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A quick peek into the Instagram world of your favorite professional athlete paints all sorts of seemingly glamorous backdrops. A sunset ride along the coast or up a steep mountain pass, a dip into the ocean with their new (sponsored, but amazing) wetsuit, or a stoic pose at a trailhead that is complete with splashy new kicks and kits (also from said amazing sponsor).
You know what else you may notice? Some of these pros go it alone, while others celebrate the joy (read: solace) and pain of training with a partner or group. If you follow Paula Findlay or Heather Jackson on Instagram, you know those two are consistently side-by-side, mile-for-mile, pushing, encouraging, forcing the effort, and making the other better. Clearly, their results and friendship speak for themselves.
Juxtapose that with the images of Lionel Sanders and his monastic pain-cave photos, designed to bring on the depths of misery and bring out the results on race day. Focus and solo-suffering is the name of his game and, once again, the results speak for themselves.
So, which is the best approach? Do you train solo or with a group to optimize results? We consulted a couple of top-level coaches and athletes including Melanie McQuaid, professional triathlete and founder/head coach of MelRad Coaching, and Matt Hurley of Black Sheep Endurance Project to get their take on the pros and cons of each style.
Changing COVID-19 protocols aside, training with a partner or group has countless tangible and intangible advantages, most of them revolving around social camaraderie, accountability, and motivation. “If you are an athlete who has a hard time with higher-intensity sessions, then a group setting may be good for you,” Hurley said. “Also, training with an appropriate group can keep the sport fun and avoid any potential burnout. The power of a group is one of the foundations of some of the best training groups in the world.”
McQuaid agreed: “Athletes can learn from each other in a group environment. All of the athletes can lift each other up. Plus, having training partners helps you get the best out of yourself and it creates shared memories.”
There’s so much truth here: It’s almost deplorable to think about 5 a.m. swim sessions until you realize that 20 other people from your Masters group will also be there—and they’re expecting to see your face. Knowing that others will be there doesn’t always make it fun, but at least it makes it bearable, and it keeps you accountable. Being a part of a group provides a huge level of support on race day, too. There’s always a smile, wave, word of encouragement, and high-five along the course. Plus, who can resist the post-race team tent with coolers of beer and war stories to swap?
The Downsides of Group Training
So, why then, would anyone train solo? It sounds so, well, lonely. Doesn’t that take all of the fun out of our hobby? Yes and no. Sometimes this so-called “hobby” can turn toward “obsession,” especially if you’re caught in the comparison game with those around you.
Have you ever found yourself chronically injured, burned out, and running yourself ragged trying to do too much just to keep up with your friends and teammates? Are there periods in your training where you lost specificity to your own goals because you were tagging along with the herd mentality? Yes, we want to get faster at everything, but sometimes (especially with so many Type-A personalities abounding) that can mean we push too hard at every workout. The coaches at Black Sheep Endurance Project refer to this as losing intensity control, or not doing the prescribed intensity that is required for the desired training stimulus.
As a competitive athlete and enthusiast, you don’t want to show weakness or vulnerability in the herd. I mean, if there’s one thing we all know from the animal kingdom, it’s that the weakest animal gets it first. We’re not being chased by a predator, but the person running just slightly faster than we are sure makes it feel like it. So, we push to avoid being prey and sometimes that can lead to burnout, fatigue, or injury. Was it the group’s fault? Absolutely not. Training with a group is fantastic, but also requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, maturity, and personal responsibility. Remember it’s OK to take a break once in a while—because, if you don’t, the break may be forced on you in the form that you don’t want.
The underlying point here, according to Hurley, is that if the group you are training with is going too hard, then it is the wrong group for you. If you decide to train with a group, it is important to understand intensity control and know that it is OK to fall off the back sometimes if that means you are doing the appropriate pace for your session. If you want to train with a group, it is vital to leave your ego at home and keep your own training and performance goals front of mind.
Training with a group is fantastic, but also requires a tremendous amount of self-discipline, maturity, and personal responsibility.
Going It Alone
Group training isn’t for everyone and even if it’s your preferred way to workout, it’s still also important to sometimes go it alone. As McQuaid attests, not only does it help your ability to push yourself when you’re alone and avoid intensity control problems, but it also builds mental strength and creates solid pace awareness. “Training alone tests an athlete’s belief in themselves,” she said. “It requires a lot of intrinsic motivation to only be accountable to yourself and is a good test of commitment and confidence.” You get to build that big muscle between your ears. Training solo is also safe, time efficient, and provides much needed “me” time. In fact, you may find yourself craving those long training runs or solo swims.
It is worth remembering, too, that if you train primarily to maximize your own performance, then consider working with a coach and doing a lot of your training solo, or at least minimize the distractions while you focus on your “A” race or main event. A skilled coach will work with you on your specific goals, personal life, schedule, race execution, nutrition, and more. Sprinkle in group workouts, but do so with a purpose. Long endurance runs and rides are great to do with a group, Hurley noted. “These should make up the foundation of most athletes’ programs and they are done best with company as long as everyone keeps the intensity controlled. Use them for recovery, race practice, or even a mental health day. Join a group ride so that you’re not on the roads alone, but ride at your pace and train with those whose performance goals are similar to yours.”
There might even come times when it is better for you to train solo, such as when making a return to training and competition after a long hiatus or injury. In these circumstances, it is best to start with a base and foundation of fitness and strength that is appropriate for you. If training with a group, it could become too tempting to try to keep up, at the detriment to your overall progress. This might also mean hiring a coach to talk about pace, exertion, heart rate, power, and all of the other metrics that are unique to your needs. Work with your coach to create periodized schedules that build in breaks and recovery. And if and when you do return to training in a group environment, hold yourself accountable with the help of your coaches and teammates.
Finding the Right Balance
Some of your most memorable days involve training and racing with others, especially if you’re part of a group that has similar goals. Nothing beats a coffee shop ride, or a post-run brunch with your friends. Platforms like Zwift, Peloton, and TrainerRoad give you the best of both worlds. McQuaid and Hurley both agree you just have to balance those days with achieving your own training and race goals. If you train in person with friends or virtually in a group setting, make sure you pick a team or group with well-rounded coaches who have the time to answer any questions or concerns you may have. Don’t be afraid to approach your coach if you are struggling. If you feel neglected or left behind, find another group.
“Ultimately, either approach can build success,” McQuaid said. Preferences can also change based on goals and where you are at in your season. “If you really know yourself, you’ll know the best way to bring out your personal best.” And, of course, the direction you choose will be determined by your goals, your schedule, and whether, at heart, you long to be a Lionel or a Paula, a lone ranger or part of a wolf pack.