There is a secret technique to running faster races that doesn’t require running any harder or training any longer; In fact, you can’t even practice this technique in most training runs! It applies to any distance, and the longer or more convoluted the run, the more beneficial this technique becomes.
The nature of this secret will be obvious the moment I speak of it, yet when I watch races, the majority of runners seem unaware of it. The secret: Don’t race any farther than you have to!
Before the “Duh!” reflex kicks in, allow me a bit of explanation. Road courses are measured with a calibrated wheel that rolls along the shortest path that a runner can follow between any two points (while remaining within the traffic cones, on the route and/or roadway.) A competitor on that course is taking extra steps, and extra time, whenever he or she deviates from the path traced by that calibrated wheel. Sometimes those extra steps are necessary (as to avoid an obstacle or slower runner), sometimes they’re desirable (as when making use of a hydration station), but mostly, those extra steps are the result of habit, and of all of those training runs where you stayed on the path, sidewalk, or to one side of the road for safety.
On race day though, the full width of the lane or the full street may be available to you. Do you make use of it? It helps if you know every turn in the course route, but even without that knowledge, you can plan ahead rather than following a curving line in the middle of the road! The smart runner can look up as far ahead on the course as can be seen, then plan to run a tangent — a straight line – towards that point. At some point in that journey, you’ll be able to see a bit farther, and, at that point adjust your tangent to account for the new information. Following this sequence of straight lines, you may find yourself going from one side of the street to the other as the route twists beneath you. The more the road turns, the more time and effort this can save you.
Even a course as deceptively simple as that for Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race (just one left turn) will benefit from this technique. If you need convincing, pull up a map (paper or on-line – either will do), and trace the route of staid, straight Peachtree Street from Lenox Square towards downtown. By my count there’s a dozen turns in there before getting to 10th Street. Each of those turns present an opportunity to take fewer steps, and save time over your less enlightened competitors.