Buddy Up: Why Training Partners Are Good for You
Kelly O’Mara—Almost everyone loves running with other people, but when it comes to training there’s a saying that workouts can be social, convenient or good for racing—but not all three.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that runners experience an increase in motivation when training with another person or people, but that increase in motivation—often accompanied by an increase in speed—can depend on who the other person is, how fast they are, and even what they’re wearing.
“People unconsciously gravitate towards the behavior of those around them, even if you’re not aware of that,” said Thomas Plante, a Ph.D. and professor in psychology at Santa Clara University.
The only problem is that sometimes you don’t want to be imitating the behavior of those around you.
Plante has conducted a number of studies showing that when test subjects run or bike next to someone slightly faster they’re motivated to bike or run faster themselves. He also conducted a test where subjects ran next to a girl, who was wearing make-up, jewelry and fancy clothes, then had other subjects run next to the same girl, who was running the same speed, but looked far less pulled-together and wore a baggy sweatshirt. People were much more motivated running next to the un-made-up girl, because they didn’t feel intimidated.
“Who you exercise with matters,” said Plante.
Deborah Feltz, a professor and chairperson of Kinesiology at Michigan State University, also conducted studies showing that those same effects can be seen when the person exercising with you is virtual or online. And, the biggest increase in performance comes when the two of you are working together on the same team. The slowest person on the NCAA swim relay teams, said Feltz, often sees the biggest improvements in finals—finding an extra gear when the team needs it.
In real life, this translates to getting a slightly faster running partner who doesn’t look too intimidating, but has a positive attitude. And it helps if you’re on a similar training schedule and share a team goal to add extra motivation.
Obviously, that can be challenging to find.
That’s why many top women will recruit husbands or male friends to do their workouts and runners will often convince a faster friend to commit to ushering them towards an important goal.
“Find a wingman,” said Randy Acetta, who coaches a long-time running group in Arizona and is the Director of Coaching Education for the Road Runners Club of America.
While there are countless websites out there to match up training partners—FitLink, Jogging Buddy, My Sports Partner—most people prefer to run with those they know through friends or acquaintances. To that end, many runners find themselves seeking buddies in regular group workouts (often track workouts) put on by clubs or coaches.
“The loneliness of the distance runner is great and solitude is important, but having someone there counting on you to show up helps,” said Acetta.
Acetta leads a weekly running group, which he says creates a sense of community and a safe place for people. The challenge with the running group, though, is making sure they’re doing the right workouts for their individual races. He tries to keep his group on a similar schedule aimed at similar races around the same time, so they’re all in the same (approximate) phase of training together. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than no training plan at all. There’s nothing worse than showing up to a weekly track practice to find out the workout is all-out 400s when you should really be doing long tempo efforts.
While much of the research done on the subject of training partners is aimed at getting the average couch potato motivated, competitive runners don’t actually need to be running as fast as they can all the time. In fact, being pushed hard every day is a surefire recipe for burn out.
Group workouts offer another benefit to that end—if you can check your ego. Groups often include a range of abilities and allow you to run with the slower or faster people depending on your goals for the day.
“Then you’ve got lots of options and choices,” said Plante. “It all hopefully works out.”
“No matter where you are on the continuum, you’re better than somebody,” said Feltz.
But, to switch back and forth from slow partners to fast partners to solo running requires that you understand the fundamentals of training. And, unfortunately, many people don’t.
While the specifics of whether you run 800s or 1,200s on the track won’t make a big difference, said Acetta, it’s important to have a training plan aimed at your goals and stick to it—more or less. Then, you can run with slower friends on easy days and recruit faster friends to help you on your hard workouts. But, you have to be willing to leave friends on the sidelines or adjust track workouts when necessary.
“You have to be true to yourself,” Acetta said.
Kelly O’Mara is a journalist/reporter and recovering professional triathlete. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and writes for a number of magazines, newspapers, and online news sites. And, she eats a lot of brownies.