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?