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What’s the best way to cheer at a race?

Research says cheers with IMPACT are the best way to encourage runners on race day

The right kind of cheering from spectators on race day can help you push through the hard parts and get to the finish line. The wrong kind of cheering, on the other hand, can have the opposite effect — no one likes to hear “you’re almost there!” when you’re 30K into the marathon and you know the hardest part is about to begin. Recently, researchers asked what makes the perfect cheer and came up with a formula so the next time you’re on the sidelines, you can help, rather than hinder, your fellow runners.

Runners and the crowds

After conducting a series of post-race surveys with 10K and half-marathon runners, the authors of the study, published in The Sports Psychologist, analyzed the results and the reciprocal relationship between the crowd and the runners to understand how the quality of support was reflected in the behaviours and emotions of the runners.

They determined that in general, participants “drew pride in participation and belief from the crowd, and they wanted to ‘give back’ through doing their best.” The highest-valued type of support, according to the surveyed runners, was both personal and authentic.

Cheers with IMPACT

The researchers determined that in order to offer the best support, crowds should give encouragement with IMPACT — Instructional, Motivational, Personalized, Authentic, Confidence-building and Tailored to the distance. In addition, supporters should do their best to be authentic, empathetic and nonjudgmental when they’re on the sidelines. Let’s break that down a bit:

Instructional

You may not be a coach, but if you’ve ever run a race, you probably know at least a few instructions that might help. Remember to keep these simple, actionable and of course, useful. Examples include:

  • “Stay strong!”
  • Deep breaths, stay relaxed!”
  • “Stay steady up the hill!”
  • “Use the downhill, lean into it!”
  • “The finish line is just up ahead — give it all you got!”

Motivational

This is the most obvious category, and is likely what most spectators are focusing on when cheering (for better or for worse). Here are some examples of effective motivational cheering:

  • “You’ve got this!”
  • “Great pace!”
  • “We’re proud of you!”
  • “You made it to the top of the hill! Way to go!”
  • “You’re doing it!” (As opposed to you can do it)

Personalized

Maritime Race Weekend

You likely don’t know every single person you’re cheering on at a road race, but that doesn’t mean you can’t personalize your support. If runners’ names are on their bibs, use them! If not, you can sometimes use other ways to personalize your support. Examples include:

  • “Way to go, 541!”
  • “You’re doing great, blue T-shirt guy!”
  • “Keep it up, runners!”

Authentic

Authenticity in a cheer is more about how you cheer than what you’re actually saying. You should be enthusiastic and excited when cheering to let the runners know that you’re genuinely happy to be out there supporting them. Being authentic also means being honest (in a kind way, of course). If a runner is obviously struggling, don’t scream at them “you’re looking great!” They know that’s not true, and you could end up sending them further down the rabbit hole of disappointment.

Instead, use some of your motivational cheers to remind them they can make it to the end, and that you’re proud of them for doing something hard.

Confidence-building

Women's March Sign

We all know the feelings of self-doubt that can creep in during a race when it starts to get hard. Spectators can help runners push past those thoughts by reminding them of their strength. There is some overlap here with the motivational category, but examples include:

  • “You’ve trained for this, you’re crushing it!”
  • “You’re a rock star!”
  • “You’re doing it!”
  • “We’re proud of you!”
  • “You’re strong!”

Tailored to the distance

Cheering for a 5K is a lot different from cheering for a marathon. While most of your motivational or confidence-boosting cheers are applicable across all distances, it’s your instructional ones that need some tailoring. For example, in a 5K you might encourage someone to push a little harder and take a few more risks. In a marathon, on the other hand, advice like that could leave someone walking the last few kilometres to the finish line.

It may seem obvious, but when you’re on the sidelines of a race, make sure you understand the distance and what you’re cheering for. If you’re not sure how to give advice to people running a marathon (or any other distance), then don’t — stick to other types of cheering.