The Ultimate Race-Specific Training: Scouting the Course

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The CVNP Towpath, site of the Towpath Marathon

Photo Credit: CVNP towpath, near Boston Township, by Flickr user Joanne, used under a Creative Commons license.

Most training plans incorporate a degree of race-specific training as the big day approaches, specifically workouts at race pace to help you get physically and mentally ready to sustain that level of effort for the necessary period of time.  And many coaches will recommend that you incorporate at least one race simulation workout into your training.  This doesn’t necessarily involve running at race pace, but rather practicing your fueling and gear choices for the event, so that you uncover any potential issues and can make adjustments.

But if you are racing a local event, or have the opportunity to travel to the site of your race early, no training run gets you as prepared for an event as actually scouting the course.  While you can obviously do this by car a day or two before the race, driving a course doesn’t give the same feedback as running it – have you ever noticed how much different a hill seems in a car than when you actually run it?

It is worth taking a little bit of extra time to take advantage of one or more opportunities to do some of your training on the race course itself.  This may consist of several shorter runs encompassing some of the big features of the race (like running up Heartbreak Hill in Boston), or a single longer run a few weeks ahead of the event encompassing all (for a half-marathon or shorter) or some (for a marathon) of the course.

While you may develop a great race strategy on paper, you will undoubtedly face circumstances you can’t possibly understand by reading about them or planning for them.  Actually getting on the course is the only way to know exactly how long that straightaway seems, how bad that wind can blow, or how good that downhill is going to feel.

So how do you make the most of this limited opportunity?  Here are a few ways to maximize the value of the experience:

  1. Really test the hills – for some marathons, the hills make or break the course.  Therefore, it will be worth running a marathon-level effort (note – not necessarily marathon pace) on the key hills to get a sense how difficult that will seem.  Keep in mind that you will be more fatigued late in the race (and more charged up early in the race) – so don’t get lulled into a false sense of security.  I made that mistake in Akron in 2010, when I ran it’s challenging hills early in a 14 mile training run, not recognizing they’d feel much different at miles 15-19 of race day.
  2. Look for the tangents - you can really gain time / cut distance by running the tangents smartly, so it’s best to know the key turns (especially if they are bigger loops) ahead of time, so you can be positioning yourself to take advantage.  This is especially true in a bigger marathon, when it can be tough to move “against the crowd” in a short period of time.
  3. Develop your mental game – there are going to be tough patches in the marathon – maybe that long straightaway, or the area without crowd support.  And there are going to be places you gain energy – the gentle downhill after the tough climb, a scenic section.  The more you can develop the mental tricks you will use to overcome or enjoy the experience, the better you will perform on race day.
  4. Visualization – a more powerful mental tool is to visualize certain elements of the race, and there is no better way to build the imagery than to tour the course.  This is especially effective if you are able to include the finish area, as there is no more powerful motivator when you need to dig deep than to envision the feeling of finishing.  Obviously, it won’t look the same that it will on race day, but you can let your imagine embellish the image as much as you need to.

I recently ran such a trial run on 22 miles of the Towpath Marathon course, and it was amazing to me how little I recalled of the course from my successful outing there last year.  The amount of minor hills on this mostly flat course surprised me, and I misremembered the location of some key landmarks.  And, after nearly tripping in a small rut, I remembered out important it will be not to get too taken-in by the scenery of the course.  The amount of leaves on the trail so early in the season, before even the fall colors have come out, also had me recognizing that a wet day may require a change in plans (and maybe even shoes).

Has anyone else had the chance to do such a trial run and, if so, what were the major lessons you learned from doing so?

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  • Brian Vinson

    My favorite race is the Hocking Hills Indian Run – I’ve run that course something like 10 times, so I know the course. The final mile is uphill, which was a back-breaker the first time I ran it, but now it’s a strong area for me, as I know what to expect AND I know how close the finish line is (even though you can’t see it until you’re almost on top of it).

  • Greg Strosaker

    Nice to get the home course advantage – is that the race you won, as well? I need to run our hometown 5K’s more often, but they are usually too close to marathons – maybe next June.

  • Salty

    When I ran the Towpath Marathon it was a last second decision, so I didn’t train for that course. However, I had done so many long runs over the years on those stretches of Towpath that I knew exactly how far I still had to go at every point. I actually found my familiarity with the course to be a bit of a challenge, especially over those last few miles. Red Lock to Boston Store felt like an eternity! However, if I had trained for the race and mentally prepared for the monotony it would have helped for sure. If I recall, the major challenges of the Towpath are the monotony, trail condition and that stinking hairpin turn at mile 20.5. So, sounds like you’re ready!

  • Greg Strosaker

    I too had run the Towpath many times, but only as far south as maybe 2 miles beyond the Boston Store – I was unfamiliar with the early stages of the race. Granted, it’s the later stages that are more important to be familiar with. But I think you point out that there is a difference between running on the course and doing so with a racing mindset. Once you know you’ll be racing it, I think your senses are heightened and you become more sensitive to distances and landmarks.

  • Salty

    Yes, there is a definitely a difference between knowing the course and actually visualizing a race on that course. Just running it is not enough – you actually have to pay attention to it and think through which sections might prove difficult and where you want to pick it up or where you might be slow. Running the course is really an exercise in mental training and therefore requires the mental work to get the benefit of the exercise :)

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  • Brian Vinson

    I won my AG, but I was 21st overall. I am hoping to come out a bit stronger next year – with no injuries, and running this course more often (since it’s only 35 minutes from home now), I think I can drop a lot off my time.

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