Readers Roundtable: Do You Study Your Goal Race’s Course?

Do you look up every detail you can find about your goal race courses?

I spent the bulk of last week in San Francisco. I had a great time running in Golden Gate Park, through Land’s End, past the Golden Gate Bridge, and more. A highlight of my trip was popping into one of our March Madness Sweet 16 stores, A Runner’s Mind, and joining their awesome community for their group run. Before we set off, resident coach Marathon Mattย gave a talk on preparing for race day.

His talk was aimed at beginners, but one thing stuck out. He emphasized the importance of knowing your goal race’s course.ย He recommended studying the maps, the elevation charts, and, even better, training on your goal race course if you can.

Matt’s talk made me think of some of my best races. Some of them were run on courses I knew like the back of my hand and some were run on courses I hardly knew at all. And sometimes, I had terrible races on familiar courses because I always knew exactly where I was and I fixated on the hills or other challenging parts rather than staying in the moment. So I wanted to ask you:

Do you study your goal race’s course? What information is important to you to know about the course? Have you ever trained on your goal race course and, if so, how did it affect your performance?

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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  1. I look at the map for shorter runs but I don’t really study it too much. For half marathons and longer I might look at it a bit more and just to see where I might need to conserve my energy or where I need to hold back. But I do like to sometimes just be surprised that with the course might bring.

  2. I just go with it. I’m not one of the runners in the lead pack, or elite field. I can see them having to learn the course b/c they are FAST. Plus I need to just be in the moment and not worried about what’s next. I do my best running not knowing about the hard parts.

    1. There are many potential benefits for all runners to learn the course. At a very high level, you need to know if the course is hilly or flat so you train for that or at least use that to help formulate goals. You don’t necessarily need to know where every hill is, but if you’re racing a hilly marathon you want your body to know what a hill is ๐Ÿ™‚ But not knowing what the course scenery, etc looks like can be a good thing. I’ve had some miserable races running courses I run often and know every little thing about. But I’ve also rocked races because I knew every little detail too. I think each of us has our healthy balance of knowing enough but not too much.

      1. That’s about all I look for, is the course hilly? If yes, I go run hills. I run hilly routes all the time Brunswick. Next year I will be prepared for heartbreak hill. Other than that I just know it’s a downhill start and I’m going to have fun for 26.2 miles and live to tell about it.
        For Toledo I really wanted a flat course. I looked at Canton hall of fame and I didn’t want to think about hills so that race was out.

  3. For a goal race, I pick PR-friendly courses (flat, preferably with a net decline), so I study various race courses carefully before I decide which race will be the goal race. Once I choose that race, I no longer look at the course map. I think studying a course is more important for a challenging course (e.g., knowing where the hills are).

    The other thing I used to study and worry over before I started running with Simple Hydration was where the water stations were.

    I’ve only trained on the goal race course once when I chose a local half as the big A race a few years ago. I didn’t go out of my way to train on the course. The course happened to overlap with large chunks of my normal running route. Since then, I’ve picked races that were farther away so training on the course wasn’t a reasonable option.

    Mentally I find it easier to continue running hard when I know the course well because I have a better sense of when the pain will end. That said, I’ve set a number of PRs on unfamiliar courses. Personally I categorize Marathon Matt’s advice under the category of “marginal gains.” Meaning, yes, knowing the course and training on it helps, all else being equal, but only marginally. Things like proper training and nutrition matter more and once you nail those down, then go after the marginal gain.s

    1. Yes, I like the term “marginal gains.” Especially if time and mental energy are limited, this concept it a good one. Do the big things first and then worry about the details as time and energy allow.

  4. Yes, for important races I like to know the course. Right now I have printed maps of the Glass City Marathon course in two places. I also like when races have a video tour available. I focus primarily on the final parts of the course and imagine positive self-talk. For most races, I’ll do my warm up over the last bit of the course to make sure I knew where the finish line is exactly and to plan where I’ll kick.

    1. My fastest relative PR came on a 5k course that I was already familiar with, but also warmed up on and visualized the race during the warm-up. I don’t think it’s a coincidence!

  5. If there are major hills, I like to know so I can train on hills more than I normally do, so I can plan my nutrition strategy more specifically, and so I can mentally save something for late-in-the-race climbs. Not to mention, knowing you’re done, or that it’s all down hill from here is mentally freeing in a race, too. Gives me a boost and helps me break up the race course into mentally manageable chunks. Being surprised at mile 14 with a giant set of hills to take on is not fun, especially if you have no idea when they end. The half I did last month, got a PR & took second, was on a course I run several times every week. It gave me an edge when to push and when to take it easy because I know that trail like the back of my hand.

    1. My first “big breakthrough” in running was breaking 90 for a half. It was on a course I knew well and I knew that once I got to 10, it was all down hill so at 10 I was on the bubble to break 90, but was so excited about the rest being “downhill” (the net downhill was probably negligible, but any net downhill at the end is welcome!) I ended up making up almost 90 seconds over the last 5k and crushed it. The rest of the course I didn’t really care about, but knowing where I was going to make my move was so valuable. Of course, it won’t always work out like that. Basically, if you’re having a great race and know the course, it’ll be awesome to know the course! If you’re having a shitty race and know the course, you will hate every single tree and sidewalk crack on that course until you finally finish. Ha!

  6. While nowhere near as experienced as many of the Salties, I do varying levels of course stalking before the race depending on degree of difficulty (and even deciding whether to run). For marathons, I think its important to know level/type of support, mile markets, turns and hills. I have nightmares of “getting lost” in a marathon. I ran one race that will go unnamed that I refer to as my ghetto marathon (plywood markers and aid stations manned with kids that were unprepared for the task of having cups filled and ready to hand out). So, I try to learn from my mistakes, know what I’m are getting into bf a race or pick better supported races.

    I’ve done more stalking for Boston, even though I live here and can train the course and have run it twice before: reading others accounts of race strategies, re-scanning maps, listening to Hansons PPT/podcasts. It’s a deceptive course that many runners can benefit from knowing how best to race and manage. You can PR if run strategically or blow up by not respecting the first 17 miles.

    I do run the course but mostly the back 9 and occasionally from points further west (mile 12/13). Still I don’t feel I’m prepared for the full impact of the course as most of Boston proper is relatively flat and I don’t get enough downhill training.

    Courses with lots of turns are important to study to run the tangents effectively.

    So, I guess I am an above average course stalker, but only because I don’t race that much and I think I want to give the ones I run my best chances to PR.

    1. Yes on tangents, especially for short races when you have less reaction time to get in the right position to take them well. Also, the getting lost thing is a good point, especially if running a smaller race.

    2. Hey, you sound like a pro! I ran the back end of the NYC course for all of my long runs last fall and it worked like a charm, especially on 5th Avenue, which is a lot harder than you might think if you hadn’t run it a lot. I bet you’ll be glad you did that back 9 over and over. I think it’s more important to study the back of a course than the front, since that’s when you’re most likely to need to turn on the autopilot so you can focus on your mental game.

  7. I like to look at course elevation to get an idea of where a hill will pop up. I wouldn’t say I study it though.

  8. For the majority of shorter races I like to know the elevation and look at a course map to have a general idea of turns/etc. If I am traveling to a race and have the opportunity when I get to the race I will drive the course (if possible). For marathons, most races now have a video preview of the course so I will watch that to have an idea of general landmarks/elevation/etc but only once – I don’t really “study” it. Aside from any races I have run multiple times, the only race course that I specifically trained on before the race was the Boston Marathon course (and I was definitely happy that I did that), and some local shorter races that happen to be part of my normal running loops on a day-to-day basis.

    1. Driving the course is a great idea! Although don’t hills always look worse when driving than actually running up them? They do to me! I’ll be scared to death of running up a hill I drive up, but then when I’m actually running it’s never as bad as it looks in the car ๐Ÿ™‚

        1. Maybe I’m a pessimist and you’re an optimist?! The upside of my approach is I’m always pleasantly surprised during the race ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. I study the course for every race I run. Depending on my goals, I put in varying degrees of effort/time and look for different things. A few highlights from a too-long list:

    – Identify where the course splits and how, when multiple races “share” the same course – Where and which direction does the 5K course split off from the 10K course? Where is the turn-around on the out & back?

    – Determine if there are specific features I can train for – Let’s grease the groove on the TM for climbing 150 feet in 3/4 of a mile to match that hill.

    – Know the final approach to the finish line – Is there a long straightaway or is it hidden around a corner? When will I really be “almost there”?

    For a goal race, I will often print out a course map in the weeks leading up the race and use it for visualization practice. Sometimes, I also highlight the map using different colors to indicate segments where I intend to target specific paces or heart rates – warm-up, middle avg, final push (for example).

  10. Yes! I have been studying the Boston course both at a big picture level (practicing running on hills) and more recently trying to memorize more precisely where the uphills hit and how long they last so that I can mentally prepare and pace myself.

  11. I normally look at the race maps of 1/2s and marathons, mainly so I know where the water stops are. But I don’t like driving race courses… it always makes me think “oh my goodness, this is a long way to run!”