Here’s how you can build the strength and power to surge like Sara Hall and Shura Kitata.
Last Sunday’s London Marathon provided a long-awaited outlet for racers and fans—complete with down-to-the-wire finishes.
American Sara Hall—who’d moved up from ninth place at the halfway mark to third at the 40K mark—surged past world champion Ruth Chepngetich in the last 150 meters to claim second place and a personal-best 2:22:01. On a media call this week, she described her mindset as “hunt mode,” saying, “I kind of just, in faith, started throwing myself forward and willing everything in my body forward.”
On the men’s side, Shura Kitata of Ethiopia sprinted down the line to finish in 2:05:41, just one second ahead of Vincent Kipchumba (with third-place Sisay Lemma coming in at 2:05:45).
Of course, Kitata and Hall first put themselves in a good position by pacing wisely over the first 26 miles and dialing in elements like nutrition and hydration. But in elite races, the finishing kick often determines who moves on to finals, ascends podiums, or claims victory, says Juli Benson, who’s coached collegiate and pro runners for two decades (including another athlete known for her kick, Jenny Simpson).
For the rest of us, the ability to change gears at the end can make the difference in reaching a specific time goal, like breaking 24 minutes in the 5K or qualifying for the Boston Marathon or a PR. What’s more, powering across a finish line stands as a sign you’ve raced to your potential, rather than starting too fast and fading.
“Scientifically, what the evidence shows is that the most efficient way to run a race is evenly paced, and a very close second is a negative split,” said Benson, who’s also a 1996 Olympian in the 1500 meters. “Across the board, having a good finish—no matter what you’re training for—can really be the difference between how you feel about your performance.”
Some of that kick comes naturally. Hall said genetic tests show she has the makeup of a power/speed athlete, with more fast-twitch muscle fibres to turn to even when her legs are fatigued. She won her first race ever—a seventh-grade cross-country competition in sprint finishes. “I think I just got hooked on the competitive side of that part of it, the thrill of that,” she said.
But she’s also worked hard to hone that skill through the years, and you can too. Here’s how.
For more than 2⃣0⃣ years, its been @SaraHall3 with the devastating, head-back, arms-driving kick down the homestretch. #FootLocker2000@DyeStat @runnerspace @FLCCC @fast_women https://t.co/Wo6vGHAkPV pic.twitter.com/rosR0NRska
— Dave Devine (@PDX_devine) October 4, 2020
Finish every run strong.
Even if you run completely even splits, your last lap or mile will feel far harder than your first. “It’s really important to teach your body how to put more mental and physical intensity in as you go, as that fatigue sets in,” Benson said.
Fortunately, you can train this skill nearly every day. Even on an easy run, take your last 1.5 kms about 20 seconds or so faster than the first one, she suggested.
You can do it during long runs too, spending the last few minutes of a 90-minute to two-hour run picking it up while focusing on your form and technique. “This reinforces the idea that even though you might be fatigued, you can still be strong,” said James McKirdy, a coach at McKirdy Trained in Flagstaff, Arizona.
Add on to your tempos.
Notching it down at the end of a more intense effort offers the best approximation of how the end of the marathon feels, Hall said. In her buildup to London, she ran 25 Km tempo runs, closing the last Km near half marathon pace.
You can scale this concept to your own level in several ways. Like Hall, you can make your tempo run progressive. Do a 20-minute or 3-mile tempo and begin accelerating over the last mile. Then, kick the final 200 meters at a pace you could sustain for only a mile, said Tim Bradley, director of training programs and head coach at the Chicago Area Runners Association.
Or, you can also add strides at the end of a tempo run, an approach both Bradley and Benson endorse. After a 5 Km tempo, take two minutes of rest. Then run 4 x 200 meters at your Km pace (or 30 seconds at 85-percent effort, if you’re not near a track) with an equal amount of jogging in between each.
Just make sure you’re staying focused on form and mechanics, Bradley said, lifting your knees high, keeping your shoulders back, and driving your elbows straight behind you. That protects you from injury and also boosts your power: a 2018 research review suggests your arms contribute about 10 percent of the propulsive force with which you can push into the ground while sprinting.
Find your fast-twitch fibres.
Even with a focus on form, excessive sprinting on fatigued legs can still up your odds of getting hurt. However, dedicating an entire day to short, fast efforts on fresh legs also contributes to your kick by training your brain to better connect to your fast-twitch fibres, Bradley said.
After a five- to 10-minute easy jog and a dynamic warmup, try this workout, with all repetitions at Km pace or slightly faster:
- 2 x 30 meters
- 2 x 50 meters
- 2 x 70 meters
Each time, do a slow jog or walk back to the start. Finish with a five- to 10-minute easy jog.
Or, to get in a little more mileage, try this workout from McKirdy. After one to two miles of easy jogging and a dynamic warm-up, do:
- 2 minutes at 5K pace, followed by 75 seconds rest
- 75 seconds a little faster, with 60 seconds rest
- 60 seconds at mile pace, with 30 seconds rest
- 30 seconds faster yet, but not quite an all-out sprint
Even racers targeting longer distances can benefit from such short intervals: “It reinforces that yes, I might be marathon training, but I do have power,” McKirdy said.
Fine-tune your why.
Research also suggests that psychology plays a key role in finishing kicks—that even if you have more gas in the tank, your brain sometimes prevents you from tapping into it. Understanding why your goals matter in the first place can help you break through those mental barriers, said Michele Kerulis, Ed.D., a professor of counseling and sport psychology at Northwestern University’s Family Institute.
Hall headed into London eager to redeem herself from the Olympic Marathon Trials, where she dropped out at mile 22. Getting to the podium was a stretch goal that motivated her when things felt difficult, she said; so did gratitude for the ability to race at all in this uncertain year.
To practice the mental skills required to kick, spend some time before your race reflecting on your own motivation—whether it’s to move past a disappointing performance like Hall, get the most out of yourself, or honor the memory or spirit of someone else.
Distill this down into a word or two—for instance, “redemption”—and repeat it to yourself at the end of hard workouts. That way, you’ll know it works when you get to the final stretch, toward the finish line. “Finding something personal about the situation helps people find that last bit of physical ability to really, really push themselves,” Kerulis said.