Training: how do you prepare for a multi-leg relay like Hood to Coast?

Coach Joe English

Coach Joe English

I’ve received a number of questions about preparing for a relay like the Hood to Coast Relay. In these events, runners are expected to run multiple legs over the course of a one or two day period.

The tough aspect of running in these events is not so much the distance, but rather the short recovery time between the runs. Added to that is the fact that most runners will run too fast, especially in their first leg, which means they will be especially tired going into their second or third runs.

Let me provide some tips that will help runners prepare for an event like Hood to Coast and then also add some practical tips for the race itself.

Most runners mistakenly believe that they need to focus on the total distance of their legs as an endurance target in preparing for a race like Hood to Coast. For example, the thinking might be that if a runner needs to run a combined 18 miles (6 miles x 3) they should really get in at least an 18 miler prior to the event. While that endurance base might be helpful, what is really more important is to run a fair amount of mileage at your target race pace and focus on running that pace for a distance slightly longer than the longest of your race legs. So if you’re running a 4, a 5 and an 6 mile leg, then you want to be able to comfortably cover 7 or 8 miles at your race pace.

Figuring out your race pace is the next trick to preparing. Most runners are going to run a pace that we could call their “as fast as they can go” pace. There a many problems with this, the most obvious is that it is going to be very hard to maintain that pace over all three legs of the race.

Runners in Hood to Coast should really be targeting a pace that is closer to the pace that they would run for their combined mileage of a bit faster. One way to look at the pacing for the relay is think of it as one longer run that is split into three segments with a long rest in between. If you wouldn’t be capable of running all three legs consecutively at a particular pace, then that pace is probably too fast for you. You’ll most likely burn up on the third leg. For more advanced runners, I would say that Hood to Coast should be run at your half-marathon pace or, for very strong runners with good speed, at about 4-6 seconds per mile slower than your 10K pace.

Once you’ve dialed in your pace, you need to make sure that you get comfortable running that pace. You should get in 1-2 runs each week at that target pace. Just as you would for a marathon, or any important race, you want to practice your target pace and memorize what it feels like. This is so important for a race like Hood to Coast when you’ll be amped up by taking the baton in the exchange zone and you’ll likely go out like you’ve been shot from a cannon. You’ll also be running at least one leg in the dark, so it will be difficult to judge your pace unless you’ve practiced it ahead of time. A Garmin Forerunner 405
or other pace monitor comes in very handy in a race like Hood to Coast.

Learn your pace. Engrain it into your head. Be ready to run your target pace, while ignoring what the other runners are doing around you.

Finally, you’ll want to add a couple of multi-run days into your schedule a few weeks before the race. I usually count backward four weeks prior to the race and add one multi-run day four weeks out, one three weeks out, and two two weeks out. The last week before the race should be a mini-taper, resting up for the race.

In order to keep yourself from getting injured, you want to keep these runs short. Perhaps 3-4 miles each. Run them at your race pace, or a little faster, and make sure that you have at least 8 hours recovery between them. I’d put these in the middle of the week, say on Wednesday, out of the way of your more critical long runs on the weekends.

Here’s an example:
Race minus 4 weeks – Wed AM 3 miles race pace / Wed PM 3 miles race pace

Race minus 3 weeks – Wed AM 4 miles race pace / Wed PM 4 miles race pace

Race minus 2 weeks – Wed AM 6 miles race pace / Wed PM 4 miles race pace
Race minus 2 weeks – Wed AM 6 miles race pace / Wed PM 4 miles race pace / Thurs AM 4 miles race pace

Tips for success in the race
In terms of running a great, injury free, and fun race, here are some suggestions that I would pass along:
1) Pace yourself. Don’t over-run the first leg, it will kill you in legs 2 and 3.

2) Make sure to stretch after you run your first two legs as best as you can before getting into the van, to help keep you from getting too sore.

3) Drink plenty of water and electrolytes after and between each of your legs to keep yourself well hydrated and to help avoid cramps.

4) Bring foods that you can eat when you’re hungry that don’t need refrigeration or even utensils to eat. Keep yourself well fed and topped off with food. Some good foods that you might not think of include: dinner rolls (carbs), tuna in the foil pouch (for protein), spaghetti and meatballs in the little cans (carbs and protein), and beef jerky (protein).

5) Try to catch a cat-nap as soon as you’re done with your first leg. It’s easy to want to “stay up” all night cheering people on, but if you finish your first leg and lay down in the back of the van for an hour or so, you’ll feel much better later.

6) Bring two changes of clothes for cool weather (for the mountain and a night run) and three for warm weather. You don’t need much else, but having dry clothes for each run makes you feel so much better than putting dirty clothes back on.

7) Get out of your racing clothes as soon as possible. You’ll feel better, smell better, and don’t risk getting any nasty bacterial infections “down there”.

Multi-leg relays are a joy to run. They are a very social and fun experience. Take it easy on the pace in your first leg and you’ll have a great time.

Have fun out there.

Related articles:
A Hood to Coast packing list for runners and captains

Final preparations for the Hood to Coast Relay

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