Running a great 5km race requires a lot more than months of training and proper tapering. Many people (including myself) have blown a race when they were in peak condition, for various reasons. I want to go through a few of the more common ones, and also touch on some of the mental aspects that many people don't even bother with.
Let's start with the most important one:
Even Splits means running each mile or kilometre at the same pace throughout the race. This can be very hard to do, and there's two distinct reasons. The first is that the act of tapering before the event has left the runner with fresh legs, which is a strange feeling after weeks, if not months, of hard training on legs that are almost always in some state of tiredness.
A proper taper makes that feeling go away, but the result can be that the runner falsely believes he or she is in better shape than they are. They make the error of running at the same effort level they felt when running 1km intervals at 5km race pace a few weeks back. What they forget is that they did those intervals without tapering, and in a non-race atmosphere.
When you run your next 5km race, remember that that after a proper taper you should feel as though you are running 10km race pace or even a little slower for that first kilometre. It should feel reasonably easy - or easier than you would expect. I know I have tapered right when I feel like I could even have a short conversation with the runner next to me in the first kilometre of a 5km race. There should definitely be no huffing and puffing, yet!
The second reason for going out too fast is over-excitement. It gets to the best of us, and sometimes it's very hard to resist. At the start, I always try to disassociate from the event a little, and play detachment tricks on myself (more on that later in this post). I have run some of my best races by finding a quiet place to relax in the final few minutes before the gun goes off. I will show up early and talk to people, go for my easy warm up, stretch, and then sit somewhere and do absolutely nothing for the last 10-15 minutes, while I start preparing to relax for the race, and not be pumped up. Getting all tense and pumped up will tighten muscles, and tight muscles don't work very well. I will spend the time sitting down and mentally relaxing every muscle in my body, starting from my feet and working upward, ending with all the muscles in my face, so that it is expressionless. By the time the race is getting ready to start, I feel completely at ease, relaxed, and know I will definitely not go out too fast. As I head to the start line, I avoid talking to anyone, or thinking about anything other than maintain the totally relaxed, loose feeling.
Just before the race begins, I will do some strides, which are short and easy accelerations to race pace over about 10-15 seconds. You've probably seen other runners do this, and maybe wondered why.
The reason for strides is because you want your heart rate to rise *just before* the event, to minimize the shock of abruptly running at a demanding pace. The body is more prepared, and it becomes easier to comfortably fall into the proper pace without a nasty initial period of heavy breathing. Strides should be short and smooth, and literally done in the final few minutes before the start (under 3). Anything earlier than that is a waste of energy, and the wrong time to be getting the heart going other than your warm-up jog much earlier, which at this point you have obviously completely recovered from. If you can't move from your position in the start pack, run in place a little in the final two minutes. Remember when doing strides or running in place to keep the relaxed focus you worked on earlier! You aren't getting hyped up; all you are doing in making your heart beat faster. It sounds like they are the same thing, but they are definitely not. It's quite easy to stay very relaxed while striding, since the effort level is minimal (10-15 seconds per "stride").
As the race starts, I allow myself to think of nothing but running form. The goal of the first kilometre is twofold: hitting the correct split time, and using the least amount of energy to get there. The first kilometre is very important - it is the easiest one to run, and because of this, it is the easiest one to save energy on by remaining loose and maintaining perfect form.
Think of the first kilometre as the one in which you "cheat" by trying to get to the beginning of the second kilometre by expending as little energy as possible, through excellent form and total relaxation. I will often let my direct competitors get a couple seconds ahead of me during this period. The real race hasn't started in my mind, since I don't feel like I'm racing while in my relaxed state.
As the race progresses, it becomes more of a challenge to maintain form and not tighten up. This is especially why it's important to make staying loose the number one priority early in the race. If someone at your ability level is all tense and worried, or maybe overly excited, you will use less energy than they will in the crucial early stages. it will pay off in the end.
No matter how fit you are and how well you maintain good, relaxed and loose form, things start to get tough pretty quickly in a 5km race. For me, I find the point where it starts to become a real challenge is about 3 to 3.5km. This is where the wheels slowly but surely start coming off, and when most runners first start thinking of the finish line. It's also about the point when the best runners begin to separate themselves from the pack they were running in, as the rest begin to slow down. This occurs at every ability level. You see it for 15 minute 5km runners and over 30 minute 5km runners. The people that remained loose and concentrated on form are rewarded with a stronger end stage.
When you reach this stage, here's a few things to do in order to minimize discomfort and maintain pace:
Firstly, shorten your stride length and quicken your turnover. Watch any elite runner at the end of a race - this is what they do, and you should, too. It's the best way to keep from lagging. A good way to do this is to run as if you are sneaking up on someone, and don't want to make a lot of noise. The muscles in your legs are filling up with lactic acid, a by-product of oxygen burning. This makes them stiffen up and not work as well. Don't fight it - adjust your stride to make up for this change.
Another thing to remember at this stage in the race is to completely relax your facial muscles. You probably want to twist it up into a look of agony (I know I do!), but it's only going to make the rest of the race even harder for you. Relax the face completely, and try to maintain an expression of complete boredom. I guarantee this will help you run a little faster, by both keeping muscle tension down and giving your mind something to think about other than "I WANT TO STOP RIGHT NOW!" I've actually spent the entire end of a race thinking of nothing but keeping a blank expression on my face. It's hard to do, but not as hard as focusing on the agony of every step.
Shoulders are the other culprit. You aren't running a sprint-distance race, so there's no need to clench your fists and run with rigid arms. A trick my old coach told me that works incredibly well is to just remember to relax your shoulders. The reason is that it's almost impossible for a runner to have tense arms or hands if they have relaxed shoulders.
So, you are 1.5km from the finish, and after spending the first 3 to 3.5km of the race working on even splits, relaxation, and perfect form, you are starting to really feel the effort and are now shifting to a shorter stride with a quicker turnover, and thinking about relaxing the shoulders and facial muscles. Don't allow the race details to enter your mind now - the end will come when it comes, and there is no point thinking about anything but the above-mentioned techniques. You will find that if you do this, the effort becomes easier, because you are working on things that are in your control, rather than thinking about things that are not, such as where the race ends, or where that damn 4th kilometre marker is!
Internalize your thoughts - focus on the things you can do to improve the way you feel without having to slow down. Here's where the race becomes very mental. Don't think about the discomfort as a negative aspect! Think about it as a normal thing that occurs from running. It means you are working hard. It's expected, and you knew it would happen. It's just a routine part of the race that you work on, such as stride rate or relaxing your shoulders. There is no reason to panic about such a normal occurrence, although it is admittedly uncomfortable.
You are now nearing the end. There's about a half mile to go, and it's long enough that if you aren't careful, you can ruin the effort you gave over the prior 4.2km by giving in to fatigue and slowing down. Here's where disassociation really comes into play. Negative thoughts start to enter your mind at this point, and you need a strategy to effortlessly make them go away. I have a few games that I have made up over the years that work well for me - maybe you can try them at your next event. They may sound silly, but nothing is worse than dreading every step and not being able to think about anything but the agony you are putting yourself through.
My favorite disassociation technique is pretending I am in a movie. I am watching this movie in my mind. It is about a runner who is running at his limits, but hangs on heroically and finishes strong, even though it's clear he is working extremely hard. As I watch the movie, I feel incredibly motivated by his effort. What a great runner! I wish I could dig that deep! He is using every cell in his body to go faster and catch the person in front of him, and it looks like he's going to do it! The finish line is in sight, and I know he is going to collapse at the end - I am mesmerized by it all, and in my mind I can see all the various dramatic camera angles.
The above technique is a great one - it brings back similar feelings I have felt from watching great races, and prevents me from feeling negative about my discomfort. In my mind, I am a world-class elite runner who's face shows nothing as he races to the finish.
If you want to try something a little less dramatic, I sometimes like to focus on a spot on the back of the runner's shoe in front of me (if there is one). I'll concentrate on maintaining the visual attachment with this spot. It doesn't have to be a shoe; I have used the timing chip on their ankle before. The point is to force yourself to think of anything but your discomfort. It doesn't have to have meaning. you could try counting the amount of people watching the race near the end, one by one, or even counting your footsteps (1,2,3...1,2,3...1,2,3). You could try thinking about the great race report you are going to be typing up on runners later on, in which you are so proud to describe your strong finish!
One last thing I always think about if all else fails is how after almost every race I have ever done, I feel like I could have gone faster, only a minute after recovering. Almost everyone feels that way. The end of the race is very hard, but in a way it's easy if you realize it's almost over, and that everyone else feels as bad as you. It is very easy to forget that and feel sorry for yourself, as if you're the only one suffering. The goal at the end of a race is control that suffering better than the people around you - keep in mind that they feel like giving up, too. It's very hard for everyone. Don't think that the person in front of you is too strong to pass when you are within sight of the finish. It's likely that if you give it a shot (even if you're insanely tired), they will be intimidated by your effort and back off. This is why I like passing people at the top of hills - it's a similar strategy: hit 'em when they feel weak, even if you do, too.
Learn to relax and disassociate rather than tense up and obsess over your discomfort, and you will run a better race!