast and strong and don't forget to smile for your finishing photo.

By Christine Luff, ACE-CPT
Christine Many Luff is a personal trainer, fitness nutrition specialist, and Road Runners Club of America Certified Coach.