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How to be a useful ‘Support Rider’

In this training article, we look at how to be useful when cycling alongside a runner – to support them in their training or when completing virtual challenges.

Running can be tricky. At it’s most basic, you just need to get out of the door and put one foot in front of the other. However, once you try to run further or faster, things start to get more complicated.

Carrying food and drink, and having to follow a route without getting lost, are just two considerations for the runner aiming to push themselves. How well you manage these can make the difference between finishing a run feeling great, or terrible.

To ease the physical (having to carry stuff) and mental (remembering where to go) burden, some runners ask a trusted friend or family member to be their support rider. If you’ve been asked to perform this role ahead of a forthcoming long run or virtual challenge, the following advice may be of use.

What’s a ‘support rider’?

Simply put, a support rider is someone who helps a runner by cycling alongside (or near) them during their run. This could be during a training run, a virtual challenge, or some other occasion when their assistance might be required.

Their role will depend on the runner’s needs for a particular run, but the support rider might be there to carry food and drink, navigate, and offer encouragement. Here are a couple of example scenarios, taken from my own experience:

Supported

For my previous two marathons, I’ve done a long, race-pace run a few weeks before the day of the marathon. These are the hardest long runs of the training plan and are an opportunity not just to get used to the effort required on race day, but also to practice drinking and eating when running.

I’d rather not have to carry all the drinks required, so I’ve press-ganged my brother-in-law, Martin, into being my support rider for those runs. He’s cycled alongside me, carrying water and whatever sports drink is used in the marathon. Then, every 5km, he will stop just ahead of me and hold the drinks out so I get to practice grabbing bottles while moving.

Martin has also ridden in support of his brother, Tony, who ran a ‘lockdown marathon’ recently, so he’s gotten pretty good at it!

Running light, with no bottles, courtesy of Martin, my support rider (Martin Allen Photography)
Supporter

For the past few weeks, I have ridden with my friend, Andy, during his long runs ahead of the Virtual London Marathon. I’ll also ride with him as he runs the event itself on 4 October.

Much like how Martin supported me, I’m riding with Andy to be his own personal food and drinks station, so he doesn’t have to carry loads to drink when he’s out running.

Andy has Type 1 diabetes, which means his body doesn’t produce insulin and can’t regulate its sugar levels – not ideal for a marathoner. As a result, in addition to Andy’s water and sports drinks, I’ve also been carrying up to 50 jelly babies, a high-concentration glucose drink, and a phone in case his sugars plummet and I need to call an ambulance.

The Berlin ‘Drinks Guy’

Even professional, élite runners can benefit from having someone there to help make sure things go smoothly. In 2018, Eliud Kipchoge broke the men’s marathon world record in Berlin, assisted by Claus-Henning Schulke, a volunteer who cycled ahead of Kipchoge to hand him his personal drinks at each station.

Schulke’s excitable celebrations after each successful handover earned him the nickname ‘Drinks Guy’ and his fifteen minutes of fame. A year later, Schulke was at it again, helping Kenenisa Bekele get within just two seconds of Kipchoge’s record.

How can I be a useful support rider?

Your role and requirements as a support rider may vary depending on what the runner needs and what the run involves. For example, you might need to be a ‘packhorse’ carrying loads of kit, a navigator, or just there to keep them company and give a boost when your runner’s motivation is flagging.

Whatever practical help is required, the following principles are good to follow:

  • Reduce stress, don’t add to it.
  • Your goals are secondary.

Let the above principles guide your decisions and actions and you can’t go far wrong. For further advice on specific things to consider, read on.

Know your route

Arguably, the most important aspect of the support rider’s role is navigation. Even if it’s an easy route, or somewhere you know well, make sure you know exactly where you’re going as your runner might get confused the more tired they get.

Where possible, practice the route beforehand. As well as helping you commit the route to memory, it will also give you the chance to note any tricky spots. For example:

Are there any gates you’ll need to open?

Get ahead of your runner so they can pass through without having to break their stride.

Are there any access restrictions, or local events you need to be aware of?

Does your route cross a firing range, or beach that’s impassable at high tide? Does the run date coincide with livestock herding, or a carnival? Are any road works planned?

Is the route actually runnable?

You might have worked out a seemingly perfect route using an online tool, but until you look at it in real life, you won’t know for certain that it’ll be OK on the big day. Fallen trees, flooded paths, or temporary diversions can all put a spanner in the works.

Is it passable on a bike?

Yes, finding a route that works well for the runner is the priority, but you need to be able to follow it too.

Where are the best cheering spots?

If you know where these are in advance, you can tell friends and family, so that they can come out and support your runner. If you take on (or delegate) the responsibility for coordinating the ‘cheer squads’, rather than your runner, then that’s one less thing for them to worry about. Your runner doesn’t need to be spending the morning of their run sorting everyone else out.

Where are the best toilet spots?

It might sound flippant, but – talking from experience – this can be surprisingly tricky. Assuming your runner will want to keep moving while you stop for the loo, you’ll need to find a part of the route where they can fend for themselves and not get lost until you catch up again.

Training runs are a great time to rehearse the route – for both you and your runner. As well as getting to know the route, and identifying any issues together, you can practice handing over bottles and get a feel for how you want to do things on the day.

Just in case something completely unexpected happens on the day, do you know the area well enough to make a detour that isn’t going to adversely affect the run too much?

This is the fiddliest bit of Andy’s virtual London Marathon route

Hydration and food

A litre of water weighs a kilo. Add in bottles or a hydration system, plus food, and the weight of a runner’s refreshments can soon add up. Anything a support rider can do to lighten the load is clearly worth doing.

Drink up

For a long run or virtual challenge, a runner might want to have an energy drink, electrolyte drink, or plain water (which can be used to cool the runner down, too), so three different bottles might be needed.

Ideally, these should be carried somewhere you can grab them easily, such as bottle cages, panniers or a basket mounted to the bicycle. Most bikes come with one or two sets of bottle cage mounts, but it is possible to add extras with straps or cable ties. Just make sure to experiment with positions to avoid the bottles getting in the way.

Eat up

Food can be carried in pockets, the aforementioned panniers and basket, or in bike-mounted storage bags. Wherever it’s carried, food and drink should be handed by the rider to the runner, so that the runner doesn’t have to fiddle around with bags or bottles and break their rhythm. Even tearing the tabs of a gel packet can make life easier for the runner.

Remember your packed lunch

As a support rider, you’re also going to need food and drink yourself. Keep this separate from your runner’s by carrying it in a hydration pack or additional bottles.

How many bottles can you fit on your bike?

Be prepared

The idea of being a support rider is that you help the runner. If the runner ends up helping you, then something has gone wrong. Accidents and unforeseen events can happen, but they can be mitigated against with a little planning.

  • Make sure you know how to repair a puncture and carry at least two spare inner tubes and tyre levers. Puncture repair kits can take too long (putting in a new tube is a lot quicker than waiting for glue to dry), but can be handy as a back up.
  • Ensure your bike is in good working order before setting out, as you don’t want a mechanical failure to ruin the day. Consider having your bike serviced by your local bike shop if you’re not confident of doing it yourself.
  • Carry a phone (fully charged) and money (just in case).
  • A first aid kit can be a good idea, especially if you’re heading to somewhere it’ll be difficult to get help in a hurry.
  • Extra clothes (warm and waterproof) for you and your runner can make the difference between a good day and an uncomfortable one.
  • The chances are, even your runner’s fastest pace is going to feel slow to you on a bicycle. Despite this, it’s still essential that you are fit enough to cover the distance too. If not, see if you can get another support rider involved and hand over part-way, like a relay.
  • Hand gel and loo roll (for emergencies!).

There may well be other things to consider, specific to you, your runner, or the route, so get together, spend some time thinking of all potential possibilities and plan accordingly. Keep a list of everything you’ll need, so you can check it off on the day.

Traffic management

The perfect running route would be one that doesn’t involve any vehicle traffic. Unfortunately, these are hard to come by, especially in urban areas, so it is likely that the route will have to include sections on road.

The importance of positioning

On roads without pavements, a solo runner is usually advised to run on the side of the road that faces the traffic. That way, they can see oncoming cars. This is sensible advice.

With a support rider, however, the runner may be better off running on the correct side of the road (ie: the side you would drive on), with the support rider following closely. The advantages of this arrangement are that:

  • You will be moving with the flow of traffic, rather than against it, making it easier for you to shield your runner, and preventing scary ‘head-on’ moments.
  • The support rider and runner, together, form a larger, more visible unit. Bike lights and bright clothing will help, too.
  • By following behind the runner, the support rider will be able to instantly spot should anything happen to the runner, or if they need help.
  • If the support rider is slightly further out into the road than the runner, it encourages other road users to leave more space when passing. This provides more room for the runner, so they don’t have to run in the gutter or on uneven verges. Riding just off the runner’s shoulder, rather than directly behind, also reduces the chances of you accidentally riding into the back of the runner should they suddenly stop.
Riding on the shoulder of your runner encourages other road users to leave more room when passing

(As an aside, try to plan an anticlockwise route in countries where you drive on the left, or clockwise in countries where you drive on the right. This will reduce the number of corners where you have to cross the traffic.)

Use common sense and be considerate

Obviously, a certain degree of common sense has to be applied. No matter whether it is technically or legally permissible to run on a particular road, there are some instances where the prevailing traffic conditions mean that it would be risky to do so. Again, this is where familiarity with the route is important.

On a similar note, even on wide, straight, quiet roads with plenty of room to overtake, it is possible that some road users may be impatient or take issue with you running and cycling along it. Should this happen, keep your cool and don’t let road rage derail your runner’s goals. A nod, smile or wave of acknowledgement to your fellow road users is often welcomed.

Dress to impress

From experience, some road users are more likely to be patient with a runner or cyclist in their way if it’s apparent that they’re out there doing something for charity. If the run is for a good cause, and your runner is wearing a charity vest, see if one is available for you to wear too. Even if the run isn’t for charity, you might still want to wear a vest to encourage friendly toots of support!

In summary

Being a support rider, and helping someone else achieve their running goals, can be just as rewarding as smashing your own personal bests. To ensure everything goes as smoothly as possible, always consider what would make life easier for your runner:

  • Know the route – so they don’t have to think about it.
  • Carry everything – so they can be as light as possible.
  • Be prepared for anything – so nothing gets in the way of your runner achieving their goals.
  • Cycle on their shoulder – so they are shielded from traffic and can relax.

Not mentioned above, but absolutely crucial, is to make sure you and your runner communicate well, so you both know and understand what is expected of you.

And finally, have fun!

Lonely Goat, Jonathan, and Andy, following a successful training run