Relays have been “hot” for a few years now. I have run a few myself, some for fun, and others in a competitive atmosphere. I’ve done standard (12-person) relays and ultra (6-person) relays. And, on a couple of occasions, I have been on the team that won the whole entire relay race (such as in 2015, when I was a part of the course-record Asheville Running Collective team at the Blue Ridge Relay, one of the toughest and longest running relays in the U.S.). Along the way, I’ve picked up some tips and tricks to make the relay more fun, and to run well in the process.
Step 1: Choose the Right Team
People run relays for a lot of different reasons. Some people want to be competitive and go for the best possible time. Some people want to spend 2 days with friends and/or family while doing some running here and there. Others might want to run someplace they have never seen before. All of these (and any other reasons) for joining a relay team are equally valid. What’s important is that the whole team be in it for the same reasons. If 2 people are expecting to race and 10 are in it for the fun and camaraderie, then there will be friction. Be clear up front about your intentions, and put together (or join) a team that will be in it for the same reasons. That way, everyone has a common goal and everyone can be on the same page from start to finish.
Step 2: Plan Ahead
The logistics of a relay can be overwhelming. Luckily all the major relays (Ragnar Series, Hood to Coast, Blue Ridge, Reach the Beach, etc) provide very detailed manuals these days. Read them in full if you’re a team captain, and get help from your teammates to make sure all the requirements are fulfilled. Book your van(s) early. Be thoughtful about which teammate should run which legs. Make sure everyone has reflective gear, headlamps, extra supplies, and a food plan. Make a quick spreadsheet to predict when you’ll be where on the course. Share all cell phone numbers on the team among all members. You get it…a little forethought goes a long way. Remember that everyone, including the van drivers, will likely be awake for somewhere between 36 and 48 hours. Plan things out when you’re rested and lucid, not when you’re about to run a leg at 2 AM in an unfamiliar location.
Step 3: Learn Your Leg Routes
Speaking of running in unfamiliar locations, make sure that you review your leg assignments ahead of time. If the race organizer doesn’t provide your team with a printed copy of all leg maps, I strongly recommend the team captain create one for each van. You never know when you will have internet access on these relays, so having an old-school paper copy is valuable. Once you have your personal leg assignments, familiarize yourself with where the turns, climbs, and landmarks are so you can run your best. Then review the turns AGAIN, because there is nothing worse than going off course in a relay.
Step 4: Warm Up and Cool Down
Even if you plan to run each of your legs at an easy effort, and especially if you plan to run each leg as a race, you need to be properly warmed up before running. And you’ll also be much happier as the relay progresses if you take the time to cool down after running. These don’t need to be extensive, but you should make sure to complete some dynamic mobility, light jogging, drills, and strides before and after all running legs.
Step 5: Pace Yourself
Depending on your team structure and the relay setup, you’ll likely be running anywhere from 3-6 legs. Bear in mind that you will be more and more fatigued as the relay progresses, and you don’t want to crash and burn in your final leg(s). A “rookie” mistake in relays is running the opening leg too hard. Don’t let it happen to you! Stay in control in the early legs, saving some energy in the tank for the latter stages of the relay. Think of the relay more like a marathon or half marathon, and less like a few short races.
Whenever I am running a relay, I have a pretty standard ritual between legs that works pretty well for me:
Get in 300-500 calories (liquid form is good, so you get fluids in as well) ASAP
Change into dry clothes. I always go with new compression socks/sleeves, dry shoes, full-length tights (to keep my legs warm, even on a hot day), a dry cotton shirt (for comfort), and a hat if it’s chilly.
Move around whenever possible. I will usually do a cool-down jog of about a mile after each leg, right before eating and changing. But, I get out of the van as often as possible to prevent any tightening up.
About 90 minutes before the next leg, eat carbs to top up the fuel stores, then go through my usual slow warm-up routine from there.
I typically bring the following foodstuffs along for relays:
- Pre-leg calories that can be taken in easily and digested quickly (I mixed up about 200 calories or so of Vitargo before each leg last year at the Blue Ridge Relay, and added electrolyte powder to it, then consumed it between 60 and 30 minutes before each leg).
- Liquid protein that can be taken in ASAP following each leg (I mix Vitargo with Whey ad shake in shaker bottle). I take in about 300-400 calories right after each leg.
- Something (or things) with some salt, for snacking if you get hungry.
Some real food. We always stop on our way to the starting area of the relay and I like to get an egg+cheese bagel to eat immediately, then get a sandwich to save for later. I usually eat half the sandwich about 2 hours before my first leg, then the other half about 2-3 hours before the second leg.
After the first couple of legs, all bets are off, and I just start eating what looks good to me. We always stock our vans with extra water, Gatorade, cookies, cold brew coffee, and other snack-y stuff. Honestly, diet quality isn’t great…it’s more about making sure you get in enough total calories so you don’t bonk the last leg. It’s like a 100-miler. Eat often, eat more than you think you should, and drink when you feel thirsty.
Here are a few other little things that make relays better:
• Bring big (gallon or 2-gallon) Ziploc bags. You can use them to keep stuff dry or, perhaps more importantly, to stash running clothes that you were wearing on your previous leg so that you don’t get everything else covered in second-hand sweat.
• Bring a pack of baby wipes. There’s a huge difference in how you feel when you’re covered in dried sweat versus when you’re somewhat clean. This will likely be the closest you’ll come to a shower for a good 36 hours.
• Bring extra batteries for your headlamp, more socks than you think you’ll need, a towel or two for after legs, extra blinky lights for night running. These are little things that you can pack easily and might need at a moment’s notice.
• Bring some entertainment. Cards, books, etc. You’ll have a combination of active and inactive time, and part of the whole deal is being present for the whole process.
• Don’t be “that guy” on the team that is either sitting in the van being antisocial or out running a leg. Be a good teammate. Get out and cheer your fellow teammates on. Look over the maps to make sure nobody misses a turn. Start a dance party in the middle of the night. A team that is having fun is a team that will run its best.
Coach Caleb Masland is a 2:30 Marathoner, USATF-certified Running Coach, and the founder of Coach Caleb Masland, LLC. He coaches runners full-time, and provides running tips exclusively for Believe in the Run. To learn more about Coach Caleb and his team of runners, Team Wicked Bonkproof, visit coachcaleb.com.