When a race course is certified by the RRCA or USATF, it’s measured by the shortest route a person can run and remain on the course.
When most people race, they run the most convenient route through the course that they can, which isn’t necessarily the shortest. Ignoring the inherent inaccuracies of handheld GPS devices, you might actually run as far as 27 miles during a marathon as the mile markers come further and further past where your watch tells you it should be.
If you want to run a faster time, it only makes sense that you should try to race along the shortest route possible. The way that you do that is to run the tangents.
What is a tangent?
Per Wikipedia: In geometry, the tangent line to a curve at a given point is the straight line that “just touches” the curve at that point. As it passes through the point of tangency, the tangent line is “going in the same direction” as the curve, and in this sense it is the best straight-line approximation to the curve at that point.
What this means is rather than following the curve of a road or your race course, you should aim yourself directly for the next curve that comes into sight and to only run along the curve when you can not see that next curve until after you’ve gone around the current one.
As you can see in the map to the right, the person following the orange line is running along the left side of the road. During training, this is appropriate and safe as it will help them avoid getting hit by a car.
The person running the red line, however, is running the tangents to the curve. He will cover the same distance (by road) in less time because he won’t have to travel as far (in actual distance).
As the person following the red line reaches the first curve (running from the bottom right to the top left) they are crossing to the right side of the road.
As soon as he has gotten around that turn, he then makes a bee-line to the next curve, which involves crossing the road again to the left side of the road. The final turn on this map again involves running straight across the road to the right side.
By looking at this map, you may notice that the red line isn’t that much shorter than the orange line. However, over the full distance of a race, especially one with a lot of turns and curves, it can really add up.
You can shave seconds off of a shorter race or even minutes in a longer race, but you still have to watch for the usual hazards! Don’t run the tangents blindly.
If there are potholes or other obstacles at the edge of the road, you may want to go around even if it means running a little further.
In a crowded race, you may not be able to run the tangents in the press of all of the other runners. Even if there are only 1 or 2 people around you, you still need to watch out that you don’t run into somebody or cut them off and cause them to run into you.
Also, you must be sure to pay attention to course markings and pre-race instructions. Even if a road has a turn, the course itself may not allow you to cross the yellow line in a road, for example.
And as always, defer to traffic, whether it is supposed to be allowed on the course or not. If you cross the road in front of a vehicle and it hits you, then a car will almost always win and a bicycle will usually win. Most vehicles are far less maneuverable as you are and you stand to lose more, so it’s always on the runner to avoid getting hit.
Try this simple strategy the next time you race and let me know how it goes, or leave a comment and tell me about when you first learned to use this strategy to good effect!