Cheating, Ethical and Unethical Advantages in Running Races

Which behaviors are considered cheating in running races?

This is actually pretty tough question to answer and a controversial topic in the running community. I was inspired to think and write about this after reading Don’t Drink The Gatorade: The Case Against Unofficial Aid by Rocket from Salty Running. I’ve read other blogger’s thoughts on the issue of “what’s cheating” in road races. There’s a wide range of heated opinions.

A couple things popped out at me. 1) People categorize different behaviors as either cheating or not cheating. In other words, they treat this as a binary category. Either something is cheating or it’s not cheating. 2) The fact that community cannot agree on many behaviors as clearly being cheating and that different behaviors have varying degrees of consensus as being categorized as cheating tells me that the category of cheating is NOT a classical category with necessary and sufficient features that are clearly defined. Instead the category of cheating is something more akin to a prototypical category.

In the classical theory of categorization, something belongs in a category when it possess features that are necessary and sufficient for membership. Boundaries are clearly defined. Either you possess all of the features for membership or you don’t. You either are a member of the category or you’re not. All members of a category are equally good members. For example, in order to be a mammal, you must be warm blooded, have hair, produce milk to nourish infants if you’re female, and give live birth. A dog is a mammal. A snake is not. A cat is just as good of an example of a mammal as a dog.

According to the prototype theory of categorization, categories are not so clearly defined. There are many features that are associated with membership of a category, but none are necessary. The more features you possess, the more likely you’ll be categorized as a member of the category. Some members are considered to be better examples of a category than other members. Going back to mammals as my example, platypuses lay eggs, but they are still considered mammals because they possess the other features of being warm blooded, having hair, and producing milk. A dog is considered to be a better example of a mammal than a platypus.

All right, now with that explanation out of way, I saw that different behaviors were categorized as “cheating” similar to the prototype theory by the running community. Now keep in mind that behaviors that could be considered cheating is highly dependent upon the sport and the nature of the competition. In order to keep things simple, I’m sticking to running in road races. There will be things that I discuss that will be considered cheating in road races, but wouldn’t be for trail races.

I’m going to structure my discussion from behaviors that most, if not all, runners in the community would consider to be cheating to behaviors that most, if not all, runners in the community would consider NOT to be cheating. In short, I’m saying some behaviors are “more cheating” than others.

I also noticed that the perception of the severity of cheating was also dependent upon the class of athlete. A behavior categorizes as cheating is perceived to be a severe violation when an elite athlete does it (probably because there’s prize money on the line), somewhat severe when an age-grouper does it, less severe when it’s a middle-of-the packer, and no one cares if it’s a back-of-the-packer.

I’m not writing this post to say that certain behaviors are definitely cheating or definitely not cheating. I just thought the degree of severity in terms of what was seen as cheating in road racing was interesting because it seemed to be a function of how much advantage was given and the access to which other runners had to that advantage. Basically if the behavior gave a big advantage and it was available only to one or a few runners, it was definitely cheating. If the behavior gave no or a very small advantage and was readily available to all runners, it was not cheating. All other behaviors that were in between were controversial in the community. This is an important topic to discuss because it sets the foundation for the ethnics and culture of running.

What is cheating?

It’s an unfair advantage that is available to only certain competitors and is against the explicitly stated rules of the competition.


  • Illegal drugs are clearly seen as cheating by most, if not all, runners. This is less of a problem in running than it is with sports, such as cycling and weightlifting.
  • Prescription drugs, when used for the intended purpose would not be considered cheating. For example, no one would deny an asthmatic runner his/her inhaler to use before or during a race. Does it confer an advantage to the runner? Yes, because without it the runner would be much slower. However, it’s probably discounted as cheating because the runner is competing with a disadvantage (medical condition) that is probably greater than the benefit received by the drug. Using a prescribed drug prescribed to you for an unintended purpose would be considered cheating by some people. Offhand, I can’t think of anything in particular, but I’m sure this is possible, something like a painkiller. Some people might no consider it cheating because the drug is, after all, prescribed to them.
  • Over the counter drugs and caffeine are not considered to be cheating by most, if not all runners. This article here nicely summarizes several empirical studies on the benefits of caffeine on running. Things like aspirin and caffeine are not considered cheating because whatever benefits they provide, they’re quite small (a cup of coffee makes you more alert and help you with a PR, but you’re not suddenly going become world class) and they’re readily available to all runners.

Cutting the course short
This is for road races only. There are certain types of trail races where you run from checkpoint to checkpoint and the expectation is to find the shortest route. According this that particular running community, you found a shorter route than the “official” trail, you’re given kudos for being clever.

  • Knowingly cutting a course short with the intent of gaining an advantage is considered by cheating by most, if not all, runners. A definite advantage is gained by the person who is cutting the course short and the other runners do not receive this benefit.
  • Unknowingly cutting a course short can be perceived as cheating depending upon the severity. Ben and I have ran a few races where the course was poorly marked and just about everyone ran a different course as a result. Definitely some runners received more of an advantage because they unknowingly ran a shorter course than other runners who accidentally ran a longer course (I remember one poor girl who got hopelessly lost. She should have gotten first overall, but came in 3rd place in her age group.). But because the advantage/disadvantage was haphazard, it was considered to be luck of the draw and the runners who ran a short course weren’t seen as cheaters.

Using motorized or mechanical means of transport during the competition

  • Using motorized or mechanical assistance, such as bikes, cars, or public transit, is considered cheating by most, if not all, runners.
  • Wheelchair racers are the exception to this. They compete in their own separate race in the wheelchair division. Some years ago, I read an interesting article of how some wheelchair racers try to gain an advantage by electing to amputate more of their leg, so they would carry less weight. This is a different issue because it’s within wheelchair racing. No one would consider a runner and a wheelchair athlete to be competing in the same race even when they are using same course.

Having Pacers
This is just for road races. I know ultra trail races have a culture of having pacers.

  • Escorts for the blind athletes or for the disabled athletes are not categorized as cheating by the running community. The escorts are seen as providing access to these athletes who otherwise would not be able to participate. In addition, they are participants of a different race, much the same way that it is seen that men and women run separate races.
  • Official pacers are considered to fair ethical advantages by many, but not all runners. There are runners who consider all pacers, official or not, to be cheating. Many of the world records have been set with pacers helping to set the pace for the athletes. Many marathons and half marathons provide pace groups. There’s definitely an advantage given to runners by having a pacer. You have someone who helps you psychologically by being there (their physical presence and cheerleading), mentally by having them set the pace so you don’t have to think or worry about, and physically by having a target to follow. Pace groups are free and available to anyone who wants to use them. However some runners in the community think having pacers is cheating because in their mind, running is a solitary endeavor. Also, pace groups are not available for every time goal.
  • Unofficial pacers, however, are quite controversial in the running community. People have varying viewpoints depending upon how much help the pacer gives the runner.
  • Having a stronger runner pace you for the ENTIRE course is seen as being cheating by more runners than the previous item in this list. There is a definite advantage given to the runner with a stronger pacer that is not available to all runners. But runners who do not see this as cheating say that runners have a right to run at a slower pace if they wish to. If a stronger runner wants to run at a slower speed, no one can tell them no, you can’t.
  • Having someone who runs with you for A PART of the course is seen as cheating by some runners. This pacer is an advantage that is not available to everyone. Some people don’t see this as cheating because the pacer is only with you for a short relatively short distance and toward the end of a race, when you’re fatigued, these runners claim they need all the support they can get. The only time that I’ve seen where having a person jump in the course and run with you part way is when it’s for a runner who truly is in the back of the pack. I’ve never heard any runner saying that this was cheating when someone who is struggling in some way to finish the race and they’re the last or close to last finisher. Again, different standards for different classes of runners.
  • Running with a friend who is the same speed as you is not seen as cheating by most, if not all, runners. Having a friend is definitely an advantage that is not available to all runners, but very few would see this as cheating. There’s no guarantee that the friend will have a good day during the race and the friend who is with few is seen as another fellow competitor.
  • Using a fellow racer as a pacer is not seen as cheating by most, if not all, runners. If by luck you happen upon a stranger who is running the pace you want, it’s considered good race strategy to use them.

Unauthorized Aid on the Course (another minefield)
Again, just for road races. I know ultra and extreme races, athletes are expected to have their own personal aid stations/crew.

  • Unofficial aid provided by a pacer is seen as cheating by some runners. There’s an advantage conferred to a runner who does not have to fight through an aid station and if water is carried by someone else and made readily available at all times.This advantage is not available all runners. Some runners don’t see this as cheating and say it’s all a part of being supportive of the runner.
  • Unofficial aid station that is available to only a particular runner or runners is seen as cheating by some runners. Again, this is an advantage that is not available to all. Having additional water/Gatorade/or gel can definitely be helpful. Some runners don’t see this as cheating and again, say it’s all a part of being supportive of the runner. Professional runners cannot receive aid from any other place other than the designated official aid stations. They can’t even share water with each other. I can’t find the article now, but I remember reading how an elite was disqualified because he took water from his teammate (can’t remember if the runner who gave the water was also disqualified). The disqualified elite found that someone accidentally took his water bottle, so he had no water bottle of his own. Accepting water from his teammate was seen as being conferred an advantage.
  • Unofficial aid station that is available to no particular runner is not seen as cheating by many runners, although rules for most road races clearly state that all unofficial aid stations are not legal. Many runners don’t see this as cheating because it’s theoretically available to all runners. In reality, the unofficial aid stations provide an advantage to those lucky enough to encounter them. Unlike official aid stations that must be available for all runners, unofficial ones don’t need to be. There’s no guarantee that they were ready and available for the fast runners because they could have been set up afterward. There’s not guarantee that they’ll be available for the slow runners because they could run out. Even in a small race with a few hundred people, it’s unlikely that an unofficial aid station would make sure that they have enough water, orange slices, bananas, or whatever else for ALL of the runners. But because it’s not for a small group of runners and it’s available to a number of runners, many runners see encountering an unofficial aid station as a part of luck and don’t categorize it as cheating. The blog post from Salty Running states otherwise, and there are runners who feel that water/Gatorade/gel should only be taken from official aid stations.
  • Giving clothes to your support crew is not seen as cheating by most, if not all runners. Having the ability to throw clothes to your friends/family spectating is a big advantage for cold winter/late fall/early spring races. You get to keep warm and take off the warmer layers when you’re ready. The reason why it’s not seen as cheating by the running community is that runners without a support crew can get around this problem of not having anyone give the clothes by wearing throwaway layers. Several runners go to a second hand clothing store to buy cheap sweats to wear and throw away.
  • Providing unofficial aid to a disabled runner is not seen as cheating by the running community. Ren Yao, the athlete who was helped, was dehydrated and as far as I can tell was not disqualified. Had he been an abled athlete, he definitely would have been disqualified for receiving unofficial aid. I think if anyone said that Ren Yao had cheated, the fact that he was in dire need of help and that he was disabled, that person would have been seen as a jerk.

Running Tangents

  • While running the tangents is good race strategy and in theory no runner would call this cheating, but what exactly is running the tangents? It’s defined as running the shortest authorized route, but what is the authorized path? Is the sidewalk part of the authorized route? This particular question is controversial. Some runners would say that running on the sidewalk is cheating because you’re cutting the course short. Some runners would say that the sidewalks are a part of the authorized course. In 2010 Robert Cheruiyot won the Boston Marathon (and set the course record too). He was filmed running for a brief period of time on the sidewalk to break out of the pack. The Boston Marathon organizers ruled that there are no sidelines in road racing, therefore running on the sidewalk is permitted.


  • Drafting is not seen as cheating by most runners. It’s considered to be good race strategy. There are a few runners who do see it as cheating, but drafting is legal in road racing.

Listening to Music

  • Listening to music while running definitely confers an advantage to runners (empirical evidence here). Elites and age groupers who win awards are not allowed to use music while on the course. Even in races where headphones are not allowed, running to music is not seen as cheating by many, if not most, runners. They may think running with headphones is rude, but not as cheating. The ban on headphones is enforced only upon elites and winners of age group awards. Race directors don’t bother enforcing the rules and disqualifying the rest of the pack.

Cheering Section

  • Having friend and family cheer for you is definitely not seen as cheating by all runners. It’s a psychological boost to hear your loved ones yell out your name. It’s definitely an advantage not available to everyone. Some runners say that the only way they could have continued running some of the miles was knowing that someone was waiting for them. Otherwise they would have slowed down or stopped. It’s not considered cheating because theoretically this is available to everyone (Theoretically your friends and family could have flown to see you at your destination race. Practically this is not an option for many, but it’s theoretically possible.). The advantage given by a cheering section is more ephemeral than being handed a water bottle.
  • Cheering from strangers is definitely welcomed by most, if not all runners. It’s not seen as cheating and quite encouraged by the runners.

8 thoughts on “Cheating, Ethical and Unethical Advantages in Running Races

  1. This is really interesting! I knew music helps people with remembering things, and I usually always go out with music on, just because I like to listen to something….but it looks like I’m going to have to get used to going out without! đŸ™‚

    • I used to race with music all the time. In races where headphones weren’t allowed, I’d still race with one bud in my ear. I gradually weaned myself off music, so I can race without it. But I still like to train with music.

  2. This is a really interesting post, especially the question of pacers. At the pro level, I’m not a fan. Not because I think it’s cheating (I don’t), but because it makes for really boring races. I want to see pros actually race each other, not just beat the clock. I respect championship style wins and records far more than events with pacers. For regular joes like you and me, running with a pace group isn’t necessarily an advantage so I definitely don’t think it’s cheating. Running with the pace group is only as good as the pacer, and if you get a pacer who goes out too fast or runs erratically (as happened to me once), it can actually blow-up your race. Unofficial pacers? Also not cheating. Anyone can find a faster runner to pace them, therefore it IS available to all runners even if every runner doesn’t choose to do it. At the end of the day, you can only run as fast as you can actually run. I think there definitely is a distinction between elites and age group winners and the rest of the pack when it comes to these things. But it’s all really interesting to think about.

    • I haven’t been watching professional racing long enough to form an idea of how pacers influence the race positively or negatively. I’ve heard commentators say that they prefer having pacers because it makes for a faster race. According to them, without the pacers, the elites hang back, not wanting to push the pace because they don’t want to flame out at the end.

      Yup, there are definitely different standards for the different classes of runners, as I think there should be. I personally don’t think using pacers are cheating (it’s allowed according to the rules because there’s nothing forbidding them) and pacinng companies, like, offer and sell their services to individual runners as well as to races.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s