Solo Sport. Group Mentality.


By Sheryl Rosen


With occasional exceptions, running isn’t much of a team sport for those of us older than undergraduates. But it doesn’t seem to matter. Running’s solitary nature is part of its beauty. No group necessary. Just grab your shoes and head out the door.

For many, running started as this kind of solitary effort. However, as we train, we begin to self-identify as runners, make friends among other runners, and seek out training groups. Running soon morphs from a solo hobby into a group endeavor.

Thus, I began to wonder why running groups become so important to us. Unlike tennis or baseball or soccer, we don’t need other people in order to engage in our chosen sport. Clearly, though, while we may not need others in order to run, we still want to run in groups.

By their evident appeal, groups do serve a purpose for runners. As best I can determine, that purpose is to provide us with the following: camaraderie, accountability, motivation, and identity.

Camaraderie is the most obvious benefit of running with others. We spend a large chunk of our time running, as well as talking, thinking, and reading about running, and so it’s natural we form friendships with other runners. Participating in running groups therefore gives us a chance to socialize with friends whose eyes don’t bulge with horror at the very thought of a 10-mile run and who haven’t tired of hearing about your latest 5K debacle yet again. Likewise, groups allow us to solidify our camaraderie as we enjoy leisurely runs or suffer through tough workouts, building bonds through shared experience.

Despite the archetype of a distance runner – self-disciplined and dedicated – sometimes a little accountability helps keep us on track. Running groups help provide that accountability. When we’re part of a running group, we know our training partners are expecting us to get out of bed and show up. The thought of letting them down is a big deterrent to hitting the snooze button or going for a short, easy run instead.

Groups also pay dividends in the form of motivation. I offer no explanation for the phenomenon of cow bells at races, but it’s no coincidence race onlookers and fellow competitors cheer us on with words of support. Their encouragement helps us sustain our hard pace or dig a little deeper for that finishing kick. Similarly, the kind words of the friends in our running groups can motivate us to train harder in a way running alone cannot.

Identity is another purpose running groups serve. Like the camaraderie inherent in any successful training group, a sense of identity forms with regular participation in group runs. Social psychology tells us healthy athletic groups include cohesion, norms, and roles, among other qualities. These help us define ourselves in the context of the group’s dynamics, molding our identity as runners with the help of the group’s identity.

Running groups provide us with camaraderie, accountability, motivation, and identity, but they aren’t always beneficial. Drawbacks of groups include competitiveness and peer pressure.

Ever gone for a group run that turned into a race? It should come as no surprise that one negative aspect of groups is their propensity to encourage competition. While a hearty competitive spirit is certainly warranted on race day, it’s not always helpful during group training runs. When your training log says you’re scheduled for 5 miles slow and you run 8 miles fast because you went along with a group, your training plans may very well go awry.

Peer pressure is a second unfortunate side effect of running in groups. Especially if you’re injured or feeling sub par, running with a group may do more harm than good. Just because you’re with that group, you may want to stay with the others despite a sore IT band or upset stomach telling you to stop. The peer pressure of being in a group can cause you to ignore your body’s warning signs in order to keep pace with the group.

Running groups are important tools in any training schedule despite their potential perils. Most importantly, though, going for group runs doesn’t preclude us from occasionally enjoying the solitary nature of running. After all, that’s the allure of running we fell in love with in the first place.