When the local half marathon passes by my house in the summer, I spend the morning cheering on runners from the end of my driveway. The course is a double loop, which means the runners pass by twice before crossing the finish line. It has been hot the last two years, so everyone’s lagging, especially on the second pass when they’re just minutes from completing the 21-kilometre course.
I have a strategy as to what I shout to runners as they pass by. On the first loop I tell them they’re “looking good” — and they normally are. It’s the first half of the race and, for most of them, fatigue has yet to set in. The second time I see them, my encouragement is a little more focused — especially for the runners at the front of the pack.
“Pick it up, you’re almost there,” is my most common refrain, hoping to get them to dig a bit deeper for the final push.
Little did I know, there’s an art to what to say — and what not to say — when trying to get athletes to push themselves a little harder and a little longer.
A research team from the University of Miami and Florida International University put 14 healthy individuals through their paces in the lab while cheering them on using one of three statements — “As fast as you can,” “As hard as you can” and “As hard and as fast as you can” — as well as giving no words of encouragement at all.
It turns out that urging athletes to go “as fast as you can” produced the best results.
Katherine Calder-Becker, an ultra-distance runner and triathlete, has the type of experience you don’t get in a lab. She has competed in hundreds of races, many of them lasting several hours, and often brings her own support crew who are equipped with a list of things not to say while she’s hard at work.
“I know I look like s–t, so don’t tell me I’m ‘looking good,’ ” she said with a laugh. “And don’t say ‘It’s not that far to go’ when I know it is.”
What does motivate Calder-Becker when the going gets tough?
“I like high-fives and when someone calls my name,” she said.
Calder-Becker isn’t the only one who finds a personalized cheer special. Plenty of runners write their name on their race bibs or arms just so spectators can call out their name when offering words of encouragement.
An engaged crowd is so important that most races now include cheer stations along the route where spectators gather with the sole purpose of putting a smile on the faces of runners who are battling pain and exhaustion. Funny signs — including “Run like Ryan Gosling is waiting for you at the finish line with a puppy” — high-fives and words of encouragement are well received by runners looking for a pick-me-up when their energy reserves are running low.
The Girls of Wellesley are one of the most famous cheer stations along the fabled Boston Marathon route. It’s an annual tradition among the students from the private women’s college to offer kisses to any runner who wants one. Many a runner has been known to add a few precious seconds to their finishing time to do just that.
It’s the people lining the streets who make a run fun, said Jason Bowles, a Montreal runner who has been competing in marathons and half marathons for six years.
“I actually encourage people to cheer me on,” he said.
Justin Pugliese, who has run marathons in Montreal, Boston and Ottawa, has been both a runner and a spectator. He gets a kick out of the posters that line the streets at most races and never says no to a high-five. As for his favourite words of encouragement, “looking strong” never fails to lift his spirits. And if his name is included in the cheer, it’s the icing on the cake, he said.
Nuwan Fernando, who has signed up to run five half marathons and one full marathon in 2017, agrees that a funny sign and a high-five are welcome distractions along the route. But what really helps lift his spirits is when kids get into the act.
“There was a little girl dressed up like a fairy princess giving high-fives at the Ottawa marathon,” Fernando said. “That was special.”
It’s clear there’s plenty of motivation to be gleaned from the crowd. Pushing one’s physical limits can cause runners to focus inward, feeling the pain and fatigue more acutely. A few well-chosen words, either spoken or written, can take runners out of their bubbles and put them back in the race. Just be sure to choose your words carefully. Runners react positively to sentiments like “You got this” and “You can do this,” especially when they’re delivered at a moment when their inner voice is more of a doubter than a cheerleader. A high-five, a smile and a boisterous cheer from the sidelines is enough to make even the most tired runner stand taller and get the job done.
“Feeling a connection with the crowd makes you feel less alone,” Calder-Becker said. “And even if you want to stop — and believe me, we all entertain thoughts of stopping — you don’t, because someone’s cheering you on.”