I can still remember running my 10k PB. It was May 2006 and I ran 43:19. I don’t remember it for the speed though. I remember it because I just got through 5k, glanced at my watch and was blown away by how fast (for me) I was. As I looked up I ran past a mum with a boy asking: “Why are these people so slow? Why do they bother?” I can still hear those words in my ears 18 years later.

So as a runner, married to a runner, with lots of friends who are runners I have spent many hours of my life either in races or standing by the edge of races. I am always wondering how not to be like that little boy. I want to know what is the best thing to shout. I want to be inspirational and encouraging not patronising or demoralising so I was delighted when Sophie Gibbs-Nicholls got in touch to tell me about the research she has done alongside Alister McCormick and Melissa Coyle at Plymouth Marjon University. It has just been published [‘Keep the pace! You’ve got this!’: The Content and Meaning of Impactful Crowd Encouragement at Mass Running Events]

It has been found that when both amateur and competitive runners have become fatigued verbal encouragement can help them up their effort and improve performance. Until now we didn’t really have an idea what types of cheers and encouragement would be most beneficial. To figure out what is good to shout to your friends, family, or random strangers in a running race the researchers got surveys information back from over 800 runners competing in either a 10k or a half marathon and additionally interviewed 14 runners about the support they felt from crowds and talked to a focus group. They found the most valuable support was both personal, authentic, honest and non-judgemental. So shouting out ‘Only 1 mile to go slow-coach’ when they actually have double that will be the worst thing you could do.

What was found to be helpful:

  • Instructional: Accurate info relating to the course
  • Instructional: Support on the processes of running (‘run tall’, ‘pump your arms’)
  • Motivational: Praise for participation and effort
  • Motivational: Encouragement reinforcing self-efficacy (you can do this)
  • Motivational: Personalised support (mentioning names, running clubs or charities being run for) – in particular these can feel like a meaningful connection.

What was found to be unhelpful:

  • Inaccurate course-related information
  • Some accurate distance information (not far now – when you still have 2 miles to go)
  • Effort-related critical comments (call that running?’ or ‘It’s a run not a walk’)
  • Appearance-related comments (keep going fat boy)
  • Instructions in times of deep fatigue – dig deep when the runner is already digging very deep!

They found good support can reinforce a sense of pride and competence and brilliant support will build a connection making the athlete want to reciprocate by running well. However, some support can give you a feeling you need to ‘perform for the crowd when your body can’t do that. What is hard to get over in a summary and strong in the paper is that the context of the specific words used can be important and that how we are runners translate those words can be influenced by how we are feeling in that moment. If we are highly fatigued and having a bad race we will be less welcoming of the encouragement than if we are feeling ok and have more in the tank. While this sounds counter-intuitive it highlights that when we are in a low place out on a running course we often want to not be seen, we would like to be invisible at that point and so a cheer will pull us further down than lift us up.

What seemed to be really beneficial was where there was a genuine interaction – this feels like real quality support. And as a runner I completely get this. I ran Paris marathon a few years ago and we all had our names on our vests. I have a French name and hearing ‘Alle Josephine’ in French accents along the course was a real highlight. I felt special. And that is exactly what this study found too.

So their guidance for supporters….

  • Give authentic encouragement showing empathy and having no judgement.

Follow the IMPACT rules to pick phrases to shout.

  • Instructional: Specific and accurate course information (downhill ahead) or running help (run tall)
  • Motivational: Praising effort
  • Personalised: Eye contact, use name or charity or club info if on bib,
  • Authentic: Don’t lie to be kind!
  • Confidence building: Show you believe they can do it.
  • Tailored to distance: Specific (1k to go)