Most endurance events are solitary pursuits as you're ultimately competing alone on race day. Training for these events is a very different matter though as many people choose to get together in pairs or groups for at least part of their weekly workouts.
For anyone performance-minded this leads to the natural question of which is really the best method for driving improvement; training alone or training with others?
Having gained quite a bit of experience of training alone and with other athletes over the years, I believe there's no single correct answer to the question. Both training alone and training in groups can be extremely effective, but what's important to understand is when and why you might be better off getting some company and when it’s more appropriate to go it alone.
There's a time and a place for both approaches and armed with the right information you can aim to get the best of both worlds, rather than the worst of both (as I definitely have done from time to time in the past).
The benefits of group training
In 2009 researchers conducted a very interesting study on the world famous Oxford University rowing crew. What they did was indirectly measure the levels of endorphins (‘feel good’ hormones) released in the oarsmen when they completed tough training sessions together in a group, compared to doing the exact same sessions in isolation.
What they did was measure pain tolerance (a recognised surrogate measure for endorphin release) immediately after sessions and found ample evidence that athletes' pain threshold was basically doubled after a group session when compared with a solo one.
This finding will be unsurprising for anyone who has done any amount of competitive group workouts; training with others almost always makes it easier to push yourself really hard. But it's interesting to see this ‘common sense’ backed up by more scientific evidence.
The researchers who conducted the study speculated that their findings had something to do with the fact that humans are inherently social animals and that group bonding, especially during physically taxing activities, triggers a greater release of endorphins than doing tasks alone, which in turn allows for greater actual output with a reduced perception of effort.
I’ve certainly found this to be true on many occasions when I’ve ended up pushing out far better times in group sessions than I would've done alone (with less of a sense of effort).
It's definitely an advantage worth harnessing at times when you really want to max out your efforts, push through some perceived barriers, or combat low levels of motivation.
The downsides of group training
As with many things in life though there's also a potential downside to the pain-numbing effect of group training in that it can lead to over-reaching or over-training if too many sessions become overly intense or competitive, and recovery is not factored in.
I speak from hard-won experience gained in the late 1990s and early 2000s when I was lucky enough to start training with the high-performance triathlon squad at the University of Bath.
When I arrived in Bath in 1997 I was very much a mediocre but highly motivated junior athlete ambitious to make my mark in the elite ranks of the sport. I started training 'flat out' with the squad in Bath and basically all of my 12+ workouts each week were either with a group or at least 1 other person (often my partner in crime at the time was Swim Smooth founder Paul Newsome).
This meant that pretty much every session was done at a full-on intensity as there was always someone else fresher and faster than me to keep up with.
At first this approach led to massive improvements in my performance and reinforced a deep-rooted belief in my head that more hard work = better results.
But gradually it ended up leading to diminished returns, then illness and injury, before I descended into a cycle of overtraining and burnout. A similar thing seemed to happen to Paul as well, so it wasn't an isolated incident.
I then experienced a tough couple of years where I yo-yoed in and out of overtraining as it seemed to become impossible for me to successfully manage my workload without overdoing it all over again.
In reality, what I probably should've learned was to tap into the group training environment at selected times during the week for sessions where I really wanted to push my limits or when I was lacking motivation to train quite as hard as I needed to.
I could've done more easy training on my own to allow for the recovery that I was otherwise lacking. But, at the time I did not have the self-awareness to recognise this. As the saying goes, hindsight is 20:20 and it was a valuable lesson for the future.
Is it better to train alone?
After I left University I very nearly gave up training and racing seriously altogether, but was given the opportunity to carry on by my boss at the time, ex-triathlete and Human Performance specialist Bernie Shrosbree
Bernie had a theory that the ultra-competitive group training environment I had been exposed to at Bath was what had limited my achievements, so he encouraged me to give racing another go while I was still the right age to do so.
Because I was living and working in pretty isolated and rural environments for extended periods then (I had a house in North Dorset and was spending a lot of time working in the Oxfordshire countryside where the F1 team who employed me were based), by default a large proportion of my training started to be done on my own.
At first, I found this strange because at University I’d become very used to training in the squad environment but once I got in the groove with it I actually started to really enjoy doing the majority of miles on my own.
One big advantage I found that it afforded me was to be able to control the intensity of my key workouts very closely, so I wasn't getting sucked into going at other people’s pace (which was inevitably too hard or too easy most of the time).
I didn’t give up training with others altogether as I did long, steady Sunday road rides with a very competitive bunch of mountain bike racers and I’d also swim with a local club who generously allowed a triathlete to jump in and disrupt their lane discipline a few times per week.
But as a rough guess I’d say these group training sessions made up about 30-40% of my training volume and not anywhere near the 100% I did with others when at University.
The great thing about the kind of group training I switched to doing at this point compared to what I’d done in the past was that, whilst the athletes I was training with were largely stronger than me in that specific area (the MTB guys were all national standard on the bike and swimmers were county level or above in the water), none of them saw me as a ‘competitor’ and I had no need to prove myself to them as we all ultimately competed in very different events.
On the bike this meant that we could all go out and ride easy most of the time without there being (too much) ego involved racing up hills or half-wheeling each other.
It also allowed me to do the odd really hard bike session with the mountain bikers when I wanted to push myself in a different way, as opposed to grinding out the typical, moderate intensity/long duration sessions that are the ‘meat and potatoes’ of a triathlete's training diet.
In the pool it meant I could push myself to try to keep up with the proper swimmers some of the time if I wanted to, but equally I could take it easier and slack off without it affecting my place in the perceived group pecking order.
As a result of this approach I ultimately achieved most of my very best results as an athlete and chalked up basically all of my lifetime PBs during that period. I am sure that having a balanced blend of solo and group training played a huge part in that success.
How to find a balance between solo and group training
Drawing on my experiences during the past couple of decades, I’ve come up with a shortlist of factors to consider when you’re trying to figure out whether to train alone or with a group:
- Don’t do all of your training with the same people.
Even if the majority of your workouts are in a pair or with a small group make sure you don’t 'overdose' on the same partners. Mix it up to avoid staleness and fall outs, especially if you’re training with people who you may compete directly against in important races.
- For very easy recovery training don’t do sessions with anyone else at all unless you're significantly fitter than them or 100% confident they won’t push the pace.
Going too hard when you actually should be going easy is one of the biggest causes of over-training in athletes.
- Do train with people who are a little bit faster or fitter than you occasionally as this can really push you on.
But think of these sessions like the chillies you add to a meal you’re making from scratch; they're potent and using them sparingly can really improve things, but adding too much is a recipe for disaster!
- Do your key workouts either alone or with a single training partner who's willing and able to prioritise what you want to get out of the session.
- If you’re a multi-sport athlete, do try to train with others who specialise in a specific discipline that you’re working on occasionally.
If you're a triathlete, it's amazing what you can learn from cycling with ‘proper’ cyclists, running with runners, or swimming with swimmers.
- Don't be the fastest or the slowest person in the group(s) you train with all of the time.
Both waiting for others and having to keep up can be challenging and it’s better to experience both ends of that spectrum on a regular basis.
- If you're training as part of a group of athletes whose ability levels vary wildly, do try to design sessions that accommodate these variations.
For example, in the pool keep intervals short and frequent to avoid lapping people in a mixed ability lane. When running, do workouts on a short loop so people can take a lap out or jog in reverse to recover when they can’t keep up for the whole set, and so on.
The bottom line with group and individual training is that neither method is inherently superior to the other. The magic is actually in how you blend the two approaches to get the best out of each.
Everyone will have a slightly different ‘mix’ that works for them. The first steps to finding the right 'mix' is by thinking about what you’re aiming to get out of a particular session, what you’re aiming to improve over time, and how that'll be influenced by others taking part (or not).