Friday, December 6, 2013

Is There a Benefit Running in a Group?

Pine Canyon Mount Diablo State Park - Photo Beth Latham
As I have stated before, I got into running with my wife.  First, simple jogs a half mile around our local reservoir up to our marathons. In fact I did most of my training runs with her, until recently.  And that change was more due to wanting to let each other go at each others pace than anything else. So running with someone is not foreign to me. 

That said, it has taken awhile to run with other people.  I am definitely comfortable running by myself, either on the trail or on the road.  With the advent of Strava, I have found that I can even challenge myself against other runner times along different "run segments." 

However, over the last couple of years, especially the last 12 months, I have found that I have settled into a consistent 9:47 road run pace and a 12:20 trail pace (depending on the terrain and elevation).  It has been really hard to break out of this pattern also.  For someone who had no problem running at a 8:30 pace at two half marathons, this has been troubling.

The reasons for this is pretty simple and basic. 

First, my volume up to training for the Surf City has been low, in terms of what I used to do.  My cycling had been averaging between 40 to 60 miles a week and my running about 20 miles a week.  I have since upped that; however, am not seeing the gains.

Second, my road running course has been pretty static for the past year and a half.  There are two basic directions I go: along the Embarcadero in San Francisco towards AT&T Park for an average 6 miles or towards the Marina Green through Fisherman's Wharf and Fort Mason.  Other than Strava achievements (which were coming fewer and fewer) there isn't much incentive to run the course fast. 

Third, I am a perfectly complacent trail runner.  Let me clarify.  I love trail running for the challenges and the adventure and variety.  It has really helped drive my love of running and more than makes up for the static road running.  I have seen gains in both my hill climbing and bombing descents.  If there has been any improvement to my pace it is seen there.  However,  having a 11 to 13 minute pace on a good trail run has kind of conditioned me to accepting a slower pace on the roads.  Does that make sense?

Anyway, this brings me to the title of this post.  

For a bit now, I have been trail running with a couple of my friends on Sunday mornings.  They are typically out every weekend beginning at 6 in the morning.  When I join them, about once or twice a month, I can typically keep up even though I am pushing it. 

One of the runners does run at my normal trail pace and it isn’t too rare to see him on other runs during the week at that same pace.  We started running at the same time; however, he has achieved running 50 and 100 mile distances.

The second runner is a jackrabbit. While he hasn’t completed to many long distances recently, he has been able to run some pretty fast marathons in his time.  There are a lot of times when he will continue on the run after I am long finished.

The point is, though; I have really not seen much improvement directly relating to these runs.  Perhaps it’s because we are comfortable at our pace (like when I run with my wife).  Perhaps the trail is an equalizer.  I don’t know.  But other than having company when I am running, I have not seen a performance gain.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy these runs.  And like I said, I do feel as if I a pushed to keep up, it just does not seem to have helped improve my runs.

In contrast, about a month and a half ago, a running group started where I work and now I am starting, finally, to see some improvement in my pace.

I knew the other runners for the last year but for the most part we all went our own ways.  We would even nod and say hi along the way, talk about our runs when we met at the coffee machine, and followed each other on Strava.  Sometimes I would try to keep up with one of them, just a short while, until I settled back into my pace.

Now that we have the running group, like said earlier, my pace is coming down.  This is partly due to the makeup of the group and partly because my pride – I want to keep up with the lead running group! The lead runners, have a good lunchtime pace, with one of the runners that has a 6:30 marathon pace (I could only wish to be 14 years younger!).  While he is at a leisurely jog, he has been able to push us (just a little) faster and faster each time.  I am now starting to see my Strava Achievements increase.

I can say, running with this group has definitely helped with my running.

There is a definite benefit to running with a group.  It helps break out of the doldrums.  When you pick the right group, it can test your ability while getting input from others.  The challenge though is finding the right group to help you get there. Besides picking a group, it is good to switch things up: from the type of group to the terrain and then ability of the members.

So the question really comes down, are group runs helping or just adding to my pace conundrum?  Well my road pace has now moved down to 9:20 which is great news!  But I have also increased my volume (on track for over 40 miles this week) as well as the distance of my long runs (18 miles scheduled for this weekend) has increased.  So has my pace come down because of the running group or because of increased volume?  Who knows?  But I will have to say I am enjoying the group running.

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