Group Running vs Running Alone
Back in 1962, there was a film called The loneliness of the long distance runner, which told the story of a rebellious youth whose solitary runs give him time and insight on his life, eventually leading him to one final act of defiance.
The principle of solitary, lonely runs has thus existed in running for some time. People think of running as a “lonely” sport. Indeed, many of you may value that time alone, the ability to get away from the pressures of life, to think and ‘meditate’, as the primary benefit of running.
Then again, many of you run because it’s a sport that lends itself so well to doing it with other people. Many sports prevent this – you’ll stand on opposite sides of a net playing tennis, you’ll cycle one behind another on your bikes, you’ll play your specific position in football or rugby, and you don’t really socialize within a social activity. But running is different – 10km, side by side, you may not stop talking for almost an hour. Plus, there is the challenge of running against and with people of varying abilities, and using this to test yourself, and the fact that you’ll share accomplishments and experiences.
Running with other people also affects our physiology. Studies have found that people tend to synchronize both breathing and foot-strikes when they run together, so you’ll find that you lock into a collective rhythm when you run among people. Whether that helps you or becomes an irritation by throwing you off your normal pattern is a personal preference.
So, there is no correct answer to the question posed by the title. It’s very much an individual choice. It can, however, be an important choice, because you need to be quite strategic about it, or you’ll find that your friends and running partners, through no fault of their own, may undermine your own progress!
First consideration – match the ability. You would know by now that some days are meant to be easy. Recovery days. Other days are meant to be harder, where you test yourself, push beyond the glass ceiling and challenge your body to adapt to make you a better runner. It’s really important that you get your running partners correct for each day. If your intention is do an easy run, and you join a group full of runners who are just that little bit faster than you, you’ll be hanging on, well above your comfortable limit. Which is great, if that’s the intention. If it’s not, then too many of those days will accelerate the journey towards overtraining and possible injury.
On the other hand, if you’re strategically smart, you’ll run with people slightly faster than you on the days when you want to be tested and go harder, because they’ll pull you along and drive you to greater heights. There’s no doubt that having another runner close by gives us the capacity to push harder. The same principle in the other direction is just as important – find friends who are slightly slower than you on your easy recovery days, thus forcing you slower and removing that temptation we all have to push just a little bit harder.
In fact, there is even a scientific concept that you can test when you run with other people. It’s called the “talk test” and the idea is that if you are breathing too heavily to have a comfortable conversation with your running partners, then your speed is just too high for it to be considered a truly easy run. The reason is that our ventilation, both in depth and rate, increases as we run ever faster, and at some point, we reach what are called “ventilatory thresholds”, where we find it considerably more difficult to speak. Without going into the details, it is at that point that you are running at quite a high intensity, above what you’d ideally be on your easy runs. So, having your running mates around you gives you a chance to test the theory – if you can talk, you’re going easy, if you can’t, you need to slow down!
Ultimately, the point is to choose your friends wisely, and they’ll actually steer your training intensity in the direction it’s meant to be.
Such is the world right now that we can’t think about a group activity, however small, and neglect to consider the implications for covid. We’ve been encouraged to adopt social distancing, and a group run with even five other runners would violate that principle. So keep your groups down in size, or make sure that if you are in a larger group, you spread out and leave large gaps between yourselves in a ‘distanced run’.
Don’t join groups with people you don’t know and trust. Obviously, you can never be 100% sure – there’s a virus going around and everyone is susceptible to catching and transmitting it, but you can reduce risk if you keep to people whose habits and routines are similar to yours. Match risk profiles, in other words – the trouble with strangers, and people who are out and about, doing many more social activities, is that they’re far more likely to be carriers, and so you would want to reduce exposure to them.
Then, somewhat paradoxically, studies suggest that the safest place to run with another person is right alongside them. That’s because the droplets we breathe out, and which carry the virus into the air, are expelled and then left behind us as we run. There’s a cone of air that trails about 5m behind us, at jogging speeds, which is what you want to avoid. Therefore, if you can run side by side, do that. Otherwise, run 10m or more behind another group of runners.
And finally, wear masks. They’re not pleasant, I know. They’ll make the run feel harder, your effort perception will be higher at the same pace. But if you’re doing an easy run, that increase in effort is tolerable, and the upside is a lower chance of transmitting and thus spreading and catching the virus, so the trade-off is certainly worth it, for the chance to run with another person.
Ultimately, the benefits of running with people are clear, and one of the sport’s main attractions. If you choose wisely – match your running partner up with your goals for the session, and “use” people (in the nicest possible way) to help your training stay on track – you’ll gain enormous benefits. On the other hand, if you use running to get away from it all, and to be alone, embrace the “loneliness”. The beauty of the sport is that there is no right or wrong way, only your way, and provided you understand what each approach may do, you’ll be able to make the most of it, whether alone or in good company!