“But I don’t want to slow you down…”
Back in the day when people ran in groups pre-pandemic, I’d sometimes meet a new runner and the conversation would inevitably drift toward “we should run together sometime.” This was usually followed by the other person backtracking by saying “yeahhhh, but I don’t want to slow you down.” Then usually I’d try to convince them that we could always do an easy run together, it doesn’t have to be fast.
At first glance, you might think that running with people your exact speed would be ideal. The answer, like many things, is IT DEPENDS! In my experience, you can benefit from running with different types of runners…faster, slower and equal!
If running with people slower than you…Let the slower runner go at their normal pace and just tag along. This forces you to keep an easy day easy! I’ve used this on many occasions and it often results in enjoyable runs. You can also do fartlek runs where the faster runner circles back during the recovery jogs and both runners start the rep simultaneously. It’s the best of both worlds, as each runner does their own workout at their own pace, but starting each rep together avoids the isolation of a solo workout.
Training with people faster than you can be beneficial as well...with proper precautions. If someone is much faster, trying to keep up isn’t even a consideration. But there are ways to make this partnership successful. The above-mentioned fartlek strategy is one. The track is another place…With one former training partner, I used to run some 200s at the end of my main set to lead him out for the last few reps of his main set (such as 800s). The pacing worked out perfectly!
It is also inspirational to see someone going that fast, and you can start to internalize what you’re seeing. And as with any discipline people who are more accomplished project an intangible quality that is hard to describe. Some of it has to do with mannerisms and routines. Just watch a professional and they carry themselves differently than an amateur. With the training partner I mentioned above, everything he did on a track day was incredibly purposeful, from the warmup to how he put his spikes on to how he closed out the final reps.
As Daniel Chambliss wrote in his seminal work “The Mundanity of Excellence,” closely examining Olympic swimmers, “ Olympic Champions don’t just do more of the same things that summer-league country-club swimmers do…Instead, they do things differently. Their strokes are different, their attitudes are different, their group of friends are different, their parents treat the sport differently, the swimmers prepare differently for their races, and they enter different kinds of meets and events.”
I had a similar observation running with Meb Keflezghi and Deena Kastor when they used to spend winters training in San Diego. At the famous Rancho Santa Fe Sunday morning loop run, the Team USA group would sometimes join in. Now, I would say I was running near them for the first mile or two before the pace progressively increased and I was taking my rightful place toward the back of the group! (Just think of the times we used to actually run with other people! How nostalgic!).
Running with someone of a similar fitness level can be a great partnership…or it can entirely backfire. Best case scenario is having both runners bring different strengths to the partnership. Even when runners have identical race performances their individual physiologies might be very different. Some runners are more naturally adept at shorter stuff while others have greater affinity for longer work. In the partnership, the shorter distance specialist can help set the pace on faster intervals while the more endurance-oriented runner can keep the pace steady on long runs, tempo runs and longer intervals.
How can this backfire? If the runners are close in fitness level, a little bit of competitiveness can trigger both runners to push the pace. You might think a small amount wouldn’t do much harm and you’d probably be right. But a little bit on one interval becomes a little bit more on the next…by the end of the workout you’ve turned the session into a time trial! When you have runners of far different fitness levels, neither runner feels the need to prove anything. Sure the slower runner may get pulled along a bit although that’s far different than two equal runners pushing each other every step of the way.
The same types of thought processes can apply not only for individual training partners but for building a group as well. If people are close in fitness, you want a collection of runners with the right mindset to not turn everything into a race. If there are disparate fitness levels, then everyone can meet up and then carry on in their respective smaller groups or if possible, you can structure workouts to cater to varying fitness levels in the ways described above. Bottom line, “personnel decisions” are one subtle way you can enhance performance and enjoyment. Knowing the benefits and drawbacks of different combinations and having the foresight to exploit the strengths of each runner can create the most suitable environment for all to succeed.
Allan Phillips, PT, DPT is owner of Ventana Physiotherapy