How to Ace an Aid Station

Many months of being sidelined by injury allowed me to do quite a bit of volunteering, accrue some trail karma (and free race entries), and watch hundreds of runners go through aid stations in the process. Also, I have noticed over the years that when I was racing close to others, I would often pass people at aid stations.

One of the aid stations I manned in 2011

Very early on in my trail racing career I calculated how much time I spent lallygagging at aid stations, because somehow lallygagging seemed strongly encouraged (I do admit it’s fun).  Take a random 50k, CTR’s Steep Ravine 50k.  It has 6 aid stations.  Say you spend a minute at each aid station (and by observing hundreds of runners, most spend much more time than that on average), that’s 6 minutes you’re not running and thus adding to your time!  I believe that anything over 2 minutes total spent at aid stations during a 50k is time wasted (unless you’re sick/hurt/going through a serious bonk). The time you save is time in the bank towards your PR!

Here are some time tested aid station strategies that can help you improve your time:

Have a Plan

Going into the race, you should have an overall aid station strategy to complement your race strategy.  Know when you plan to eat and drink and where you plan on doing that.  Know how far the aid stations are apart.  And have a good sense of what you will encounter at the aid stations.  Many races have both “major” and minor aid stations, which usually have a much smaller spread.

For 50ks, I generally don’t take food from aid stations unless it looks really good, which I interpret as my body telling me: you really need those nutrients in there.  I generally carry all the gels I need (1/hour plus two extras), because at this point I know how many gels my body needs and I don’t like messing with food (especially gels) that I don’t know on race day. Which brings me to my second point…

Know What To Expect – OR Don’t Expect Anything But Water

Many races will advertise what type of food and “sports drink” they have.  Here is what you won’t know until you get there: what flavor gels and sports drink they have.  Just because you’ve been training with Gu ‘Lemon Sublime’ doesn’t mean that that’s the flavor they will have if they advertised Gu gels as part of the spread.  As a matter of fact, they’ll likely have a flavor you’ve never tried or don’t like.  Neither option is acceptable in a 4+ hour race.  That’s why I bring my own.

stinson beach aid station

Me at the Stinson Beach aid station during the 2011 NF 50 miler. This was my longest stop (30 seconds). I picked up food, drink, a pacer, said "hi" to my wife...and passed that Solomon runner from France you see in the background. It was a productive 30 seconds.

The same goes for “sports drink”.  You may like the brand and even the flavor, but you can’t control what consistency, for example, the drink has.  At a not-to-be-disclosed race, I volunteered and made the mistake of adding double the powder necessary to the drink.  This happens all the time.

I actually carry my own electrolyte solution tablets (nuun), so I simply ask for water, pop in half-a-tablet and know exactly what I will get.  I may not be able to control the weather, trail conditions or how my legs feel on race day, but I can control exactly what I will eat and drink.

Finally, aid stations run out of stuff.  This happens all.the.time. The only thing that’s inexcusable for an aid station to run out of is water.  (Unfortunately, even that has happened to me on more than one occasion).

Know Where the Aid Stations Are

Most aid stations at trail races are a reasonable distance apart.  Something like 5 or 6 miles, so you won’t need more than 20 ounces to cover the distance (unless it’s super hot, of course).  But there are always exceptions.  For example, the beautiful Skyline to the Sea 50k has a looooong 8 mile section towards the end where most people run out of water.  Each of the two times I have run the race, I actually spent a little bit of extra time at the previous aid station hydrating.  I would always catch the people that had passed me at that aid station…and many more.

If you have very good course knowledge, you may also want to prepare yourself for the aid by emptying your water bottle (drink!) and loosening the cap, so that a refill takes just a few seconds.  I cannot tell how much time you can save just by loosening your caps prior to arriving at the aid station. There are so many different types of hydration systems and many have their own unique way of opening.  Don’t expect the aid station volunteers to know how to do it for you in record time.

Plan Ahead

Finally, think about what you want out of the upcoming aid station.  Is it just water or do you need extra aid (food, vaseline, ice, blister care, etc., etc.)?  Knowing what you want to get out of the upcoming aid station will help you focus on exactly that: get in – take care of your needs – say “thank you” – leave (it’s a race).

Tell The Volunteers What You Want

Once I’m within shouting distance, I usually call out exactly what I want (“Water!”).  This allows eager aid station workers to get ready in whatever way they need to.  For me, it’s oftentimes simply finding a large jug of water.

Sometimes (very rarely) aid workers aren’t as eager and may be sitting around, going to the bathroom or whatever.  In that case, find whatever you need to fill the bottle yourself and go.  But make sure to say “thank you” no matter what.

Don’t Forget to Say “Thank You”

It’s a rule. No arguing about this one. If you’ve ever volunteered you know how hard that can be.  Don’t take your aid station workers for granted.

In summary, you only need to do a few things to speed through aid stations and gain many minutes over your competition:

  • Plan and be prepared
  • Know what you want – and make sure you get it
  • Say “Thank You”
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2 Responses to How to Ace an Aid Station

  1. Addy says:

    Great Recap of Aid Station “Rules” Made me think of the Skyline aid station in Dick Collins (at mile 37) where I was chatting and chatting until finally an aid station worker reminded me that this was a race and, really, I should get going. I find it much easier to move quickly at road races, but could definitely stand to improve station time on trails :)

  2. You can stop at aid stations?

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