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Course Recces

So, you’ve selected your race – now it’s time to think about getting some more details on the route to see what you’ve let yourself in for! The best way of doing this is to physically run sections of the route as a “recce”. 

Both mentally and physically, course recces are great preparation but it isn’t always possible to dedicate the time or expense to recce the whole course. How should you approach the time you do have to spend on the course so it is most productive and helps you most on race day? 


Lots of people think the main reason to recce a course is so that you “know the way” in a hope that navigation will be easier if you’ve seen the course before. Whilst this is partially true, my experience is that it’s very hard to remember any details about a route especially when you’re sleep deprived and tired from running for hours (this is where your navigation strategy really counts!). For me the main benefits of course recces are the ultimate specificity of training (there’s nothing more specific training wise than actually being on the course you’ll be running on) and the massive mental benefits you experience from understanding the course, the key sections and how it all fits together.  

If you are lucky enough to be able to spend time on the course before your event make sure you know exactly what you’re trying to get out of the recce.  Here are a few things to think about.

What are you trying to get from the recce?

Navigation/Route Finding

Whilst it’s great to see the course, it’s unrealistic to think you’ll remember every twist and turn from seeing it once. Try to focus and remember key junctions and triggers for difficult sections – thinking “make sure I turn left straight after this stile” or “after this big climb I need to remember to turn right at this cairn” can be a great approach. 

For Training

Make sure you plan your recces at an appropriate time in the training block. If you go too early then you risk either over stretching yourself or not being able to take full advantage of the time you’ve got on the route. If you go too late then you risk still having the big miles in your legs on race day. Make sure to plan this all carefully. I find recces work well between 3 weeks and 3 months before race day.

Race Plan

Recceing the route can be really useful to help you form your race plan.  Understanding the hills and terrain can help you plan things like when you’re going to walk, how hard you are going to push on certain sections, when you’re going to use poles and other things like where you will find water out on the course.

Mental Preparation

I find it incredibly useful to be able to envisage the entire course in my mind and imagine how I’ll approach each section and support point. Before a big race, I try to do a mental fly through of the route as I find that this helps vast distances feel a lot more achievable - it somehow “shrinks” the route in my mind.  This can be a massive mental benefit as being able to imagine yourself doing each section helps you believe you’re going to achieve your goal. The value of this confidence can’t be underestimated on race day. One of my favourite sayings is “if you think you can or you think you can’t you’re probably right”!

Not able to recce the whole route? Which bits should you focus on?

Try to read some blogs/reports of previous races to identify which are the most difficult bits of the course from both a navigation perspective and/or a terrain perspective.

Also look at maps of the route - which bits look most challenging to you?

Determine which bits of the course (if any) you’ll likely be running in the dark. Recceing these sections will give you confidence that you’ve covered what may be the most mentally challenging bits of the course. However, you’ll find that you may benefit less from any navigational advantage on the night sections (it’s dark so you can’t see much anyway!).

I often like to recce the middle sections of longer ultras as they are the “no mans land” of a race - you’re already exhausted but you’ve got a very long way to go! Knowing this section can give you a big advantage as this can be the toughest section mentally to get through.

What if you just aren’t able to get out on the course at all before the race or aren’t able to recce the whole course? Not being able to see any (or all) of course before race day is honestly not a barrier to achieving your goals – in lots of ways it makes the adventure even more exciting if you’re seeing everything for the first time.  

Tips to help you prepare mentally and physically for a route without even setting foot on it:

Reading as many blogs and reports as you can and trying to put together a mental picture of the route.

Look carefully at the route profile and maps to identify the most challenging sections and key milestones of the route.

Think very carefully about your navigation strategy. A big aspect of this will be whether the course is marked or self navigation. Put these into your race plan and take account of navigation on the basis of not having seen the course in advance.

Search out similar training areas and terrain close to home – it’s amazing what you can find locally.  Keep in mind though you may have to do lots of running on the same hill or on the small amount of technical terrain you’ve found you can easily access!

If there are sections through towns then it’s worth just going to have a look at these even if you can’t run them – I’ve found city navigation to be some of the most challenging moments of races!

Ultimately, for me, getting out on the course and getting to know a new area is part of the fun of racing and challenges in beautiful places. I therefore try to plan recces at almost the same time as entering the race itself. Getting at least one recce in can also really remind you why you’re doing a race and provide renewed enthusiasm for training so you can enjoy your journey through the epic scenery as much as possible!

Download Dan’s Recce Tips PDF

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