Races are generally straightforward affairs (literally). You start and then you run forward until you hit the finish line. But one area can potentially cause trouble: the aid station.
At aid stations, runners can cut each other off (hopefully unintentionally, but who knows). Cups and gel packets are flying towards trash bins. Volunteers are scrambling to keep up with the demand for water. It can be a mess.
Having seen both the good and the bad in my running career, here are a few tips for both runners and aid station volunteers to improve the experience for all involved.
Aid Station Tips For Runners
Map It Out Ahead Of Time
Before you start, check out the course map so you have a general idea of where the aid stations will be.
I once did a very remote trail half marathon that didn’t have any aid stations. A few miles in, another runner asked me, “How far to the aid station?” She didn’t have her own water.
This was a very bad time to find out she was on her own.
While a race with no aid is very rare, there is a big difference between a race with aid every mile and a race with aid every 8 miles.
If you have trained with a hydration system (you did, right?), consider using that same system on race day. If you have your own fluid, you can avoid many, if not most, of the aid stations altogether.
Added bonus that you won’t be using multiple paper cups. Score one for the environment!
Survey The Layout
When you get to the aid station, survey the layout and make your plan of attack:
- If you have a choice, don’t stop at the first table. It’s always the most crowded.
- Know what you want. Water? Sports drink? Both? Shout out what you want to the volunteers so they can help you get what you want.
- If there are tables on both the left and right sides of the course, the tables on the left will almost always be less crowded.
Look Behind You
When you have identified your aid table of choice, look behind you before moving over. You don’t want to cut someone off.
As you approach your table of choice:
- Make eye contact with the volunteer you will be taking a cup from so they can be ready for you.
- Take your fluid of choice.
- Then you have two options:
- Take a walk break and drink.
- Keep running and drink. This is an art I’ve never mastered myself, but the best approach, if you want to keep running, is to pinch the cup so it’s pointed like a V. Put the point of the cup in your mouth and drink. Sip, don’t chug.
Don’t grab your water and immediately stop and drink. Doing so can cause a traffic jam behind you.
Grab your water and move away from the station so the flow of runners behind you can keep moving
It’s Trash Time!
The trash bins are an art onto themselves at a race:
- Dump out any extra fluid before you trash your cup. Empty cups are much easier for volunteers to deal with.
- Look behind you before you dump water or throw your cup. The runners behind you probably don’t want a Gatorade shower.
- Throw your cups and gel wrappers in (or as near as you can manage) the trash cans that are provided. Many runners, myself included, suck at trash basketball. Do your best.
- If you are past the trash bins, carry your trash to the next aid station. Don’t throw your trash on a random curb or in bushes where it will be more difficult for volunteers to find and/or cleanup.
Most trail races and an increasing number of road races are zero trash events. Getting close to the trash can won’t cut it at these events. If you are doing a zero trash race, you have ONLY two options: 1) use provided trash bins, or 2) carry your trash with you.
Look Out For Each Other
If you have seen a runner in distress on the course, note their bib number and general location or mile marker. Report the runner to the aid station captain so the appropriate help can be dispatched.
Always remember to thank the aid station volunteers. Chances are they woke up as early as you did (if not earlier) and will stick around later.
The race wouldn’t happen without them.
Aid Station Tips For Volunteers
All runners need to have the experience at some point in their running careers. I’ve overheard too many runners bad-mouthing race volunteers, which is utterly unacceptable.
Walking a mile in the shoes of volunteers will do wonders for your race empathy.
When you volunteer:
Shout Out What You Have
I know from experience that shouting ‘water’ or ‘sports drink’ over and over for hours on end is mind-numbing, but it makes it sooooo much easier for runners to plan and move to where they need to be.
Many of my local races use the sports drink Ultima. More than once I have entered an almost zen state with the endless mantra: Ultima…Ultima…Ultima…Ultima…
Don’t Overfill Cups
Don’t fill cups more than half full.
Full cups are surprisingly hard to drink out of while on the move. Less than full cups are much easier to manage.
Hold Cups and Hold It Still
When holding cups out for runners, hold them by the top rim, or from the bottom (with the cup sitting on top of your palm). Either of these methods makes it much easier for runners to grab the cup from the sides.
However you prefer to hold the cup, hold it still while the runner is approaching. A moving target is hard to grab.
Place Trash Bins Strategically
If you have a say in the setup of the aid station, consider the flow of runners when placing trash bins.
If the trash is right next to the aid tables, you are encouraging people to stop and drink. This can cause congestion. Placing the trash a bit away from the tables will (hopefully) encourage runners to keep the flow of people moving.
What about you? Any other tips you all have to smooth out the aid station experience?