How can you be brilliant at supporting runner’s in races?
Throughout my racing history, one of the things that has always been a factor is the crowd. It could be the ferocious general noise of encouragement as I enter the final few hundred metres, or that one lone voice that rises above others, making my ears prick up as they mention me by name, ‘Go on Tim!’ Or, conversely, it could be the total feeling of abandonment, running alone and feeling the effort, but without a crowd to feel accountable to, or ‘show off’ to!
This article has been one I’ve been thinking about writing for a while. When I read a small article in Runner’s World magazine about a study at the University of Miami, it inspired me to get my head down and write it! The study, which compared the effect of telling someone to ‘go as hard as they can’ or ‘as fast as they can’ found that only the word ‘fast’ had a positive influence on performance.
What runners hear from spectators can definitely affect race performance. I have had both positive and negative experiences from the crowd when running, both in races and from passers-by in training. Let’s get the negative out of the way first!
What NOT to shout out to runners
- Anything derogatory about their bodies / clothing choices / speed. We’re a positive community, let’s keep it positive!
- Leering at us or staring at us, whether through physical attraction, exercise envy, bewilderment or something else.
- Commenting negatively on our running form. At that very moment, we could be about to collapse. Don’t make it harder by hitting that final nail into our coffin. Keep your biomechanical analysis to yourself and speak it only in your head, reassuring yourself that your own form is Kipchoge-esque.
- ‘Have you got the time? / Do you know where x is?’ We made a big effort to start running, we’d rather not stop until we’re done! We won’t ignore you, but maybe ask someone walking instead?
- ‘Run!’ What in blazes do you think I’m trying to do?! If I’m walking, there is a very good reason – it could be part of my strategy for the race, I could be injured, I might have a stitch. What I don’t need is that kind of command from someone standing around watching (no offence intended).
- ‘Hurry up!’ – Now you’re just being rude!
- ‘Bacon sarnie/Beer/Prosecco when you finish!’ I might just barf in your face. The thought of food or alcohol when I’m giving it everything definitely makes me feel nauseous, just as the whiff of food or drink does when you run past a restaurant or other establishment.
- ‘Keep going / Well done / Great speed’ – All of these, without the suffix of a runner’s name, are unlikely to be heard, or ignored as being for someone else. Therefore, you’re wasting your time and energy! We are mostly ‘in the zone’ trying to concentrate on all manner of different parts of our body and processes. It can also come across as patronising, especially if we saw you say the exact same thing to the other 20 people ahead of us (I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, mind) with falling levels of enthusiasm.
The following are context-specific:
- ‘Go on!’ ‘Keep going!’ – Only use these if you can read people’s reactions well. Otherwise, you may well be responded to with a look-that-could-kill or a choice set of words.
- ‘You’re nearly there!’ – Only ever use this if you can give the runner some hope or indication as to what you mean by ‘nearly.’ On a recent hike up Mount Snowdon, I was told by someone coming back down that we were ‘nearly there’…it turns out we’d barely gone a third of the way. In this case, it wasn’t too bad as we’d calculated likely walking time before setting off and didn’t match up. In a race, it’s a different story.
And now for the gold dust! What follows is my genuine feelings about the kinds of words that really do make a positive difference, raise my game, increase that energy and help me to do my absolute best…which is why you came out to support in the first place, right?!
What to shout out to runners
Contextual point of note: I tend to be very competitive, giving myself tough challenges without hesitation (such as training for a marathon in three weeks – see my blog!). Therefore, I cannot guarantee that the following will work for ALL runners, but they sure will for me!
- Make a connection with the runner. If you can see their name on their racebib, use it! ‘Great running Tim!’ is likely to make me smile, put in an extra burst of effort, maybe wave to you and help me feel supported.
- ‘Great running form!’ I actually had someone comment like this to me, towards the end of a half marathon I was running a few years ago. I still remember it because it made me feel like an elite athlete. I felt respected, admired and touched that the person had made the effort to voice their positive view. At the time, I hadn’t long completely reconstructed my running technique, so to have this affirmation was wonderful.
- ‘Catch him!’ For me, this is motivating. For some, I can see how this comment might have the opposite effect. I wouldn’t expect to hear this comment until right near the end of the race from the crowd though. I’ve heard it in more cunning ways by fellow runners when we’re closing on someone ahead of us. This teamwork can really benefit the whole group.
- ‘You’ve got x miles/kms left to go!’ I know I have my GPS watch on and that the mile/km markers are out there, but hearing it from a person is also very helpful and encouraging and shows me that they care…as long as their distance is correct!
- Anything you can think of that makes us smile! A comment on a fellow runner, or member of the crowd, something about the weather (I am British after all!) or something that bonds us together, such as the amazing views.
What you can do to support runners
- Offer a high-five! My children love attending Junior parkrun on a Sunday morning. We call these high-fives ‘energy boosts’ and boy, do they help the children’s speed and motivation! They may walk between each marshal, but when they are in sight, they run their socks off, collect the high-five and run on for a bit longer before settling down again. The walking gaps are getting smaller all the time, but the incentive is real. I’m sure this applies to family and friends offering high-fives in races too. That bond, however brief, can mean the world to a runner in a race!
- Wave flags or banners of support! This is a great distraction from the pain / effort of running hard and even if they aren’t for me, it is so uplifting to see the efforts that others have gone to in supporting their nearest and dearest.
- Have a tub of easily digestible sweets on offer for runners to help themselves to! So, Haribo, sadly, is out of the question. Have you ever tried to eat these during a run? I have and it pained me to realise it wasn’t going to work. What can you offer? Jelly babies are GREAT! Also, Clif bloks are good, Starburst, chalky fizzer sweets, foam banana sweets, fun size chocolate bars.
I hope that this article has helped you raise your performance as a member of the crowd(!), or as a runner to spread the word to your family and friends so they can make race day even better and more enjoyable.
I’m definitely expecting to see some debate on these points as these are just my personal view. I’m sure other runners will find some of the above contentious and would love to hear their views! We are, after all, different!
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