Kaitlin Goodman, an elite marathon runner and coach based in Seattle, was struggling through the 2019 New York City Marathon. Just 10 miles into the race, her stomach turned, rejecting fluids and gels for the rest of the race.
She threw up every other mile. Her 5:50 per mile pace slowed to about a seven-minute pace.
“I was just trudging along trying to survive,” Goodman said, “get to the finish line and not throw up anymore.”
Goodman was all alone as she entered the Bronx with about 10K left. She was barely hanging on, until she saw an older woman sitting on a chair on the sidewalk by herself.
“She yelled out at me, ‘Take a breath, honey!’” Goodman said. “I remember it so distinctly because that’s not the usual cheering you hear, but it was exactly what I needed to hear in that moment.”
Goodman realized that she did, in fact, need to take a breath and reset. She finished the marathon in 2:45.
“Being reminded to breathe was just the verbal cue I needed at that tough point in the race,” she said. “‘Hang in there’ or ‘You got it!’ wouldn’t have done much, but this little old lady in the Bronx was just who I needed at that moment.”
As it turns out, that “little old lady” in the Bronx had it right. Runners need instructional and personalized information from the spectators cheering for them, according to research by Sophie Gibbs-Nicholls, a sport psychologist at Plymouth Marjon University in the United Kingdom, who recently studied what kinds of words are most impactful at mass running events, as well as what kinds of cheers are most unhelpful. Gibbs-Nicholls published her study, “The Content and Meaning of Impactful Crowd Encouragement at Mass Running Events” in January.
To determine what runners found encouraging, Gibbs-Nicholls used anonymous post-event surveys at 10K and half-marathon races—627 people participated in the 10K survey and 234 in the half-marathon survey, which asked questions about what they heard during the race that was discouraging and what gave them a boost. Then she conducted interviews and a focus group with 14 runners to interpret the meaning of what they heard through their racing experiences.
The interview participants included eight men and six women, ranging in age from 21 to 73, who finished the 10K in 55:55 to 1:09 or the half-marathon between 1:25 and 2:27. They had been participating in running events from four months up to six years.
Here’s what Gibbs-Nicholls discovered, which may help you say the right things next time you’re out there to offer moral support.
The most (and least) helpful things to say at a race
Nobody wants to hear, “Not far now”
If you’re an endurance athlete you know how frustrating it can be when a spectator insinuates that you don’t have far to go. Unless the finish line is in sight, sometimes within inches, the final stages of a race can feel longer and more difficult than any other part.
“This was particularly apparent for half-marathon runners. For example, saying ‘not far now’ is the worst when you still have three miles to go,” the research found.
The 10K participants also thought distance-based comments like “you’re over halfway!” were unhelpful.
Generally, runners are keenly aware of where they are on the course. They don’t need to dwell on it—and the accuracy of that information given by spectators is often questionable.
Don’t assume somebody’s goals
If an athlete is slowing down or walking, they do not want anybody telling them to “dig in” or “keep running.”
“This appears to demonstrate a lack of empathy with those participating, and a lack of awareness of the variation in goals for participation,” according to the study. “Running for the entire duration may not be a primary goal for many.”
Express belief in the athlete
One of the most popular phrases that runners heard during their races? “You’ve got this!”
“When I heard it, it just made me think back to, ‘You’ve done this before, you’ve practiced this. You’ve trained for it. You’ve done this faster than you’re going to do it today,’” one runner said.
Another athlete added: “When you’re training, you’re training on your own, like you’ve got your own thoughts in your head telling you, ‘you can do it…’ When you’ve got other people telling you, ‘you can do it’ then you believe that as well…you think, ‘they believe I can do it; I have to show everyone I can do it.’”
Make it personal
Even if a runner doesn’t have their name on display, using personal words or acts of encouragement can boost an athlete’s motivation. If you know the person’s name, use it, but if not, make eye contact and be authentic by empathizing or acknowledging that a hill is hard or adjusting your tone to the circumstance—something like, “you can do it!” works well.
“Personal support makes you feel special and noticed,” one runner said. “It shows they care and they’ve made an effort to support you, they’re well-meaning and are going out of their way to support a stranger and that’s nice,” another athlete added.
All the surveys and interviews led Gibbs-Nicholls to IMPACT, which means that encouragement is best when it’s:
Instructional: “Run tall!” or, in Goodman’s case, “Take a breath!” Words that focus on the process of finishing a race.
Motivational: “Great effort!” or praising the participation.
Personalized: “Come on, Susan!” Making eye contact, using names or other information that you see on a runner’s shirt like the name of the club or charity they’re representing.
Authentic: “That’s an amazing cause you’re running for!” The runner can sense when a supporter is saying something genuine.
Confidence-building: “You’ve got this!” or similar expressions of belief in the runner.
Tailored to the distance: “You’ve got 1K to go!” is good but “You’re almost there!” is not. If you’re going to give information, be specific and accurate. Avoid, “Not far to go!” at all costs.
The bottom line? The research reveals that authenticity, empathy, and being non-judgmental are most important when you’re out there cheering…and really, that’s good advice in any situation.
That little old lady in the Bronx has had a lasting impact on Goodman, who still thinks about what she said years later.
“I re-centered myself, recommitted to the task at hand, and vowed to finish,” Goodman said. “It’s a fond memory I have of the NYC Marathon, when most of the other race memories are not too pleasant.”