Strength can found in numbers, so does running in a group make you a better runner or is training solo the way to go?

Now we could start talking about aerodynamics and a group of pacemakers for a marathon, but we’ll wait to see how Mary Keitany does on the streets of London to start that debate.

In these days of social media, it seems everyone is getting a little less social. There’s even a social media for running from Zwift. You can make plenty of friends without even leaving your treadmill. Steve Way is a fan.

Now, what are the benefits of running in a group? Elite coach Tom Craggs, of Running with Us, believes that “miles run in a group are just easier”.

Not aerodynamics but the Winchester based coach feels that “any little niggles or difficulties in a run lose importance. When you’re focusing on running with others then you disassociate with the task at hand a little”.

This can be particularly true on a session, tempo or long run. When it becomes a little harder, be that from time on feet or intensity, misery loves company. Misery might be a strong word, but the saying fits in nicely.

Getting out the door

It can also help get you out of the door in the first place. If a friend is waiting on a corner in the rain, then you’re not going to stay on the sofa. Well, if you do then you’re a bad person. Sending a text doesn’t cut it when you know that fellow runners run “tech naked”.

Could one of the reasons marathoners in the 80’s recorded better results was not just because of the pace of those around them, but simply the presence of others?

Thousands run parkrun every weekend, but does that really count as running with others? It’s a race after all. Sorry, individual time trial.

Yet what about the benefits of running solo?

When it comes to race day there isn’t always someone holding your hand. You can’t avoid the tough miles of a marathon with a chat about your favourite biscuits. Can hard solo miles be important too?

2018 winner of the Chester 10k Eleanor Davis “runs most miles solo” and finds it offers her more flexibility. On the mental side of things she says: “I like zoning out and getting my head down.”

After finishing an excellent 13th at the Inter-Counties the South West athlete adds: “finding a good group can be difficult. Sometimes you settle into a groove and aren’t pushing yourself when you need to be which can hold you back.”

Adding another perspective is British mountain runner Rebecca Hilland who says: “one or two in a group always treat it like a race. It’s usually a testosterone driven upping of the pace. It’s hard to find the right group.”

Yet when you do the long miles off road, like Hilland does in her hometown of Bergen, Norway, it’s “good to have people around with jelly babies if you crash and burn. It’s not just the food, but even though I don’t like to talk, I like listening to the conversations.”

This resonates with Cragg’s comments about disassociation with the harder miles. Even just a voice to focus on can help keep things ticking over.

Getting the admin done

Ultra runner Grant Vernon likes to run solo “to get my admin done”.

“I sort over things in my head, mull over my ideas and generally get the life in order,” he says. “If I do run with others it is nice to feed off their enthusiasm. On a longer run, there’s always someone feeling low, but often someone on a high too.”

The solo hard miles can be a right of passage too. You can’t always count on having runners around you or exterior stimuli to focus on during races.

If you know you can grind out 12 x 400m or a hilly, muddy final five miles into a headwind, it helps on race day. You’re not relying on anyone else.

Psychological techniques like ‘self-talk’ are skills that need to be practised, yet doing this in a group can cause some stares.

Shouting “YOU CAN DO THIS ROBBIE” is something best practised in the woods. Make sure no one is close by enough to be startled. On race day it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks.

If you’re a fan of multi-tasking then it can go either way. Business meetings, although a bit less organised, can be great as a group run instead. If you’re meeting a client who’s not a runner then maybe not the best idea. They’ll not forget the meeting in a hurry.

Equally, personal or professional development can also happen on the solo runs. Podcasts aimed at your business or your sport can be a worthwhile use of those miles.

Currently, I listen to the Magness and Marcus podcast on solo runs. They are a great listen and sometimes when in a group I find myself wishing it was a solo run instead to get another episode in. That depends on the company though.

Individuality comes into group running too

Ultimately it comes down to the individual. Looking at the runners he coaches Craggs says: “I have a handful of athletes that would benefit from being in a slightly faster group, pushing those solo miles that they dawdle along in.

“Yet there are more still that would just leave it all out there every day. Long-term development needs you to run the paces right for you”.

Ask yourself the question ‘am I going to leave it all out there racing in training?’

Whenever Paul Navesey (2016 British 100k Champ) and I trained together our friends would ask who won. Even after easy efforts. For the group to push is certainly a benefit, but it might not be always right for the individual.

Back in the 80’s, there were certainly a huge amount of elite and sub-elite runners training together. But was a 20 mile burn out, like you imagine at a US collegiate Sunday long run, the best for everyone? Last man (or woman) standing might be happy, but those emptying the tank to hang on are on a fine line.

Sometimes it’s just nice to get away from all the noise of the world (and others) too.