One of the best bits about taking part in races is the crowd. Whether it’s the millions who turn out to spectate on a big city event such as the London Marathon, or the small smattering of friends and family that show up for a Saturday morning parkrun, crowd support is always uplifting, motivating and welcome.
But race crowds don’t stop at just cheering you on: some of the most enthusiastic spectators you’ll find in events are the kids, and they’re particularly keen on offering up some high fives.
I’ll be honest: I didn’t think I’d enjoy randomly high fiving strangers while I was running. It seemed a bit daft, possibly a bit indulgent and, well, a little odd. I started running for myself, and didn’t really feel I needed the support of a crowd.
That changed on last year’s London Marathon. In the early stages, I found myself running at the side of the road in a bid to escape the masses of runners packing the middle. And that put me within near-touching distance of masses of outstreched hands. And, well, I got caught up in the moment, and started joining in the high five action.
And you know what? It’s great fun, and gives you a tremendous amount of energy. But there’s a catch. Because you need to do it right. And so, in the spirit of my running technique thread of breaking down seemingly simple things with an excessive amount of detail, here’s my guide.
To understand how to do something, you need to understand why you’re doing something. Here are the main objectives for the in-race high five:
- To successfully pull off one, or more, high fives with one or more spectators during a race
- To help make running a fun, vibrant spectator event by engaging with the crowd that are cheering you on
- To temporarily distract yourself from the pain and effort of tackling a race with a spot of crowd interaction
- To ensure every attempted high five is a success so you don’t look stupid
- To avoid accidentally hitting, striking or otherwise swatting a spectator with a badly timed high five attempt
- Got that? Right, let’s get into the how then…
1. Pick your target
Offering an unreciprocated high five is a little embarrassing at the best of times, but when it happens mid-run you’ll just end up looking utterly stupid.
The first step is to identify willing high five participants. This is, as you’d expect, fairly straightforward. Look for someone at the side of the road with their arms outstretched. These will usually, but not always, be kids. Try and pick the ones who look eager.
2. The approach
Next step: get into position. You’ll want to do this early: you don’t want to be swerving across the course in the path of your fellow runners and having to slow dramatically, just for the sake of a high five. So work your way to the side of the course, so you’re in close proximity to the crowd.
The next bit is to make sure your intended high five targets know you’re coming. Try for eye contact, since you don’t want to surprise anyone. And, when you’re closing in, extend your arm into the high five offering position.
Now, the accepted running high five arm position is a little different from usual. Raise your armco about mid-chest level, elbow-bent, and then extend your arm with palm facing forward. Remember, most of the in-race high fiving action will come from junior spectators, so you don’t actually want to make your high five that high. They won’t reach, and you’ll look stupid.
3. It’s high five time
Okay, arm extended, eye contact hopefully established. The rest is fairly simple. Keep running towards then, without adjusting your pace, and when you’re close adjust the height of your hand to match theirs. Then you may proceed with the high five.
Another pro tip though: don’t put any extra effort into your high five gesture. Remember, you’re running relatively quickly, so your arm already has plenty of latent momentum. If you adapt the traditional arm thrust that you would with a traditional, non-running high five, you’ll hit your high five target with a fair degree of momentum. Frankly, you don’t want to be that guy who bowls a kid over during a run. Nobody wants to be that guy.
Instead, let your running momentum propel the high five. Keep your hand flat and relaxed.
4. Never look back
Now, this bit sounds harsh, but it’s a necessary evil. If you realise you’re going to miss a high five, just miss it. Sometimes kids move their hands inadvertently, sometimes you get your angle wrong. But while a missed high five is always disappointing, it’s going to happen. But if you ease up and try to correct the error, you’ll only slow your pace and cause problems. Try to forget it and move on.
Advanced high fiving: The next level
Okay, that’s the basics covered. You can now proceed with mid-race high five action. And, frankly, it’s quite fun. It really can give you a motivational boost, if only because it’s something to distract you from the pain and grind of a particularly long race.
But if you want to take your mid-race high fiving to the next level, here are some advanced high five techniques to work on.
The high five chain
This is when you approach a line of people, all holding out their hands to offer high fives. The basics apply, but you’ll need to make sure you keep adjusting the height of your hand as you work through the group. Unfortunately, kids and other high five fans don’t tend to be the same height, and they don’t tend to hold their hands out at the same point. It’ll be up to you to adjust as you go. It takes effort, but it’s better than the alternative: missing out the smallest kid in the group. They’ll only get upset.
The ‘hit for power’ board
This seems to be a somewhat American running thing: there were a lot of people on the Houston Marathon holding out boards with messages such as ‘hit for power’ – frequently adorned with pics by Super Mario World mushrooms and the like.
Again, it seems a simple proposition, possibly even a bit easier than your standard high five. After all, a big bit of cardboard is a far larger target area than a hand. But beware!
For starters, it’s hard to tell exactly what the signs are made out of. You don’t want to smack a poster hard and then discover it’s actually thin paper that you’ve just ripped through. Conversely, it can genuinely hurt if you put too much momentum behind hitting a board that’s made of seemingly indestructible cardboard.
The tactic is to make sure you don’t punch it, but tap it with your palm, before swinging your hand out the way to ensure you don’t accidentally knock the board out of the holder’s hands.
This technique is difficult to master, but is a huge tool to stop yourself looking daft if you miss a high five, or realise you’re offering one that’s going to be unreciprocated.
If you spot that happening, you’ll have a few precious moments to adjust your gaze from the first line of spectators by the road to those a little further away. Be quick. What you’re looking for is someone waving. Then, raise your outstretched high five arm and quickly convert it into a wave. Pull it off, and you’ll be able to maintain your styling as an enthused runner grateful for the crowd, rather than looking like a numpty who just plain missed…
So that’s what you need to know about mid-race high fives. Get it right, and it’s a fun bit of crowd interaction. It’ll keep the spectators happy and, if done well, will distract you from the pain and slog of a long race without slowing you down at all. Frankly, it’s worth doing just for that…
Hydration is important. If you’re doing a long race, you’re going to need to drink at some point during it (even if it can be annoying…).
That shouldn’t be news to any runner. A quick Google search for ‘running hydration’ will bring up thousands of articles telling you how much, when and what to drink. Mostly they’re written by running experts, doctors, nutritionists and various other boffins far more qualified than me. But almost all of those articles miss out perhaps the toughest bit of all: actually getting a drink in the first place.
Virtually every race will feature water or drink stations, where you can grab some refreshment. If you’re lucky, the drinks will come in bottles featuring those ever-so-useful sport caps. But, in all likelihood, your hydration will come in plastic or paper cups, which will be offered to you by nervous-looking volunteers holding them at arm’s length.
Fact: plastic and paper cups really aren’t very well suited to being grabbed when you’re running. It’s easy to mess up the entire process – and given the consequences of doing so mean a lack of hydration and/or ending up soaked with water, that’s not a good thing.
So how do you do it? Well, since you asked, let’s break this down in an excessive amount detail.
First, we need to understand the whole aim of the exercise. So here are the objectives, presented in decreasing order of importance:
- To successfully collect a cup containing as much drink as possible
- To lose as little time as possible while undertaking this process
- To spill as little liquid as possible onto both yourself and the volunteer holding the drink
Sounds simple. It’s really not. So let’s break down the approach into phases.
Phase one: the approach
First off: you need to know you’re approaching a drinks station. This sounds obvious, but when you’re focused during a race it’s surprisingly easy to miss those bright yellow ‘DRINKS AHEAD’ signs. Well, that’s my excuse.
Top tip: most race guides will tell you where the drinks stations are located, or how far apart they are. It’s worth studying and trying to remember. That way, you’ll know roughly where to start looking for the signs.
Once you’ve spot a drinks station you need to move over to the side of the road it’s on, which sounds easy until you try doing it when you’re in the middle of a pack of runners. For optimum drinks-grabbing possibilities, try to create a bit of space from any runners ahead of you. This makes it far less likely you’ll plough into the back of a runner whose drink-grabbing technique is to essentially stop. It also helps prevent what I call the ‘swoop and snatch’, when another runner swerves in ahead of you at the last second and inadvertently grabs the exact cup you’d been aiming for.
Phase two: the spot
Right, drinks station sighted, and you’re getting close. Look ahead and you’ll see lots of volunteers holding out cups containing lovely, refreshing liquid.
The first step is to make sure you know what you’re aiming for. Some runs offer both water and energy drinks at the same drinks station. If you’re a fussy drinker, pay attention to which is offered first, unless you want a surprise (such as the time my brother, tackling a triathlon in Texan summer heat, decided to pick up a water and pour it over his head – only to discover the cup contained Gatorade…).
Then you need to target a volunteer to grab a cup from. Some tips:
- If possible, be wary of the young kids. They’re often the most enthusiastic and keen to push water in your direction, but in my experience are prone to panicking and recoiling when you try to make the grab.
- Try and make eye contact with someone, or at least find someone who is actually watching you approach. If someone doesn’t spot you grabbing a cup they’re unlikely to release it easily, increasing the possibilities of spillage.
- Try and pick someone who is actually holding a cup. I’m not saying I’ve ever looked daft by trying to grab a cup from someone who wasn’t actually holding one but, well, erm… ahem.
Phase three: the grab
It all comes down to this. This is the moment that will decide whether you get a drink, or just spill water everywhere and look stupid.
Grabbing a cup without slowing down too much is an art form. And there are plenty of techniques that you can be employed. Here are ones I’ve tried and/or seen:
The top-down snatch
When you raise your arm up high, then reach down and grab the cup around the top rim.
Pros: You grab the cup at one of the strongest parts, and your momentum is driving the cup down, reducing the risk of massively splashing water anywhere.
Cons: Lots of volunteer how the cup at the top rim, creating the possibility of awkward contact with strangers. The top of the cup is also the widest part, so if your grab isn’t precise it’s easy to only grab one side and tip drink everywhere or, worse, to accidentally stick your hand straight in the water.
Drop your arm down low, and grab the cup from the base while you’re swinging it up.
Pros: The base of the cup is usually the absolute strongest part, so this has the least likelihood of drinking vessel crumpling. And because you’re swinging your arm up, your momentum is going away from your body, so if you knock the cup you’ll send the water flying away from you…
Cons: …but probably straight into the volunteer. Oops. Also, because of the base of the cup is usually the narrowest part, it’s easy to lose control and spill liquid when you actually try to drink. Oh, and some volunteers balance the cup in their palms, which renders this technique pretty useless.
The mid-cup clasp
Hold out your hand, open it wide and aim for the middle of the cup, grasping it as soon as you make contact.
Pros: By aiming for the middle of the cup, you maximise your margin for error, and you also grab the cup in the same fashion you’d normally pick up a cup, reducing the need for juggling and adjustment before you can actually drink from the thing.
Cons: The middle of paper and plastic cups are often the weakest part, so squeezing too hard can be disastrous. Remember how spinach went flying everywhere when Popeye burst open a can of the stuff? Squeeze a paper or plastic cup too hard and that will happen to your water. And, unlike Popeye, you won’t be able to perform any cartoon-based contortions to gobble it up.
Slow down, stop, pick up the up and drink it, while making small talk with the volunteer.
Pros: Spillage chances extremely low. Ease of drinking extremely high. Pleasant small-talk.
Cons: It’s not exactly compatible with a PB…
On the whole, I’m a mid-cup clasping man. While it makes some level of spillage hard to avoid (especially if the cup is filled close to full) it offers the best balance of ensuring you can safely grab a cup with a reasonable amount of water in.
Right, you have a drink. Next challenge…
Phase four: drinking
Now this is the really difficult bit: getting the water from the cup into your mouth, preferably without breaking stride. Drinking while running is hard. And, frankly, I’ve yet to really refine a decent technique for this.
The potential for missing is high. The potential for splashing water all over your face is high (and particularly problematic if, like me, you wear glasses).
How to do it? The two approaches seem to be:
The big gulp
Open wide, aim for mouth, pour liquid in.
Pros: This is the quickest way, and involves holding the cup for the least amount of time.
Cons: You’re running, so you’re going to be breathing heavily. It’s quite hard to take a huge volume of water in at one time without coughing and splutter. Plus, if you miss, this technique will result in you pouring large quantities of liquid all over yourself.
Taking multiple small sips of water. Duh.
Pros: Much easier to copy with while you’re running, especially if you can time your sips to match your breathing.
Cons: The more times you lift the cup up near your mouth, the more times you run the risk of it all going wrong…
On balance, it’s probably small sips. Yeah, I think it’s small sips. But you really shouldn’t take my word for this. On the Houston Half Marathon recently, I reckon I probably consumed no more than 50 per cent of the volume of drink I actually tried to pick up.
Is that a good success rate? It doesn’t seem like it… but I think it’s actually pretty decent, all things considered.
And that leads to my penultimate top tip when it comes to grabbing a drink on a marathon: you’re better off drinking a tiny amount and spilling loads than not drinking anything at all. You can always drink another tiny amount at the next drink station… well, you can try.
So what’s the final tip? It’s this: when you’re in the process of grabbing a drink from a volunteer, try to thank them while doing so. For a start, it’s polite, and it’s always good to thank volunteers who have given up their time to enable your running. But, mostly, it will make you feel slightly better if it all goes wrong and you accidentally cover them with water…