Go Zone Racing – A Strategy for Better Performance


In analyzing the splits of hundreds of competitive distance runners, it’s clear that personal records and breakthrough performances at distances from 800 meters to the 10K come only by getting out of your comfort zone and into your “Go Zone.”

Go Zone racing involves serious mental toughness and some risk-taking, as well as a heavy dose of pre-race planning. It is not for the faint of heart. It is for runners who want to perform their best, who want to challenge themselves, who want to go beyond their previous bests.

In short, Go Zone racing puts particular emphasis on the most critical race stage — the stage where you likely fail to stay on pace and the goal slips away. For most runners, this occurs in the third quarter of races, the time that is usually the No-Go Zone. But with the right mindset, you’ll turn this into your Go Zone and your next races into breakthroughs.


In your mental prep in the hours (and possibly days) leading into the race, get mentally ready to run fast. The efficacy of this is demonstrated in the “Carlsbad Phenomenon.” The Carlsbad 5000 in California is the site of multiple world records and untold PRs by inspired non-elite runners. These records are not because the course is fast. In fact, the course includes two 90-degree turns and two 180-degree turns, plus two slight inclines. So, while it’s not the toughest course in the world. It just doesn’t seem like so many runners would run so fast there.

The answer? It’s the mindset. Everyone knows the race is going to be fast so they get mentally ready for it. They expect it to be a fast race, and so it is. Transfer the Carlsbad Phenomenon to your next race. Go into it expecting it to be fast and it likely will be.

Here’s the breakdown of how to race using the Go Zone method:

The Start:

In the Start Zone, you must be ready to get going quickly but under control. You must get out strongly for the first portion of the race (the first one to three minutes of a 5K, for example). Your Start Zone pace for most races will be right at goal pace but still under control and not too fast. While you won’t win the race or PR here, you will set the tone of the race.

Fast Rhythm Zone:

The next section of the race is about finding a relaxed but fast rhythm — that cadence and stride that is quick but relaxed and where you are smooth and fast. You are simply trying to stay on pace but cover ground as easily as possible. If you can do this and do it relatively relaxed, you’ll be ready to attack the Go Zone.

The Go Zone:

This is it! After you pass through the halfway point, you enter the Go Zone. In this section, significantly increase your intensity and attack the race. This is vitally important, as the race will be getting harder and harder. You simply must increase your intensity to keep the pace going. Know that if you can just push harder through this section of the race and keep your pace on target, you will achieve your goal.

A good idea is to not only increase your intensity internally, but also to focus on something external. If racing in a pack, move up in the group. If racing in a line of runners, pass someone. If racing alone, pick out a point up ahead on the road or somewhere on the track and focus on running harder to that point. Then, pick another point or pass another person. Do whatever you must to keep the pace going. It’s going to hurt — breakthroughs always do — but the suffering will be minimal compared to the days and sometimes weeks of knowing you didn’t give it your all.

The Get-Time Zone:

Once through the third quarter of a race, you enter the Get-Time Zone. We can all sprint at a pace faster than goal pace. The key is that you must start your push toward the finish line earlier than you normally do. Don’t wait until you see the finish line. You can’t score too many precious seconds in the last 100 meters. But if you start your push to the line earlier (the last 1 to 2 minutes to go in a 5K or 10K race, for example), you’ll score several seconds that can be the difference in your performance. It’s not easy, of course, but if you can get your brain to risk it, and your legs to obey, you can Get Time.

It might take several races before you get the hang of Go Zone racing for your shorter races like the 800 meters to the 10K. But try it enough and eventually it will become the norm. If your experience is like that of others who have mastered it, get ready to re-write your personal record book.

Go Zone: Racing Rules

  1. You must be race fit. For that reason, Go Zone tactics work well later in the race season.
  2. You must be realistic in your racing goal relative to your training. No wishful thinking or exaggerating what is possible.
  3. You must be willing to straddle the fine line between going too fast and going perfectly fast. Even “failure” will help you better understand where that line is.
  4. You must be engaged in your races and specifically focus on the task of each zone.

Suggested additional reading: Don’t Taper. Peak! and 5 Steps to Making the Best Better

PS: See my video on Marathon and Half-Marathon pacing if you are racing longer races.

Remove the guesswork from training to achieve your best performance with McMillan Running Training Plans.

For every distance between 800 meters and the marathon, these scientifically-based training plans include your McMillan Calculator training paces integrated, coach’s notes, and access to our prehab routines. Plus, the plans are delivered on a runner-friendly training log platform. Learn more.

Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

Read Greg’s Bio




“I got my first Boston Qualifier today with a 21 personal record!”

– Ramona M.