As COVID-19 vaccination rates climb and runners across the U.S. begin to feel more at ease, many running groups and clubs are starting to meet in person again. For the socially inclined, this is fantastic news! But before you fill your training calendar with group runs and buddy workouts, consider one coach's advice on which solo training habits you might want to keep post-pandemic.
Meet the Expert
Whitney Heins of Knoxville, Tenn., is an elite runner, a VDOT-02-certified running coach and founder of the online running group The Mother Runners. In 2019, as she was training to qualify for the Olympic trials in the marathon, she tore a hamstring muscle. It's been a long road back to running healthy, which has given her a unique perspective on the importance of training smart rather than always training hard. She spoke with ACTIVE recently about the pros and cons of running alone or with a group, which translated into four great pieces of advice for those who are ready to start running with a buddy or a group again.
Run at Your Own Pace
Heins's first piece of advice was to run at your own pace, namely a slow one. "A majority of runners run their easy runs too fast," she explains. "This a problem because it robs you of the biological adaptations that occur when you're running in a low heart rate zone."
She believes, and most runners would probably agree, that running with others exacerbates this issue. "When people get together and run, they tend to go with the flow of the group, and there's always that one person who pulls the group faster than maybe they want to go."
Running faster than usual is fine and can even be beneficial if done occasionally, but doing more than 10 percent of your runs at a pace that's too fast can spell trouble. "Over time, you start to feel not as fresh," Heins explains. "Fatigue accumulates and eventually that can lead to injury." The takeaway here is that if you do run with a buddy or a group, be mindful of your pace, listen to your body and slow down if you need to.
Run the Right Route and Distance for You
Running too fast isn't the only way to get injured. Ramping up your mileage too quickly, or even tackling a single run that's significantly longer than your usual long runs, puts you at risk as well. There are other factors you'll need to think about too, like terrain, temperature and humidity.
Running groups typically run a set route each time they meet, and the routes often vary with the goal of the workout. Some runs are designed to be "fast and flat" while others will feature lots and lots of hills—or you may even get a mix of both if the route covers a segment of an upcoming racecourse. Some group runs will take place on snow and ice in freezing temperatures while others will happen in extreme heat and humidity. All of these factors can present issues and potential injury, so if you're running with others, make sure you know exactly what you're getting into before you head out. Luckily, most group runs will offer several route options for those who want to run a shorter distance or flatter terrain, and a well-organized group should always have at least one water station on every run.
Run on Your Own Schedule
Regardless of what your running goals are, the only way you can begin to meet them is to actually do your workouts. While group or buddy runs can provide extra motivation not to skip a run, there's a chance they could actually disrupt your training. "One of the reasons why people love running is because it is convenient," Heins says. And that convenience can translate into more consistent workouts.
As your post-pandemic schedule ramps back up, it might be better to squeeze in those workouts whenever you can rather than try to juggle group runs amidst everything else.
Run to Relieve Stress
At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, many runners said their workouts helped relieve stress and keep them sane. Heins suggests you continue using your runs as a moving meditation, a time that's yours to enjoy a break from a hectic schedule or just not have to talk and listen to other people. "My runs are a chance to get a little peace and quiet away from my kids who never stop talking!" Heins says. But adding the commitment of one or two group runs per week could make your life more hectic, especially if those runs are hard workouts that you might not necessarily be looking forward to.
For runners looking to perform at their peak, pushing yourself once or twice a week by running with a group or hitting the gym or track with a friend can be highly beneficial. Just remember that the bulk of your training miles should be run at an easy pace over a distance and route you're comfortable with, and at a place and time that's convenient for you.