Home-Field Advantage

I’ve alluded to the importance of confidence in running numerous times in the past, including an entire column on the subject. I’ve also written often of the home-field-advantage phenomenon that occurs in running. It never ceases to amaze me just how much more capable and comfortable people are when running the trails and terrain that they are most comfortable with. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I made such a strong connection in my mind between confidence and the home-field-advantage phenomenon.

Through the lens of my running camps, I have had the opportunity over the past five years to observe some of these dynamics on a very regular and intimate basis. It’s been eye opening to see how much more comfortable people become running the terrain here in Juneau, Alaska after just one week. It’s also been interesting to see how savvy the locals who have lived here for decades are in comparison to many of the runners from out of the area who are often half their age, and significantly more capable in terms of raw talent. It’s not that the local Juneau runners are unusually talented, but rather that they are so adapted to running here in Juneau that they are able to run with, and often well ahead of runners who they would have no chance of keeping up with in another setting.

It’s easy to assume that I am overstating this dynamic, and that there are things at play here other than simple home-field advantage. I’m sure there are some other factors involved, but I have traveled and run with hundreds of people in various places all over the world, and the runners here where I live are by no means unique in terms of their ability. Put them on their local trails though and they begin to seem extraordinary. I have seen this dynamic play out in all 13 of the sessions of Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp that I have done to date. I have also seen it play out every time I have traveled to a new place as a runner. I never feel as comfortable and capable when I am running somewhere that is totally alien to me as I do when I am running on my local trails.

It’s easy to make the assumption that most of this home-field advantage stems from small adaptations made over time which make us more capable of running on the particular types of trails that are predominant in our area. People from back East tend to be better on rocks; Rocky Mountain runners are more capable at high altitude with long, sustained climbs; Pacific Northwest folks eat up the miles on mud and roots like it’s no big deal. These types of generalizations do come from somewhere, and in many cases do tend to be at least partially accurate, but I’m not sure how well they apply when an individual travels to and runs on similar terrain in other areas. In other words, it seems that, for some reason, if you put a runner from one place into a similar situation in another place altogether they don’t necessarily seem to thrive in the same way that they do on their home turf. Somehow it seems as though running on rocky trails in Virginia doesn’t necessarily make one a notably savvy rocky trail runner in Alaska (and vice versa). I can almost always tackle 3,500-foot climbs here in Juneau with little difficulty, but put me on a similar climb in Colorado and nine times out of 10 I will definitively feel more challenged by it. It’s easy to assume this is a function of the high altitude in Colorado, but then I have seen a dozen or more folks from Colorado have similar struggles when coming to run here in Juneau. It would seem logical to assume that once you learn how to run efficiently in certain types of challenges that this efficiency would apply to anywhere in the world with similar challenges, but in my experience this doesn’t often seem to be the case. No matter the prominent feature–mud, rocks, roots, altitude, heat, cold, steepness–I have seen this assumption proven wrong more times in the past five years than I could possibly count.

With this in mind, it seems fair to assume that there is more contributing to home-field advantage than simply being accustomed to and savvy with the terrain in a particular area. I think this is where the confidence piece comes into play. We gain confidence when we have a familiarity and deep understanding of something. You can do a 3,000-foot climb every single day on your local mountain. This will most certainly convert directly to a high level of confidence when running that mountain, but not necessarily to a similarly high level of confidence about running any 3,000-foot climb somewhere you have never been. No matter how well trained your body is to do large climbs, your mind, for a variety of reasons, will be more stressed when doing so in a new place. This mental stress will lead to less confidence, which will in turn make you less capable and efficient. No matter how experienced and developed of a runner you are you aren’t going to be as efficient and capable when running somewhere for the first time, even if the terrain itself seems exactly like that which you are most accustomed to.

The most obvious example that I have seen that depicts this example of confidence is the case of two friends I have here in Juneau who have recently moved to Alaska after attending my running camp as participants. They have only lived in Juneau for about six months, and most certainly they are both still more experienced running in the places they came from than in running here, but they are both significantly more efficient and capable at running the Juneau trails than they were when they first attended camp. In just six months they have become like the other locals who seem to have a capability on the local trails that far outshines their raw ability, and becomes very noticeable when compared to folks who are running in this area for the first time. To me this doesn’t stem as much from adapting physically to the local terrain as it does from the mental confidence gained by being at home here. Sleeping in their own beds, knowing exactly where a certain trail is taking them, knowing what the local weather patterns tend to be, and other similar things add up to give them a lot more space in their minds to simply run, and not to worry about much of anything else.

You can run everyday on the rockiest trails in the world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you will be exceedingly proficient at running rocky trails all around the globe, at least not if you don’t have the time to gain the confidence that comes from making those locations feel in some part like home. You don’t have to run somewhere for decades to feel like you have this home-field advantage, but you can be certain that until a place begins to feel at least a little bit like home you will feel a distinct disadvantage as compared to the runners who are at home in that location.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you feel like you have a home-field advantage on your home terrain? What are the specific mental and physical traits you have developed which give you this advantage?
  • Have you ever seen the home-field advantage come into play when someone who doesn’t live somewhere full time spends enough time training on a course beforehand that they gain a home-field advantage on it?

There are 8 comments

  1. northacrosseurope

    Interesting idea… 'home field advantage'… and to me it seems completely credible. Our minds are powerful organs, more so usually than we give them credit. Training the mind is definitely as important as training the body, although it seems this is referenced in 'training' features in the running media far less than the physical side. Knowing a place, and feeling relaxed and at home in it, clearly makes a HUGE difference to performance.

    For my part, I'm definitely a runner of average ability (an ability that's growing increasingly average as the years tick by!) but because I've come to learn most nuances of my own little corner of the world I've done better in competition than I would have ever believed possible. I've even won a handful of low-key, short-distance trail races where I live, a genuine shock to someone like myself, finishing ahead of runners who are measurably more talented and fitter than I, and I put it down to knowledge and confidence. I typically run race routes several times before race day, at different paces, and develop a plan…confidence… and an absolute belief in what I can do. Pre-knowledge might remove some of the adventure from race day, but it sure as heck makes for effective racing!

    I'd like to believe I could do as well on new terrain… but who knows? My forte is steep super-technical terrain in Colorado, and I grew up in Britain running in the rain and mud. The combination of that sounds a lot like Juneau, Alaska! If only my lifestyle choices allowed me money spare for one of Geoff's camps! Perhaps I could talk Geoff into letting me run one for free to test his theory? I'd need a free flight too…

    No? I thought not! ;-)

      1. northacrosseurope

        Nice! :-)

        It's tempting, but my lower than average 'disposable' income is entirely voluntary, and is partly based on spending more time out in the hills at play when I should be working. (It's also based on sacrificing work time for quality family time! I had kids to spend time with them, not work long hours to buy them things. :-)

        So… there are others far more deserving of a scholarship than me! Anyhow, it's absolutely awesome that you offer them. Kudos!

        I'll just have to save up. :-)

        1. mikehinterberg

          northacrosseurope: I think I have a sore neck from nodding so vigorously at your response — what a great attitude! I'm pretty much in the same boat as you (by choice).

          Geoff: Great article and observation. In some local, casual time trials, I've seen how familiarity with a course really helps out people of all different abilities.
          Even more fun: at local races, I think there's another advantage in seeing all kinds of friends at aid stations. What a motivational boost!

  2. @Watoni

    I do see that knowing the course breeds confidence, especially in longer runs. And mountains are just different. The rhythm even of road cycling, which is much less varied than trail running, is quite different in my mind even in the same state or country — the French Alps and Pyrenees being prime examples.

  3. Ben_Nephew

    Great post , Geoff. I think this the homefield advantage in ultra races can be skewed by the significant number of racers who travel to races that they are not prepared for. You often hear statements affirming this in post race interviews. As with sight reading music, I think you can train yourself to be prepared for a variety of terrains, and there is a lot of variation in how effective one can train for a specific race. If you looked at big uS ultras where just 1-2 top European runners showed up, you would think there was some sort of home field disadvantage. While some of these runners clearly spend time on the course, they clearly don't have the years of experience that the locals have. Another similar example where home field advantage seems to go out the window is with the top runners in the La Sportiva Mountain Cup, where runners with a diverse set of skills will dismantle a solid CR, like David Roche did at Rothrock, etc.

    As you mention, it is sometimes impossible to really simulate a different terrain where you live, but I think most folks have room for improvement in this area. I think a critical factor in the success of the US mountain team is that the selection race tries to mirror the WMRA championship course as closely as possible. Athletes know all the details of the selection race well before the race, train specifically for that type of course, and those runners who do that most effectively make the team and go on to run well at the WMRA race. In ultrarunning, you have 100k road guys being invited/sent to 80 miles races with 30k of climb. That's a bit more than home field advantage, that is an apple trying to eat an orange.

    In my own experience, the French teams for the IAU trail races always have organized training camps at the actual site of the IAU races. While they tend to select strong teams, I'm sure these camps are quite helpful.

  4. @ajschirackjr

    I've wondered about this myself Geoff and I appreciate seeing it addressed. I experienced it myself just relocating within the State, transitioning from one racing environment to another. Would you say that this knowledge of the races benefits some of the elites as they tend to be fortunate enough to arrive many days prior to a race and scout the course? I would agree that any race you want to do well on you should know the course, but for many of us it just is not realistic to take the extra time off work. I also feel that studying course profiles and aid station locations doesn't provide the same benefit as having run a race and actually knowing where they will in fact be on the route. How do you think this applies to the professionals? It seems that many of them often have the leisure of arriving 4 or 5 days in advance to scout and prerun portions of the course, giving way to some familiarity. Granted, many have already put in their course specific training, as should anyone traveling for a race that they plan to do well in. (might have repeated myself, just finally got around to posting this after writing it a week or so ago :) )

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