How to Run the Tangents

Updated: Mar 10

Have you ever finished a race and wondered if you could have run faster? Well, I hate to say, if you didn’t run the tangents properly odds are you probably could have run faster.

I qualified for the Boston Marathon with three and a half minutes to spare. Each year thousands of runners qualify but are not accepted, depending on how many spots are open and how many qualifiers apply.

I looked up the previous years’ cut-off times (the time below the minimum qualifying standard for age and gender that you actually have to run to get to Boston). My time would have been accepted every year. I waited excitedly for months.

When I found out the cutoff was 4:52 below the qualifying time, I was crushed. I missed it by a minute and a half. I turned to the data and noticed my Garmin read 26.6 miles. One third of a mile at an 8 min/mi pace is over two and a half minutes. Had I learned to run the tangents, I just may have earned my finisher jacket.

What Exactly does Running the Tangents Mean?

Running the Tangents

“A racecourse is defined by the shortest possible route that a runner could take and not be disqualified.”

-USA Track & Field Course Measurement and Certification Procedures

A certified marathon course is measured precisely, to the inch. It is not measured from the middle of the road: “You might envision the shortest possible route as a string, stretched tightly along the course so that it comes within one foot of all corners, straight through S-turns, and diagonally between corners when crossing a street” (USATF). When you run along this invisible line, you are running the tangents.

Running the Tangents Correctly

On average, you add 40-45 feet to your total distance every time you turn a corner wide (on the outside radius of a one lane road). Some marathons use both lanes. Courses must also include a 0.001% cushion for measuring error (“short course prevention factor”), which means a certified marathon course could be 26.23 miles if measured flawlessly. Individually, a few feet here and there are irrelevant, but over time? Ounces make pounds.

5 Easy Tips Master Any Course

  1. Study the course map ahead of time and visualize the imaginary string. The more turns a course has, the more important it is to run the tangents.

  2. Look ahead during the race. You do not have to memorize every turn, but keep your eye trained on the next move. Angle your body to take the corners gradually, always running as the crow flies and never taking sharp slow turns.

  3. Do not move with the herd. The danger of mid-pack running is losing efficiency.

  4. Be cautious of running with a pace group, who are unlikely to navigate the shortest distance.

  5. Do not stress during the race if your mileage is off. Mile markers are not measured to the inch (and are usually stuck in ditches by volunteers). Consider them encouragement.

You can run the best race of your life with an iron pace, but if you add distance, you also add time. The more efficiently you run the course, the more accurate your pace will prove in the end. Trust yourself to race hard, but don’t forget to race smart and RUN THE TANGENTS!

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