-- Marathon Running Information, Coaching and Advice from Coach Joe English

Racing — What does flat and fast really mean?

running-advice-bugRace organizers love to use the terms “flat and fast” to describe race courses. Those terms are designed to bring in runners looking for good conditions to run a fast time or perhaps are personal best. But does flat on a elevation chart really mean flat? And is flat always fast? That’s my topic today and the answer is “no”.

This weekend I picked out a race to run the way I often do at this time of year, by looking through the race listings and trying to pick one that’s close to home. I was just looking for a workout and wanted some competition to spur me on through a quality run. There were two races close to my house, so I had to get down to the finer details in choosing. I ended up picking the one with those magic words: “flat and fast”. This event race course even suggested that it might be a “good course to set PR”. The later language is always something that makes me very skeptical, because honestly the place for a PR is on a track, but I’ll come back to that in a minute.

Indeed, looking at the course map and elevation chart, it did look flat and it had another aspect that can lead itself to be fast — few turns. But when I arrived at the site and began to run my warm-up, I quickly figured out that this course wouldn’t be either flat or fast.

Bumpy vs. Hilly
We all know what it means for something to be hilly: those long inclines or declines climbing over something. Think Boston Marathon or Nike Women’s Marathon. You look at those courses on a map and you see actual topographical features that are being traversed. Everyone would agree that those suckers are hilly. But a piece of flat ground on an elevation map can take on another aspect, that which we might call “bumpy”. If you’ve ever played golf (or run a cross-country race on a golf course) on a flat piece of ground, but found your quads burning walking up and over short rolling bumps, you’ll know what I’m talking about here.

A piece of land that looks flat on a map can be loaded with short, very steep, bumps that may only be a few yards long. Here we’re talking not about the change in “elevation”, but the change in “grade” — or the steepness of the ground. For runners these changes in grade do a lot of damage to their top speed. Those little bumps not only slow runners down, but they also require dramatic changes in the effort level to keep moving the same speed over them. If a runner is trying to run a personal best at their fastest possible speed, these little bumps are going likely going to kick them repeatedly over the red-line.

Race organizers may give this away in their promotional materials by talking about courses that are on bike trails, running trails, along creeks or through parks. Paved or unpaved, these types of paths are often not graded to the level that roads might be. The tough thing for a race director is that roads are more difficult to manage from a traffic and safety stand-point than a bike or running path, but roads often produce much faster courses.

Fast: straight vs. curvy
The other aspect of “flat and fast” is that to be “fast” a course should really be one that doesn’t wind around or turn a lot of corners. Let’s take a running track out of the picture here for a minute, because running tracks do include corners, but their corners are broad enough that runners don’t really need to slow down to run around them. What we’re talking about here is quick changes in direction that require deceleration and acceleration. Whether these are “turns” or just winding trails, the more times that the runner has to change directions, the harder it will be to run a fast time.

Runners can manage quick turns by staying very focused on maintaining their speed through corners, but it is easy for a runner to put on the brakes coming in to a corner and then have to accelerate out the other side. Again, this shifting of intensity, makes it harder to put in a full-on effort.

Hiking and biking trails can be challenging in this area as well, because they are often designed to be “scenic” rather than “fast”. A nice meander through a marsh on a trail designed for walkers, may not be the best place for a runner to move quickly.

Flat and fast, really!
What really makes a course “flat and fast” is one in which not only the elevation but the grade stays almost constant and the path goes in a straight line. This would mean that runners face the least changes in intensity by avoiding acceleration and deceleration once they get moving. Whether a surface is paved or not is somewhat a matter of preference, but in terms of making a fast course the smoother the surface, the better the platform for the foot to push against.

So a “flat and fast” course is most likely going to be flat in terms of both elevation and changes in grade as well as straight. A run straight down a flat road may not sound sexy, but it really is “flat and fast”.

Heck, a running track is an even better place to run a fast time, but then that’s what it is built to do– produce fast times.

Coach Joe English, Portland, Oregon, USA
Running Advice and News


4 responses so far, want to say something?

  1. 1. Racing — What does flat and fast really mean? « Running Advice and News May 16th, 2010 at 3:46 pm

    […] To continue reading, click here. […]

  2. 2. Ken Goddard May 17th, 2010 at 12:30 am

    It doesn't get much flatter and faster than an airport runway, like this race:

  3. 3. Middle of the pack May 17th, 2010 at 10:00 pm

    I would really like to see an article/video on using racing flats versus training shoes in short (less than 10k) and longer races. Could a racing flat actually save you some time on a race? Or, is it a myth?

  4. 4. JoeEnglish May 18th, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Check out the video in our series on this specific topic (racing flats):

    Season 2 – Episode 9 — Should I wear racing flats?

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