Run with a group but don’t let the group run you

three female runners having group picture

Running with a group can be rewarding. But make sure the situation is right for you. (Photo by RUN 4 FFWPU on Pexels.com)

I never really needed an extra push to run regularly, to train for races. From day one I directed myself and had no trouble getting outside for runs. I wanted to run, I knew what I could do, what I wanted to do, how I needed to do it. I had no problem running alone, did nearly all my training on my own, and missed few workouts.

I ran weekly fun runs in Chicago largely to meet other runners, compare notes on how others approached running, and get to do some runs with the protection of numbers. I joined a running group in Chicago with the same mindset, as well as having a consistent time every week to do a quality workout.

Once joining them weekly began to get on my nerves and feel like an obligation, and especially once the workouts/runs began to interfere with my own training plans… I stopped doing them. I’m not one to hold regrets, but I do feel I waited too long and let it get on my nerves before cutting the cord. Hindsight is 20/20, but looking back I should have had a more casual relationship with the weekly runs from the get-go. I let it interfere with my plans for too long before breaking them off.

Vegas has a lower-key running community, and there’s one weekly run I participate in near home. Right now, still in a personal offseason of sorts, it’s no big deal for me to do it every week since I have no training plan that conflicts. Once that changes, then I can be more judicious about when to go or not.


All this is to say that running with a group can be valuable, but you want to make sure you know what you want out of it. Here are a few tips from experience banging my head against the wall and projecting expectations onto a group instead of being smart about running with groups:

– It seems unrelated but it’s not: Fitness writer Andy Morgan has a suggestion for trainees who want to go out for a night of drinking: Get your needed protein and other nutritional requirements in your system before you go out. That way, when you go out and make your mostly inevitable subpar impulse decisions with food and drink that night, you’re not compromising most of your diet and fitness goals. Worst case scenario, you overeat and wake up with a hangover. But at least you got your nutrients for the day in advance.

Likewise, if you’re a distance runner, if you’re more than a beginner and actively running on a training plan… it’s generally a good idea to plan around a fun run rather than to include it in your plan. Make sure your long run and speedwork are built elsewhere into the rest of the week, and that you have a rest or easy day after the fun run in case your group decides to go nuts and turn your fun 4 miler into a tempo scramble or something.

Don’t let a fun run wreck your training schedule for the week, but give yourself the latitude to let loose and go a little harder than expected if you want. It’ll happen more often than you think.

With training groups that do speedwork, it’s simpler but less flexible: You need to consider that workout one of your assigned speed workouts, and you need to plan your schedule around it.

– With fun run groups, figure out the general pace of the group you run with, and plan accordingly.

If your fun run group is slower than you, then a fun run day is a good day to plan a recovery run. These runs generally aren’t too long, so the volume’s also ideal. If you run a lot, perhaps you can do a long run or quality workout the day before. Otherwise, plan something easy or moderate the day before, so the fun run doesn’t leave you burned out on the rest of the week.

However, if your fun run group tends to run faster than you, then you may want to buffer the fun run day with easy days before and after, since the run could turn into a low-key tempo workout. You may also want to reduce your overall speedwork plans, if your group leaves you breathing hard. If they like to go harder than you every week, and you really want to run with them… you may even consider doing no other speedwork, depending on your goals and ability.

 

All that said… if it’s your offseason or you’re not actively training for anything, then it doesn’t matter. Run with the group all you want. Run as fast or slow as you want. Worry more about balancing training with your desired weekly fun run once you have a goal race and a training plan to follow.

– If you have serious training goals and want a group to help manifest those goals, I do encourage you to pay for and join a serious running group… or hire a coach. If you run with a group, you definitely want to make sure your training plans mirror those in the group, because a mismatch of schedules will mean you’re doing the workout they need, rather than ones you do.

My hindsight mistake with groups was to let their plans dictate mine. They often had plans for their elite runners and the workouts were built around getting them ready for those events. As a result, the workouts often interfered with what I am working on, even if the workouts did ultimately benefit me in some way.

I had different plans and thus needed a different training schedule. I might have needed speed reps on a week we did longer tempo runs, or vice versa. I often had a race week during a different phase in their training, and vice versa. My training with that group as a result often reflected a slapdash collection of workouts instead of following a true development sequence.

Early on in my training, it didn’t matter as much. As I got more experienced and my goals got more specific, it mattered a lot more.

– Don’t join a training group without doing a sample or tryout workout with them first. You need to figure out if you can suitably work with them. It’s also important to find people running your pace and make sure you train with them, at their volume, rather than try to run with the elites. You won’t keep up with the latter, and you’ll just get hurt or quickly burned out.

If a group’s slowest people are still quite faster than you, or you just don’t like the people running your pace, then that group may not be a fit.

– If your running group is training for the same general races you want to (like a fall marathon, or everyone’s planning to run the same 10K’s, or halfs, etc), then following their lead isn’t going to hurt you much. Their speedwork progression will mirror the races you want to run, even if the workouts don’t perfectly match what you have in mind.

It’s when your goal races are different from theirs that you want to take pause and consider how involved you want to be with them. For example, I had goal races in late spring, whereas my group began training in late winter for races in summer and early fall. The lack of support during winter for my races wasn’t so much a problem as their early workouts not fitting my quality workout needs during my peak and taper phases for my races.

I make this recommendation regardless of experience level. Yes, a relative novice can benefit from any speedwork with a training group. But certain work at certain stages could be too much at a given stage for some novice runners, and it might lead to injury down the road. And obviously, a more experienced runner is going to have more specific goals, and it’s going to be clearer to such runners how well a training group’s workouts fit those goals.

– If you’re inexperienced but want to do speedwork with a group, or run with a faster group… worry less about how well the group’s workouts fit your goals if you either a) don’t have more than one or two goal races in mind, or b) if you have a big goal race that others in the group have as well. Following a group’s assigned work to the letter probably won’t hurt.

If you only have one or two goal races, ill-fitting workouts will have less effect on peaking or tapering for those races since their training plans will probably be in similar phases to your needs, and you can always miss a workout or two if needed during your taper weeks to stay on track. And, of course, if they’re training for the same race you are, chances are good their training plans match what you need to work on anyway.

As you get more experienced and your goals diverge, your involvement with a group should diverge as well.

– If you want to join a running group but their training doesn’t totally fit your goals, and you know you may miss some workouts because of this… consider how much it costs to work with that running group before joining. A $70-100 annual fee might be a bit much if it only makes sense to run with them once a month or less. It’s more worth the cost if their goals are pretty much in line with yours, especially if most of their members are training for the same goal race(s) as you.

(Of course, fun run groups are typically free and you can run with them at your leisure. That’s an easier decision.)

– If you need guidance but group workouts don’t fit your ability or goals… I recommend hiring a coach if you have the means (while effective, they tend not to be cheap). A coach will craft a training plan specifically for your ability and goals, take your guesswork away, and stay on top of you for accountability through regular contact.

A coach also usually won’t hen you into the goals of a larger group, and you can decide separately whether or not running with a training group aligns with your needs. At least, as expensive as a coach can be, every workout they give you fits what you need to do.

– Don’t feel you need to run with a group. Run with them because you enjoy it. You think it goes without saying, but I see many runners show up to a weekly run out of personal obligation and habit. And you can tell some of them could use a break. And I’ve certainly been that runner too.

If you reach a point where you’re not enjoying the group run or you’re doing it out of obligation, stop. At least stop for a little while: Make a decision that you’ll come back in a few weeks when it feels fresh again.

In the meantime, run on your own or separately with friends you like running with (maybe even friends from the fun run, on another day). Come back to the regular run when you actually look forward to it.


I made plenty of mistakes running with groups in Chicago, and now have a better relationship with group running today.

A lot of runners thrive on running with others. Some thrive running on their own terms. I’m definitely in the latter. But even those who thrive on groups can make smart decisions on when and how they run with groups.

I hope the above advice helps you maximize your experience with group running.

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