Fifteen years ago, Gilbert Tuhabonye started a running group in Austin, Texas, “to create a community,” he says. Today, the Burundi genocide survivor’s group, Gilbert’s Gazelles, is one of the biggest and most popular in the area. And his runners, he says, inspire him as much as he inspires them. The weekly workouts give them all a chance to add some “joy” to their training—a Tuhabonye principle.
But group workouts can come in all shapes and sizes—from elite performance squads to casual get-togethers. If you’re ready to start running with a group, there are some pros and cons, and things to know before you go.
Have some fun
As the cliché goes, being a long-distance runner can get lonely at times. A group makes it more fun, especially if you’re a busy runner.
“You don’t have time for work, exercise and a social life,” says Kevin Jermyn, executive director of the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA). Group runs allow your exercise time to double as your social time—as long as you make friends with the people involved! “We’ve had a ridiculous number of people who have gotten engaged or married [after meeting in the running group.]”
Meeting a group (or even just another person) also makes you accountable to actually getting the workout done. For most of us, that forces us to stick to our training plan.
“If someone’s waiting for me, I’m not going to quit,” Tuhabonye says. That’s particularly true for early morning workouts and hard runs.
Most runners, said Jermyn, have no problem with their regular easy runs, but to go long or to go fast, “they have to have other people for that,” he says.
We might not even know what we’re capable of until we push ourselves in a faster pace group or try to keep up with our fast friends.
Get guidance and advice
Those friends can also be a good source of advice. More than half the people who join CARA’s marathon training program are first-timers. For someone running their first marathon, there can be a lot of information for them to absorb. The way the groups are structured means they don’t have to learn it all at once. Instead, Jermyn says, they can pick up tips and advice from the experienced runners and coaches along the way.
This is especially true for coached groups following a consistent training plan.
You can push yourself too hard
“There are pros and cons,” Jermyn says. “Certainly, competitive people can risk pushing themselves too hard.”
That’s especially true if you show up for a group run not quite ready for what you’re getting into or you try to keep up with people you have no business keeping up with. That’s why Tuhabonye has people fill out questionnaires about their fitness and recent results, and even do a test to find out where they’re at with it.
One size doesn’t fit all
Both CARA’s programs and Gilbert ’s Gazelles workouts are coached in-person, with many of the athletes training for the same race. That means the plan is both created by a certified coach and structured for the specific race, with the ability to make adaptations for an individual’s paces or needs.
But not every running group has a coach; many are simply informal collections of friends. And even if there is a coach, it doesn’t necessarily mean the workout or the plan is the best one for you. (Although it’s still better than no workout and no plan.) Plus, by definition, along with doing a certain workout, a group meets at a certain time and place. All those things might be convenient or right for you, or they might not.
You won’t learn to suffer alone
Training with a group is fun and pushes you, but when it comes time to race, you have to race on your own. There’s a school of thought that sometimes you need to get out there on your own and learn what it takes to battle through the tough days.
All those issues are real, but Jermyn points out that most elite athletes train in squads precisely because they want the support and company. The day-in, day-out grind can be hard, and a group makes it easier.
“The best marathoners in the world all train in a group,” Jermyn says.
Before you lace up your shoes and set your alarm clock, “do your homework,” Tuhabonye advises, to figure out what group is right for you and what is expected.
You can search for groups on the websites of Road Runners Club of America or USA Track and Field. You can also ask at a running shop, talk to other runners, or check out local race and expos.
Then you’ll want to talk to the person in charge to make sure you know what to expect—where will the route go, do you need to bring food or water, what kind of gear is necessary for this workout. And it may take a couple tries to find the group culture that’s right for you: some are more performance oriented, some are more laid-back.
If you do it right, “joining a group is like joining a family,” Tuhabonye says. That comes with all the good and bad of a family.