You may have heard this African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
It speaks of two potential paths towards kinds of success. Running is a unique individual sport because it’s actually marbled with elements of teamwork. There are cross-country teams, relay squads, and track meets that are collectively scored. Many runners who are finished with their school days go on to join running groups, ranging from elite teams to local clubs. Yet you don’t need anyone else to run—some runners thrive on hammering their miles in solitude. There’s also the added complexity of competing against your own teammates in an every-runner-for-herself, starkly objective measure on the race course.
Why do we stick together, and what is the balance between sharing the work and going it alone that can help us thrive on race day?
Here’s why I choose to train with teammates:
It’s more fun.
In high school, I ran my senior cross-country season as a one-girl team. I won almost every race that season, but my following season in college was way more fun, even though I wasn’t undefeated. Sports are meant to be enjoyable and pose challenges that help create or draw out your best self. There’s no question that running is hard. But when the effort seems to outweigh enjoyment, most of us find ourselves asking why we are doing it.
The camaraderie, good stories, and levity brought by teammates aren’t small factors. With teammates, we can divide and conquer anxieties and setbacks, and the shared success is sweeter. If running starts to taste like medicine, teammates are like the sugar to help it go down.
A healthy team culture is assumed here.
That’s not to say there’s never drama. Where there’s a group of people together for a long time, there will be some reality TV-worthy conflict. The hope is that it doesn’t overshadow the larger team experience.
From my college and professional team experiences, these are the things I’ve noticed in our best of times:
- We have big goals (bigger than beating each other) and are on the same page with trying to achieve them.
- We recognize that teammates’ successes don’t diminish ours; they can be encouraging. If they’re better, we’re better.
- We support each other through what we say and do. These are things like rabbiting each other’s races, pre-meet pep talks, high fives during practice, and cheering at races.
- We try to keep our egos in check. This includes being coachable and accepting constructive criticism. This is a really hard one to do, in my opinion.
- We’re friends! This may not be necessary, but at a minimum, respect is needed. Still, many of us are friends bordering on sibling-level closeness. I’m not sure if that was the cause or the effect of team success or so much time spent together.
Training with better runners (or anyone) makes you better.
I’ve experienced the performance-enhancing effect of having world-class teammates. I’ve not only learned from watching them, I’ve been dragged in their wake until I could eventually float there almost comfortably. Even on days my coach individualizes our workouts, if I’m on the track, I rope someone into working out with me (usually my best and favorite teammate, my husband Kurt). I get in a much higher-quality workout with the accountability and physical presence of a partner to key off of.
Morale is higher.
We hear Eliud Kipchoge say things like, “100 percent of me is nothing compared to one percent of the entire team,” and he is brushing the ceiling of one of distance running’s greatest barriers. But we can assume Kipchoge is much faster than the athletes he’s teammates with. How are they pushing him?
As I mentioned, company for even part of the workout helps. But for someone like him, who has done what seems like it all in running, maybe a larger purpose like elevating his teammates is motivating that kind of daily effort. As much as I love running, phases of training can feel like a grind. Maybe you take those days off. Or maybe you chat your way through the run with someone or take turns staring at each other’s shoulder blades in a workout and suddenly realize you got through it.
Meeting a teammate is my preferred method of getting through that grinding phase on the way to a goal, because the mutual accountability becomes a kind of automatic motivation. I feel like I’m less wimpy and more willing to tough things out when a good teammate is around.
Here’s what I’ve learned about being a good teammate.
Be aware of what you bring to the table. Yes, the focus is primarily on you doing your best, and that takes a lot of your attention. But try not to get stuck in your own world. Be aware of how you affect the mood or attitude of the group. Feeling rough, anxious, or unprepared? Try not to lay those vibes too heavy on a teammate.
Notice what has benefited you, and consider if you have contributed lately. How can you keep that going? Offer things: A ride, a donut, a paced lap, a joke, an idea, an inspiration—it all helps!
You don’t need to be selfless to the point of diminishing your performance or hiding all your problems.
Running with a team is great because it’s symbiotic and not composed of purely sacrificial or altruistic roles. The sweet spot between selfish and selfless is where good teammates live.
There are some pitfalls to navigate to get the most out of training with a pack.
One workout or pace may not be optimal for everyone.
For example, a few of my training partners and I have opposite strengths and weaknesses. New Zealand Olympian Kim Smith and newly minted 2:23 marathoner Emily Sisson are stronger on threshold workouts, whereas I’m stronger at quicker track sessions. I also tend to work out a lot worse than I race. Our coach coordinates our workouts as often as possible, but will readily keep us on our own if one person starts to get overly fatigued or injured, or our if race schedule is too different.
To an extent, we’ve helped each other’s weak areas improve, but we know we walk the line of overreaching too often when every other workout is a little too hard for one of us, so that has to be taken into account. This happened less in college, but our coach knows when the stakes get higher, things have to be tailored pretty specifically because the margins for success and advantage are so small. It’s hard to make these calls yourself as an athlete, so having good leadership and unbiased perspective from a coach figure at practice is important.
Large groups can be overwhelming.
You have to maintain awareness and confidence in your recovery needs, because the odds are that someone will always feel good enough to push the pace on a given day. It can be hard to ease up if needed when it seems like everyone else is crushing it daily. Training with teammates is about making small compromises in return for the benefit of group support and energy, but not recovering enough isn’t generally a beneficial trade-off.
It can also be hard on the ego if you feel like you’re getting flogged in practice on a regular basis. Although it’s good to know you’re chasing better performances, it can be a challenge to keep confidence when you know your own training partners can beat you. Pecking order in a workout isn’t necessarily a predictor of performance, as we often see athletes who outperform their workouts on race day, as well as those who tend to workout better than they race.
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If, however, it’s hard to keep your mojo going in that environment, maybe you need to be selective about training partners or workout solo more often to preserve your confidence. You know yourself!
Negative team culture can be distracting.
The hope is that this isn’t an issue, but aspects of negative team culture—such as jealousy, chronic pessimism, unconstructive criticism, and unhealthy habits—are going to hurt more than help anyone on the team.
We all need to be alone sometimes!
It’s refreshing to be alone with your thoughts and take the miles as slow or as hard as you want that day. For some people, escaping for a run is the only time they have to themselves, which is a healthy and refreshing way of balancing things. If you get that social support and team vibe elsewhere in life, then running is more of a retreat, and that’s cool.
I probably run and train alone 45 percent of the time, because of recovery needs or my race schedule. Ideally, I have a teammate working alongside me for every track workout, but I need to be mindful of overdoing it in my weaker workout areas. My teammates have taught me things, I’ve taught them things; and although there aren’t zero annoyances, they are largely what keep the sport enjoyable and sustainable.
Training partners have absolutely elevated my performances in races and throughout my career. I don’t run with them for every mile, but I’m certain I would not be as fast without them—and I hope they’d say the same about me. Basically, when it comes to teammates, it’s a lot of the same things you say about your family, but with running.