Posted On:
Tuesday, August 29, 2023
Updated On:
Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Coach Tip Tuesday: The Truth About Training With Groups and/or Friends

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Part of the group I train weekly with, which is an important part of my own training program, both from a mental perspective (because they're my friends and I like spending time with them) and from a physical perspective (because they are all stronger than me).

I’ve written a lot of articles that have caused athletes to become defensive over the years.  This happens for a number of reasons; one of the most common ones is that it’s hard to face some truths, and it sometimes takes awhile to see the truth if it’s something that we don’t like, especially when it’s about ourselves or our own behaviors.

This week’s topic is likely one of these topics.  This week, I want to have an honest conversation about group training and/or training with friends and the actual impact it has on individual athlete performance.  There are several important parts of this conversation:


No Two Humans are the Same

There is one important truth that must be universally acknowledged and accepted: Completing a workout with other people - even just with one other person - will always (and I mean ALWAYS) alter the workout.  It may alter it for the better, it may alter it for the worse.  But it is going to alter it.

No two humans are the same.  Even two humans who have the exact same DNA (identical twins) are still two unique human beings with different emotions, fitness levels, training tolerances, etc.  Since no two humans are the same, that means that no two humans can or will ever have the exact same workout, even if they are doing what appears to be the same workout at the same time.  Don’t believe me?  Look no further than the variation of experiences that athletes have when doing the same race.

Among other things, how a workout feels will be a unique experience for each individual athlete.  Using race day as our example here: Some athletes will feel so amazing that they set personal best or even all-time records.  On the other hand, some athletes will feel so poorly that they can’t complete the same race where a world record was set.


The Downsides of Training with Friends and/or Groups

Remembering the truth that working out with others will always alter the workout, completing a workout with others can cause some negative effects for athletes.  It’s an unpopular observation when I make it, but I have seen training with friends and/or groups cause a lot of issues for athletes over the years.  This is especially true for athletes who are training for really big (for them) goals and for athletes who are seeking performance-based outcomes.

Stop Time

I’ve written before about how harmful stop time in workouts can be for athletes.  Stop time is almost always increased - both in number of stops and overall duration of stops - in workouts where there is more than one person present.  Someone needs a bathroom stop.  Another person gets a flat tire.  Someone else is having trouble with their brake rubbing.  Another person is chafing.  Another bathroom stop is needed.  Someone is falling behind and the faster athlete waits while the other athlete catches up.  I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

I cannot understate how much of an impact stop time has on overall training and performance.  Stop time inhibits many critical adaptations to planned training stimulus.  On race day, no athlete will plan for 30+ minutes of stop time in their race, yet I see this all the time in workout data files from athletes who are training with others.  When race day comes, those same athletes will seek to maintain continuous forward momentum for their entire race.  This is a demand that they are not prepared to meet because they did not sufficiently train to do this.  They are effectively doing something new on race day.  As a result, their heart rate will go and stay higher faster, they will have trouble taking in nutrition, and/or they will not have the robustness and overall durability to maintain good posture and form for the duration of their event.  In short: They end up feeling poorly on race day, and their performance suffers.

Load vs. Capacity

All training plan design deals with the management of load vs. capacity.  This is true whether the plan is a Custom-Built Training Plan, a Training Plan based on sport and/or distance, or whether the athlete’s training is extremely personalized on a service such as Performance Coaching.  Training with others can influence this balance.

In some circumstances, training with others may cause an athlete not to impose enough load to increase their capacity, which means that the athlete’s probability to reach their goal (which is usually in excess of one’s capacity when it is set) will be reduced.  In other circumstances, athletes impose a load in group workout that exceeds their current capacity, which can lead to impaired recovery, injury risk, and/or a lack of adaptation.

As hard as it can be to admit, the person you want to train with may not be the best person for you to train with.  Many times, athletes choose training partners or groups out of convenience and/or who they like best.  While this is a lovely and even noble idea, it’s not the best recipe for improved performance and success.

The reality is that your very good friend who wants to do a workout with you may end up holding you back because their fitness level is not the same level as yours.  Your family member who wants to do a workout with you may have a higher fitness level than you, which causes you to overreach as you try to keep up with them.  The group that works best with your schedule may not be a group that helps you meet the demand you need to meet in training to elicit adaptations.

We need to train where we are; that’s how we get to where we want to go.  We need to impose the load that is appropriate for us at a given point in time so we can increase our overall capacity with reduced probability of overtraining or injury.  Workout training partner and/or group selection is incredibly important for this reason; if an athlete does not choose people who are not of very similar ability level, how much their workout experience is altered will be compounded.

Workout Scheduling

A common thing that athletes will do when seeking to work out with others is move and/or plan their workouts around the availability of others.  When workouts are planned in a training schedule, they are planned extremely intentionally.  This intentionality extends to the sequencing and timing of workouts relative to other workouts and in the scope of the overall training plan.  For athletes who are working with a coach and have a plan that was written in a way that is personalized to them (such as a Custom-Built Training Plan or Performance Coaching), this planning is extremely specific for that athlete’s unique needs.  

Altering a training schedule to align with someone else’s availability often will come at the cost of what is optimal or best for the individual athlete in terms of timing and sequencing.  Choosing to do a different workout because someone else has it on their schedule in lieu of what an athlete has planned on theirs will also come at this cost.  Yes, an athlete may be doing something (which is often better than nothing), but it may not be the most appropriate something for them to be doing in order to reach the goals that they have set for themselves.  Any/all of this then has a snowball effect into the rest of the training plan, to include performance in other workouts, recovery, and overall adaptation to training.


The Benefits of Training with Friends and/or Groups

While there are some very real downsides to consider, it’s not all negative when it comes to training with friends and/or group training.  There are also some very real benefits to it.

Accountability

Accountability is probably one of the biggest benefits athletes can derive from training with a group and/or friends.  While we - as a collective human species - are excellent rationalizers and can talk ourselves into just about anything (including skipping workouts), we are far less likely to skip a workout if we know someone else is expecting us to show up and meet them.

Additionally, accountability extends beyond just showing up for a workout.  Working out in a group or with a good training partner can help the athlete stay in greater compliance with a planned workout.  There’s a witness; if an athlete deviates from the plan, someone other than themselves and their coach is now going to know.  Telling a training partner or group what you have planned in a workout can be a useful way to stick to the plan and execute the workout as intended.

Social Connection

We are a social species; relationships are a critical part of our existence.  Training with friends and/or groups satisfies this primal and important need that we have for connection with others.  This is true for athletes of all ability levels for various reasons.  For elite athletes, training in a squad (group) environment gives them a regular opportunity to connect with other humans in what can otherwise be a solitary existence.  Training and performing at the highest level in any sport requires laser-sharp, singular focus over a prolonged period of time (often decades).  That level of focus comes at a tremendous cost to athletes, and the net result is that it can be a very isolating experience.  

For age-group athletes who are busy and time-crunched due to how many competing demands they have in their lives, workouts are often one of the only time windows they have available to socialize with others.  Athletes who are budgeting their finite amount of time between work, running the kids to school and/or sports practice, and family obligations often have very limited time left over after those initial critical activities are time budgeted for.  Choosing how to spend that limited time is challenging, and they often don’t have enough remaining time to budget for workouts and social time separately.  So, many age-group athletes (consciously or unconsciously) seek to get some extra bang for their buck by combining their workouts with social time.

Whether an athlete is elite or an age-grouper, having this social connection with others almost always increases the fun and enjoyment factor of workouts for athletes.  With time being a finite resource and disposable/leisure time being an even bigger commodity, the value of The Fun Factor cannot be understated.

Increased Performance

It took awhile, but many athletes have embraced the truth that training in a squad environment can push all athletes in that squad to increased performance. Athletes such as Deena Kastor and Shalane Flanagan pioneered this idea in the United States, and it has since been copied by elite squads all over the world.

Training with others can help athletes level up their own individual performances.  When leveraged appropriately (applying the principles of load vs. capacity in an honest way), athletes can increase their fitness and overall skill level in their sport.  While intrinsic motivation and drive are essential components for any athlete seeking high-level performance, external factors such as training with others can be extremely useful for athletes.  (It should be noted that “high-level performance” can and does look differently for each athlete; for one athlete, it might be finishing their first 5K while for another athlete it may be qualifying for the IRONMAN World Championship.)

There’s a reason why personal best times and world records are set in races and not workouts.  The competition - the external pressure from others in those environments - causes people to push themselves just a smidge more than they can on their own, and that can help them reach their own best performances.


The Bottom Line

As a social species, most athletes will likely seek to train with others and/or in groups at least some of the time.  Training with others will always alter a workout.  Always.  While it can be a positive thing, it’s also important to acknowledge that there can (and are) very real downsides to this.  Learning how to select appropriate training partners and how to manage performance expectations based on the decisions one makes in training (and who one trains with) is a critical component of both setting and reaching athletic goals.

About

Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at laura@fullcircleendurance.com.

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