The Marathon Relay, Explained: 5 Steps To Marathon Relay Success

Running a marathon is a super impressive feat that many runners eventually strive for, but not everyone is interested in running a full marathon nor feels up to the challenge yet.

In these cases, running a marathon relay can be an awesome way to take part in the marathon running experience without having to complete the entire 26.2 miles on your own two feet.

Unfortunately, marathon relays aren’t offered at every marathon race, and in fact, they are still relatively rare despite the fact that they can be a super fun experience and an approachable option for beginners to get a taste of the marathon experience.

Therefore, even many experienced runners have likely not come across a marathon relay, and while you might be inclined to think that marathon relays are only necessary for beginner runners who can’t yet manage the full 42.195-kilometer marathon distance on their own, there are plenty of reasons why seasoned marathoners might want to try one as well.

In this article, we will discuss the marathon relay in its entirety, introducing you to the pros and cons, how they work, and tips for running one.

We will cover: 

  • What Is a Marathon Relay?
  • The Benefits of Marathon Relays
  • How to Run a Marathon Relay

Let’s jump in!

People passing a baton in a marathon relay.

What Is a Marathon Relay?

A marathon relay is a relay race that covers the full marathon distance—26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers.

Like other relay race events, a marathon relay involves a team of runners running different legs of the race, one after the next, passing a baton or otherwise tagging the next runner into the race after each runner’s portion of the race is done.

Most marathon relays split the marathon distance into 2 to 6 legs, meaning that a team of 2 to 6 runners will complete the distance together.

Each runner will only run a portion of the marathon, but in aggregate, the team will run 26.2 miles.

For example, you might have a marathon relay with just two runners. 

The first runner would run the first 13.1 miles and then the second runner would run the second 13.1 miles.

If the marathon relay team was split into four legs, there would be either two runners who would each run two legs (of approximately 6.5 miles each) or four separate runners each running a leg of about 6.5 miles, depending on the structure of the marathon relay and the decisions of the team heading into the race.

In most marathon relays, each runner will only run one portion of the race because it’s logistically easier than having to shuttle the runners to another area of the course after running one leg.

However, there are marathon relays where runners cover multiple legs by either driving to the next checkpoint or with loop courses where the course comes back around the same starting point.

People passing a baton in a marathon relay.

The Benefits of Marathon Relays

There are several reasons why runners might choose to participate in a marathon relay.

Benefits of running a marathon relay include the following:

#1: Marathon Relays Are Beginner Friendly

It takes a long time to build up enough endurance to run a marathon.

Many beginner runners want to take part in the marathon race experience, but simply don’t yet have the stamina, fitness, nor strength to complete a marathon, especially not safely.

A marathon relay is an approachable way to get a taste of running a marathon without having to tax the body as much or put in the many hours of training necessary to run the entire 26.2-mile distance on your own.

For example, if you run a marathon relay as part of a six-person team, you will only be running a leg that’s less than five miles long.

It’s a lot easier to train to complete a five-mile run than 26.2 miles.

For this reason, marathon relays can also be good options for even experienced runners whose bodies just don’t handle high-volume training well, but have always wanted to run a marathon.

Sure, you won’t be doing the full marathon yourself, but you’ll still get to enjoy the marathon race without injuring your body by overdoing it.

A team in a huddle, hands in.

#2: Marathon Relays Are a Bonding Experience

Being part of a marathon relay team is a wonderful way to make memories and bond with your teammates.

You can train together or from afar, sending each other encouragement and holding one another accountable in your preparation for the race.

This can greatly improve motivation, both during training and on race day.

You will have a blast working together as a marathon relay team, and it could really be an unforgettable experience.

#3: Marathon Relays Are Fun

Running a marathon is physically and mentally stressful and exhausting.

Not everyone is in a place in their life as a runner where they can really take on the time and physical and mental energy requirements to train for and race a marathon.

Even the mental benefits of being part of a marathon relay team can be significant.

How many runners feel like a nervous wreck before a big marathon or road race that they are tackling on their own?

When you are running as part of a marathon relay team, you have the support and camaraderie of your fellow teammates, which often reduces race day anxiety and turns the entire event into something that is pure fun and enjoyment rather than a mix of stress and pride.

A marathon relay is much more about fun than competition. Although relay teams do compete against one another in their own division of the marathon, the emphasis is still more on enjoyment than results.

A group of people running fast down the road.

#4: Marathon Relays Allow You to Focus On Your Speed

Even if you have enough marathon finish medals to line your entire bedroom, there are plenty of benefits of running a marathon relay for experienced runners capable of running the full marathon distance by yourself.

For example, if you often focus on the marathon distance, taking part in a marathon relay will give you the opportunity to work on your speed.

Depending on the size of your team, your own personal contributions on race day can be as short as 4 miles and as long as 13.1 miles.

Therefore, your workouts can be geared towards maintaining a much faster race pace, which can improve your speed, turnover, and lactate threshold.

How to Run a Marathon Relay

Once you decide that you want to try a marathon relay, here are the steps to making it come to fruition:

A team of runners training.

Step 1: Find a Marathon Relay to Run

Unfortunately, not all marathon events will offer a relay option to participants.

This is largely due to the fact that the logistics of organizing a relay are much more complicated than an individual start-to-finish.

You have to have handoff zones, where runners switch places, and timing means at the end of each leg.

With that said, with the rising popularity of relays, they are becoming somewhat more common.

A helpful resource for locating marathons, ahotu Marathons, currently lists 162 different marathon relays around the United States over the remainder of the 2022 season and start of the 2023 racing season.

Typically, marathon relays involve teams of four or five runners, but if you are willing to spend time sifting through the racing calendar, you can find 2-person relays (such as the Knoxville Marathon in Tennessee) or six-person relays (such as the Brookings Marathon in South Dakota).

When choosing which relay to run, think about whether you want to turn it into a destination event to travel to or if you want something local. 

A person running and giving a high five to someone on the sidelines.

Step 2: Recruit Your Team

Who do you want to run the relay with you?

Depending on which marathon relay you register for, you will need to form a team of 2-6 runners, including yourself.

Some relays allow for coed teams, whereas others might only have single-sex options.

Think about whether you have running buddies you want to run with, or if you need to look for other ways of finding interested relay runners.

If you don’t know any other runners who could be part of your team, you might look into the social media for the marathon relay you want to run.

There might be a Facebook page or other networking platform that allows interested relay runners to find other lone runners who want to take part in a relay together.

A group of people running into a relay station in a park.

Step 3: Register Your Team

Every marathon relay team needs one captain.

You can nominate yourself to be the captain, which means that you will register your team, or you can enlist one of your fellow teammates to be the captain.

Step 4: Assign Legs

After you have assembled your team, determine which leg of the marathon each runner will take on.

This is a crucial step because it dictates what type of training each runner should do.

Not all marathon relays divide the legs particularly evenly.

For example, you might be on a four-person relay team, but instead of each runner running exactly 6.55 miles, The first leg might be 8.5 miles, the second leg might be 3.2 miles, the third leg might be 9.6 miles, and the final leg might be 4.9 miles.

The race directors designed the relay specifications based on many factors, including the safety and feasibility of having a transition zone along the course where runners will be congregating for a long time as they wait to run.

Two people handing off a baton in a relay race.

This needs to be away from traffic and readily accessible, so it might fall at odd increments in the race.

Certain relay team members might prefer to run a shorter or longer leg, or may be better suited to one or the other. As you can see, assigning the legs is an important part of the planning stages.

Moreover, your training should look quite different if you are only doing the 3.2-mile leg versus the 9.6-mile leg.

Step 5: Train and Enjoy

Once you have your relay leg assignment, you just train and prepare for the event.

Before race day, make sure you understand all of the logistics of the relay event, including where you will be transitioning each runner, and whether or not you need to pass a baton or other sort of item, whether you need to dress in similar uniforms, etc.

Then, on race day, do your best to have an awesome race while soaking up the unforgettable experience of racing the marathon as a relay.

Use our training resources to help you get prepared for your race!

A group of people relaxing after a race.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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