How to Train for a Relay Race
Relay races are fast becoming one of the most popular running events in the United States. In 2012, the Ragnar Relay, one of the more popular relay-style events, had 72,000 participants. Hood to Coast had 20,000 runners and Reach the Beach had 7,600. This doesn’t include the myriad of other smaller, relay-style events conducted in the US each year.
Training for one of these relay-style events is vastly different than anything you’ve likely encountered. You’re presented with the unique challenge of running at all times of the day and night, running multiple times per day, orienteering, and navigating often treacherous terrain.
Moreover, you’re not likely to get training tips from your teammates or fellow competitors. Ragner Relay reports that only 15 percent of runners are veteran relay racers, which means you’re going to need to figure out training and race logistics on your own.
Even if you’re not planning to race for the win, it’s crucial you train correctly for the specific demands of the race. Relay races are not fun if you’re lost, tired, and physically can’t run. Here are six essential training tips to make your first relay race experience a smooth, fun adventure.
Add double runs to your training
For less experienced runners, one of the most challenging aspects of a relay race is running multiple times per day, sometimes up to three or four times. If you’ve never run more than once per day, it can be hard to appreciate how the lack of recovery and glycogen depletion can affect you.
To combat this, perform a few of your longer training runs in segments by breaking up the distance into three runs. Try to make the distance of each your runs at least the shortest distance you’ll need to complete during a single run on race day. Not only with this prepare your legs physically, but you’ll learn how to properly hydrate and fuel yourself between multiple runs.
If you’re racing to win a relay, consider performing a few double workout days during your training segment. This is a common strategy used by elite marathoners to teach their body how to run fast on low glycogen stores. During your morning session, perform a five to six mile tempo run at your normal marathon or threshold pace. In the evening, complete the session again or even try adding a little speed by performing some threshold intervals (5 x 1 mile at 15-20k race pace with 90 seconds rest).
Train for the time of your run
Another unique aspect of relay races is that you’ll likely have to run at least one of your legs (if not more) in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. This can be an extreme challenge to your senses as it can be difficult to get the body primed to run when it wants to sleep. Moreover, running when it’s pitch black is not an easy task and requires practice.
Consider running a few of your training runs in the middle of the night or very early in the morning. Make sure you stay safe by running with another runner (preferably one of your relay teammates). This is also a good opportunity to test and find the right equipment. Do you have a reflective vest that fits and won’t chafe? Will you use a head lamp or hold a flashlight? As you’ll quickly notice, running when you can only see a fraction of the ground ahead of you can be quite the challenge.
Learn to run hard without warming up
You’ll also need to teach yourself how to run well without warming up. Between your legs, you’ll be packed in a van, sitting or sleeping cramped, and then asked to jump up and start running. You won’t have a lot of time to warm-up and you’ll want to minimize the miles you have to run anyway (running a mile warm-up before each of your legs would add a nice chunk of mileage).
Implement some dynamic stretching during your training to get your body accustomed to the warm-up routine. If you plan on racing the relay, also consider performing some of your workouts on an abbreviated warm-up.
Practice on similar road and trail conditions
Most relay races take place on a combination of road and trail, which means one of your legs is likely going to be on some type of trail. If you don’t run on trails often, it would be wise to find some trails and terrain similar to the legs you’ll be running and practice when you can.
If the trail you’ll be running will be highly technical or rocky, consider adding some ankle strength work to your training. Research shows this can significantly reduce the risk of rolling your ankle.
Hone your orienteering skills
Perhaps the most underestimated challenge of a relay races is navigating your way through the course. It’s not uncommon to find yourself running alone, at night, and on a trail or road you don’t know well. Often, trails aren’t well marked and you’ll be relying on your course map to figure out which direction you need to go.
If you’re notoriously bad with directions or aren’t accustomed to using a map, it would be wise to brush up on your orienteering skills. Carry a compass with you during the race or visit unfamiliar trails and roads and practice finding your way with and without a map. Improving your orienteering skills is difficult, so spend some time reading up on orienteering sites or books for detailed tips and advice.
Plan with your team
Finally, one of the most important elements to a successful relay race is proper planning. Don’t leave logistics until the last minute. Study the course map together. Determine who will run which legs ahead of time so you can orient yourself with your route and practice on similar terrain. Book your van well in advance and stock up and practice with the foods you know you’ll want and need to eat during the race.
When you’re trained appropriately and well-organized, the race is a fun challenge where you’ll meet new friends and test your physical limits. However, it can be a miserable and grueling few days if you haven’t prepared properly. Whether running hard or just for fun, take the time to get yourself ready for the specific challenges of the relay race.