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I plan to run my first full marathon later this year in New York: the Wineglass in October. In an article about training, I came across the suggestion that pancake flat marathons often can be difficult because when there is no real change in elevation, you are pounding on the same muscles the entire time. Could it be true that a hilly course—-at least one with moderate hills–might be faster than a flat course?
I don’t know that a slightly hilly course would necessarily be faster than a flat course, but it might not be that much slower and for the reason you suggest. A course with no variation can lull us to sleep, can force us to lose concentration. Some variation in the course (i.e., hills) challenges the runner and allows him or her to stay in the game, so to speak, relieving boredom. And maybe you get to use slightly different muscles. I’ve never seen any solid research on this subject, and I’m not even sure how you would research the effect of flat courses vs. hilly courses when it comes to fast times. Often it is the runner who makes a course fast or slow.