Run Like a Champion: How to Handle Group Training Runs

In this excerpt from Run Like a Champion: An Olympian’s Approach for Every Runner, two-time Olympian Alan Culpepper shares his veteran tips for making the group run work for you instead of derailing your training.

Beware of Racing in Practice

Often in hard group workouts, one or more runners feels the need to substantiate the session by pushing a little harder to stay with the leaders or prove his or her worth. Or you might find yourself pushing to keep up with the group or an individual against whom you commonly measure yourself. Competitiveness has many upsides; however, it can have negative side effects in practice.

People react differently when faced with a competitive situation during a workout. Maybe you hate to lose. I understand that sentiment, believe me. However, competitiveness in training should be wielded in such a way that it benefits rather than weakens you. Keeping emotions in check during practice allows for consistent and effective workouts and also teaches you how to control (and appropriately unleash) that competitiveness in races.

Having a bit of competitive drive or a spark of energetic motivation in practice can help you push yourself to achieve the intended results of the workout. The challenge relates to pushing harder than you should. Every workout should have a specific purpose, and if a session is designed for a particular stimulus, then it must include the appropriate effort. Not utilizing the right effort not only negates the purpose and positive training effects of the workout but can also lead to the negative effects of excessive fatigue, overtraining, and overuse injuries and even lessen your race-day skills and instincts.

Some individuals allow competition in training to displace the race itself. For them, there is a decided sense of accomplishment in beating their training partners—perhaps an even more satisfying one than a PR or podium spot on race day.

Make sure that your confidence is not built on how you measure up against other individuals in your workout group. This attitude will ultimately limit your potential. While it is certainly appropriate to gauge your effort based on those around you and have a measure of competition to elevate the workout, your intensity cannot be based solely on your peers during practice. Develop instead an internal sense of what a hard effort should feel like tempered with a calm maturity that allows you to control your efforts.

Repeated competition in practice can also dilute the significance of racing itself and the ability to call on the emotional reserves needed to elevate a performance on race day. We only have a finite amount in the tank, and we constantly have to ration the output. Work, family, and other aspects of everyday life are all part of that equation as well. The goal is to make training as sustainable as possible so that you can draw on all the emotional reserves you need on race day.

Beware of Holding Back

The antithesis of being overly competitive in training sessions and lacking maturity when it comes to a healthy balance of competition in practice is holding back for the sake of the group. There are some athletes who don’t want to cause hurt feelings or contention in the group dynamic.

Seeking out a group or an individual who complements your level is critical. Training with people who are below your level will eventually lead to slow or stagnating progress. The occasional easy day or easier-than-desired long run is fine within the scope of a three- to fivemonth training cycle. However, continually holding back for the sake of the group or friends or consistent training partners can lead to running below your potential.

Most of my long runs were done with one or two individuals who complemented my ability and temperament. Scott Larson was my go-to training partner when it came to long runs because we had both undergone University of Colorado running coach Mark Wetmore’s tutelage and developed a healthy respect for the long run while not pushing it to the next level of intensity. Only rarely did I run with a large group for a long run, primarily because it almost always created a strained dynamic due to the fact that the runners were coming from various training programs, different coaching philosophies, and different points in their training cycles.

No matter what my focus or what I wanted to achieve from a long run, when all of those factors converged in a group long run, I was bound to have to compromise my goals. Group workouts can lead to ambiguous, unpredictable, or inconsistent efforts because there is often no collective goal. And even if there is a stated pacing goal for a long run, the various talent levels, personalities, and levels of fi tness can skew that intent.

That was what happened during one particular group long run that I recall in Boulder. A group of guys all training at a high level met at the standard long-run location at the Boulder Reservoir. The intent was to run 18 to 20 miles, although no one had talked about how fast any of us really intended to run. Among the group of 15 or so runners were Larson, Mark Coogan, Pete Julian, and Marc Davis, all among the best in the country in events ranging from the 5K to the marathon. We started that run very conservatively and got to the first mile mark in about 8 minutes. Half jokingly Coogan said, “I think I actually lost fitness from that mile.”

I was screaming inside to get going, but I did not want to appear to be the one trying to one-up everyone or start pushing the pace. For focused athletes with specific effort goals in mind, that can create an internal tension. I knew I had to decide to either do what I knew I needed to do or hold back for the sake of the group’s ambiguous pacing. After a few not-so-subtle cues, Larson and I started to separate ourselves. Out of respect for the other runners, I mentioned that we were going to pick it up a bit, and it went over fine.

No matter what level of runner you are, the key is being honest with and respectful of your training partners. You need to stick to goals that are based on your training focus and where you are in your training cycle and not let the ambiguous intent of a group guide your workouts.

In Run Like a Champion, one of America’s most versatile and accomplished runners, Alan Culpepper, reveals the best practices of the best runners. Run Like a Champion reveals all the guidelines, tips and tricks, workouts, mental training, and nutritional practices that Olympic runners use. By making this Olympic approach part of their running, runners of all levels will make their goals achievable from 5K to marathon.

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