The Politics of Group Running

Are group runs for everyone?
Are group runs for everyone?

If someone were to ask me, I would probably describe myself as a solitary runner.  I get inordinately happy when I have a chance to run out of the house unencumbered and be alone with my thoughts, the pounding footfalls and rhythmic breathing.  I even have no problem with going down to the track alone and stomping out intervals. I don’t need other people to drag me along and I will not hesitate to go to a race alone and complete the task without saying a word to anyone.

However, when I sat down to write this post and thought back on my running life, I realised that most of my best running experiences came from running in a group.  I had to wonder why it was that I liked to define myself as a lone ranger rather than the companionable type? Why have I resisted being part of a gang and embarked on hours of secret training, holding my running log close to my chest?

Politics. While sometimes group runs lead to nirvana, others can leave you questioning humanity.

There is absolutely no doubt that, as with most things in life, group running can either be a blessing or curse and can bring out the best or worst in people.  The overwhelming consensus is that group running is something to be encouraged and that runners should try to join in and run with others as much as possible, even if your running friends are of different abilities and paces. However, the advantages of group running can also contribute to its downfalls and you need to be aware of your personality quirks and how they fit in with a group dynamic. Some running groups will be a better fit than others.

Let’s start with the ugly side of group running, when group runs bring out the worst in us. It’s hard to imagine to those who have never experienced it, but after I tell this story you’ll definitely see that not all groups are right for running together!

The Ugly

By way of example, in my first year of running more seriously I started to run with one of my work colleagues. We are both attorneys, we are both opinionated, super competitive and tending towards the combative. We invited another friend, not a lawyer, along for our runs. She displayed none of our less attractive characteristics and was a better runner than both of us. We managed to get through most of our runs unscathed although there would always be an agreed and unspoken sprint to the finish which my lawyer friend would ensure that she won. My other friend would always jog in at the rear.

One morning we set off on a run together in our usual manner except my quiet friend was feeling particularly strong and was pushing the pace up a large hill in our neighborhood. My lawyer friend was not used to being two steps behind and pushed the pace even more. That day I was initially content to sit back and watch whilst the drama played out before my eyes. One terrible quirk of mine is that I have to know precisely what route we are running and exactly which water fountains we will stop at for every run.  I am not laid back about this aspect of running AT ALL. If someone changes the direction of the route mid run or changes water stops I start to stew.

On this particular run I knew that our usual drink stop was at the top of the hill that we were now sprinting up and I knew that the pain would be over in a few short minutes, however, the other girls had become so engrossed in their silent battle that they were unwilling to stop at the usual point and galloped past it without a second glance. The lawyer shouted casually “we will stop at the next tap” and carried on her brutal assault of the hill. Instantly the dynamics of the group became completely unbalanced and I descended into an immature sulk. All I could think of was how much I was hating the run, hating the competitiveness, hating the sprinting, HATING THE THIRST! I wanted to scream.

A little further on down the road the jostling continued. By then I was pushing the pace, the others would match it and then I would pull back, we were all speaking in short clipped sentences and I was raging because I had expected a happy social run. To be fair, I will admit that the other lawyer was much fitter than me and probably a naturally faster runner, but we were both new to the group running game and wanted to show off our running mettle. Suddenly she said, “I am going to run ahead faster, I need to stretch my legs” and bolted off down the road like she was on fire.

At the next water stop I lost all composure. I am not proud to say that all of the neighborhood running groups witnessed me and the other lawyer bellowing at one another at the top of our lungs on the side of the road

You are jealous because I am faster than you!

You think you are so special because you think you are such a fast runner, run by yourself BECAUSE YOU ARE SO FAST!!

Non-lawyer friend looked frightened and backed away from the scene slightly nonplussed. We all ended up running individually for the rest of the route clucking under our breath and shaking our heads. Our little group never ran together again. This is enough to turn anyone off of groupn running, but this is group running at its worst!

The ladies in this group are of varying speeds, yet love getting together and somehow no one ever has to run alone. Not all running groups are so harmonious!

The Good

In contrast, I have run with many people who are far superior to me in terms of speed and experience who I have logged many happy hours with. They are content with the pace, they do not need to prove a thing and they have embarked on the group run for the company and the conversation.  They could drop me in a second but there is no reason for them to do so. In those situations I am running outside of my comfort zone to keep up and they are running at an easy and relaxed pace. The group dynamic is balanced as we are all getting what we need from the situation.

The best group runners are mature and experienced group runners. The elder statesmen, if you will, in the political game.  They realize that racing all of their training sessions is likely to end in injury and sadness.  They also realize that cohesive group runs are likely to elicit a better training response because each individual is going to try slightly harder to keep the group in tact. Immature group runners or young guns want to “win” every run, be two steps in front of their companion, be the first person back to the car… it is the immature group runners that learn the hard lessons of injury and burnout.  I write this as the ultimate example of a reformed immature group runner!

This is not to say that every group of people that runs together needs to shadow every step of the other members. Obviously each runner will have strengths and weaknesses. This last month I have started running with a group of fabulous ladies who we refer to as the OCDC (The Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Club) due to our mutual obsession with running and logging the miles. There are currently 9 ladies on the mailing list and there may be 3 to 7 of us running together at any one time. Every person in that group has different strengths – one of them is a hill climber extraordinaire, another can sprint down a hill like no-one’s business, another is an incredible all round athlete. The goal of the group is to have company whilst running and to push each other whilst doing it.

We don’t run in a pack for the entire duration, some go ahead, some fall behind, but we make an effort to re-group without judgment and resentment and so nobody’s training suffers. I would say that this group is packed with elder statesmen.

When you make a decision to run in a group, be it for company, be it for safety, be it for competitive camaraderie, make sure of your reasons and be aware of the group dynamics that need to be kept in balance. The group should work for you and support your running goals. You might run a touch faster or slower in the group, but you shouldn’t find yourself in an impromptu race on your easy days or engaging in other behavior destructive to your training.  The best group runs bring out the best runner inside you, not the worst. And by all means don’t be the immature young gun left on the side of the road shouting!

Have you ever had a bad group running experience? What do you find makes for a great group run?

An ultrarunning gal from sunny South Africa... I'm a mummy of two kiddos under 5, wife, runner (and attorney) from the balmy shores of South Africa. Although I am definitely a mid-packer I have the soul and aspirations of an elite athlete, sadly without the pedigreed legs! But every day I dream and work towards loftier goals... maybe a sub 20 5k to start?

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  1. Wow! I love your description of sulking when the plan changes mid run! That is absolutely my M.O. There was one run with a friend where we had agreed on an 18 miler at a slow pace. She invited a romantic interest along and in the last five miles decided on pushing 30 seconds faster than MP. Much sulking (no yelling, though) was had.

    I love community running, but I’m the terrible person who may be a bit too self-centered about my needs. The moment any drama ensues, I drop whoever it is and find someone else. I’m sure there is a therapist out there with something to say about that.

    1. Haha, the road is your therapist Kathy! I think it is important to make sure that any group running situation is beneficial for you and your running, or else you will hate it and it will sour the dynamic. So there is no problem with leaving a group that is not working for you. As long as you are nice to those people when you see them off the road all will be forgiven! Especially if they are mature elder statesmen types!
      I can usually only sulk for about 30 minutes, that is my limit. And if I am still angry about whatever put in the sulk in the first place the yelling will ensue!
      Thanks for the thoughts x

  2. I run with a club and we often have 50 people on a run. Still, I often end up running alone as no one else is running my pace or intensity.
    Over the years I have become one of the faster runners and now bring others along with me. It is a nice feeling when someone tells me that by running with me they have become a better runner! This blew my mind the first time someone said this. It’s still amusing to hear. Me?
    As the old boy in the group I try to not run my companions into the ground. People don’t like to run with someone who always makes them feel like throwing up!
    Other nights my buddies will say “go ahead” when it is obvious I need to stretch my legs.
    I’ve been the slow guy in a competitive trio before. Three guys running side by side down the “side” of the road. no way in hell is anyone running point! If I had enough breath, I would laugh during these “non competitive runs”.
    So I’ve been fast and slow. I’ve learned not to take it personally when my buddy jets off, and others don’t get bent out of shape when I keep cruising when they are ready to toss their cookies into the bushes!

  3. You sound like a mature elder statesman type of runner… always great to have people like you around to keep the young guns in check! I have finally realised that there will always be someone faster than me, but there will also always be someone slower than me. Just as long as the situation is making running more fun and easier to do I am now game! Thanks for reading x