Before each marathon there are a few simple things I do to get a solid idea what the course will be like.
This takes a lot of stress out of my mind when I get to the starting line.
Sometimes I work with my coaching clients to develop a race day strategy based on the course profile (elevation gain, hills, aid stations, out-and-backs, etc.).
Your study of the course doesn’t need to be that involved. Just start with these five things.
How to Study the Course of a Marathon
- Go to the race website and look at the course information and profile. Pay attention to characteristics of the course like if it’s a loop course, a point to point or an out and back. Other features to be aware of include elevation, total incline and decline, placement of hills, out and backs, and what the landscape will look like (residential, city, industrial, country). Make sure you check to see if the course is certified and a Boston Qualifying course, especially if you’re looking to BQ.
- Look to see where the start and finish areas are and other details like the aid stations, bathrooms, spectator locations, and medical areas. Another important thing to be aware of is if the course splits between other distances like a 10k, half marathon and marathon. You don’t want to take the wrong turn. Other important details include the starting time, course time limit, what will be offered at aid stations and whether things like headphones or hydration packs will be allowed. These details can usually be found on the FAQ page.
- If it’s a big marathon there may be a course tour provided or other advice by people who’ve run the race before. You may want to read other people’s blogs about the course. Check Marathon Guide to read reviews and get a sense of what the race is like.
- Practice getting to the start area in advance and remember that there may be road closures on race morning that slow down traffic. You may even want to drive the course the day before or if you live in the area it can be helpful to run sections of the course.
- If you’re looking to set a personal record or best (PR/PB) be sure to feel confident with the course details so that you can run the tangent and save steps (and time). Many runners feel confused or even resentful post-race to see that their GPS device measures more than 26.2 miles. This is partly because different brands of GPS devices use different algorithms to track distance. A certified course is measured using very exacting USATF standards, typically exactly 30 cm from the curb through the entire course.
However, the reality is that in a race (especially a crowded one) if you’re not careful you’ll end up doing a fair amount of weaving around other runners, crossing the road to navigate a turn or even aid station, moving to the side for high fives, etc.
And if you’re like me you might even forget to stop your watch at the end of the race and wander around the finishing area for a while with it still running (that will mess up your Garmin/Strava data for sure). Studying the course in advance and looking ahead during the race can help you plan to run the tangent (or the shortest distance between two points).
Here’s the epic flyover of the Berlin Marathon (which I’m running in four days!)