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How Running Tangents Can Shave Down Your Race Time

Straight-lining it for the win.

While there can be inaccuracies with GPS watches, a discrepancy between the certified race distance and the distance you ran as reported by your running watch is often because you did not run all of the tangents in the race.

But what does “running tangents” in a race refer to, and how do you do it?

In this guide, we will discuss what tangent running means, the benefits of running tangents on a race course, and tips for how to run tangents during a race.

We will cover: 

  • What Does It Mean to Run Tangents?
  • Why Is Running Tangents In a Race Helpful?
  • Tangent Running Tips for Racing 

Let’s dive in! 

People running in a road race.

What Does It Mean to Run Tangents?

Before we can have a meaningful discussion and provide tips for how to get better at running tangents in a race, we have to define what running tangents means and why runners should try to run the tangents on a race course.

In the context of running, tangent running refers to running the most direct path along a running course or the shortest distance possible while following the marked race course.

When a race course is certified by the RRCA or USATF, the route distance is measured by the shortest possible path a competitor could run while still remaining within the bounds of the race course.

The concept of running tangents is very intuitive once you understand what it means to do so.

If you can recall back to geometry class, you might remember that a tangent line to a curve is one that just touches at the very edge at a single point on the curve.

According to the definition of a tangent in the context of geometry, a tangent is a “line or a plane that touches a curve or a surface at a point so that it is closer to the curve in the vicinity of the point than any other line or plane drawn through the point.”

Basically, even though a tangent is a straight line, it is the “best“ straight line approximation of the curve at that particular point.

People running in a road race.

Translated over into running, basically, you can think of running tangents as running the most direct/shortest straight line on a race course that is going around a turn or curve.

You can picture the notion of tangent running by visualizing a running track. 

If a runner is in lane one, which is on the inside lane of the track next to the pole position, versus a runner in the eighth lane or furthest lane out to the side, the runner who has to stay in the outside lane will run further than the runner on the inside.

For this reason, races that have runners staying in given lanes have staggered starts so that the total distance that each runner has to run remains the same.

Running tangents is another way to nullify the difference in distance that will be accrued if you have to stay on the outside of a turn. 

Instead, if you are running a race that is going to make a 90-degree turn to the right onto another road, you don’t want to stay all the way over toward the sidewalk on the left side of the road, nor do you immediately want to cut right across to the right side of the road and then run up along the right if you are on the left. 

Either of these would involve running further than if you run the tangent, which would be the most direct path towards and through the turn in the race course.

People running in a road race.

Why Is Running Tangents In a Race Helpful?

Of course, in theory, every runner would want to run the tangents in a race because the shortest route that is still “legal“ in the race such that it won’t get the runner disqualified will theoretically result in the fastest time.

However, while running tangents is optimal and certainly makes sense, runners often don’t prioritize running the tangents in a race, depending on numerous factors.

For example, if the race course is crowded, it may take more energy surging to try to fight your way in front of a crowd to make a beeline towards the next turn and cut across the width of the road in a gradual tangent rather than hugging the outside of the curve as the pack you are in takes a turn onto the next road.

Or, perhaps, you are running a race on a hot and sunny day, and the right side of the street has much more shade because there is a better canopy of trees overhead. 

Then, you might choose to stay put along the right side edge of the road even if the race course is about to turn left, and you would shave off a little bit of distance by running the tangent and starting to cross over towards the left as you approach the turn.

People running in a road race.

Even more common is that beginners are unaware of what running tangents means, and that race courses are measured based on the shortest possible route the runner could take, which indeed involves running every tangent along the way.

Because most people regularly train on roads that are open to vehicular traffic, we don’t have the luxury of running tangents in training.

We have to stay either on the sidewalk or running against traffic no matter how the road meanders.

Therefore, even the notion that it might be possible to “cut“ across the road and follow the race course tangents may not even occur to a beginner running his or her first race.

Most race courses, in contrast, are closed to traffic, which is why there are so many volunteers and police officers directing traffic and ensuring that vehicles do not cross into the course while runners are racing.

Therefore, unless you are running a race that is open to traffic such that the roads have not been closed, it is generally safe and anticipated that you have open latitude to run anywhere along the road or race course path between whatever barriers have been put in place by the race organizers.

This means that you should be allowed to run the tangent of the race course.

People running on a track.

Furthermore, if the race takes place on an RRCA-certitude course or USATF-certified course, the race course distance was indeed measured using the tangents.

This means that if you are not running the tangents, you will ultimately end up running further than the reported distance of the race because you will be taking “extra“ steps or adding more distance with a less direct route through the race course.

Running the tangents in a race involves aiming your line of where you are going to run directly pointed at the next curve or turn that comes in the race course.

You always want to spot where the course is going to turn next and then make a beeline toward that direction.

Running the tangent in a race can help you shave off seconds in shorter races, and potentially tangent running in longer races like the marathon may save you upwards of a couple of minutes.

This will depend on your average race pace and how windy or curvy versus straight the race course is. 

The fewer the turns, the more narrow the race course from side to side, and the shorter the race, the less impactful running tangents will have on your race time.

However, for long-distance races, race courses on wide roads, or race courses that take a lot of turns, curves, or undulations to the left to right instead of being a straight shot, running tangents can save a significant amount of time on your race finish time and total distance run.

People running in a road race.

Tangent Running Tips for Racing 

Here are some tips for how to run the tangent in a race most effectively:

#1: Study the Race Course

The single best strategy for tangents in a race is to familiarize yourself with the race course before race day.

Knowing where the big turns are to anticipate them ahead of time will help you best position yourself on the road in advance so that you will be able to run the tangents safely and not get boxed in by other runners and forced to run on the outside of a wide turn.

#2: Keep Your Eyes Up

Runners have a tendency to look down at their feet, particularly if they are running trails or feeling tired.

Just like how a triathlete has to “spot” when doing an open water swim, runners should be spotting on the race course. 

This means that you want to keep your eyes up, particularly when you come out of a turn or enter a new road or portion of the course.

Keeping your eyes up allows you to see what the next upcoming curve or turn is before it is suddenly upon you, and you realize you are on the wrong side of the road or have meandered a more circumlocutious path instead of running the tangent.

Spotting will help you start to get in position and visualize the tangent or beeline that you want to run to hit that turn as efficiently as possible.

People running in a road race.

#3: Weigh Pros and Cons

Just because race course distances are measured using the tangent doesn’t mean that it always makes sense to run every tangent in a race come “hell or high water.”

If running a tangent at a certain portion of the course means that you will have to sprint ahead of the pack, slow down to get around runners, dart in front of a fellow runner in order to make a beeline towards the next turn, or any other reason why running tangents would be unsafe or simply not worth the investment in energy just to shave a couple of steps, skip it. 

You don’t have to run every tangent to hit a PR.

In fact, trying to do so often takes more physical and mental energy than you will gain in the few meters or tenths of a mile that you save (depending on the race distance and course itself) by running tangents.

People running in a road race.

#4: Follow the Course

Make sure you do not let your desire to run the tangents supersede whatever race instructions or course markings you are given for the event.

Not all race courses are closed to traffic, so you need to be mindful of cars or other vehicles sharing the road. You can’t just blindly cut across the road because you know it will be the most direct route.

Some race courses also have cones or paint lines on certain parts of the course that you can’t cut or cross over. Doing so will render you disqualified, and also, the race course would not have been measured with that tangent, so you will be “cheating“ the race distance.

#5: Don’t Stress

Although running tangents can save you a few precious seconds or more, don’t let the process of trying to make a beeline through every turn on the race course cause you stress or impact being a courteous fellow racer

If you are running with a pace group, you likely won’t be able to run the tangents, and that’s okay! Try to enjoy the race experience!

For more race-day strategies, check out our guide to negative splits here!

People running in a road race.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. 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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