Why We Should Sweat Together

By: Karla Bruning

Around the 16-mile mark of the 2018 Boston Marathon, a runner approached my husband and me.

"Mind if I run with you?" Ricky asked. "I really need some company."

My husband and I had already remarked how glad we were to be running together. We usually tackle big races on our own. But with near-freezing temps, a torrential squall, and driving headwind gusting up to 40 mph, we found strength in numbers.
 

We welcomed Ricky into our pack, introduced ourselves, and got to work.

For the next 7 miles, the three of us worked as a team, slogging through the toughest hills of the race, trading leads to break the wind, and giving each other pep talks. Ricky injected a much-needed shot of motivation into our race. He helped push us forward when we lagged, and gave us another reason to stay strong: for him. Our takeaway? We never could have done it alone. Alone, the race would have been miserable. Together, it was epic.

We're not the only ones who think so. Runners who pound the pavement with a friend or group reap a multitude of benefits: accountability, motivation, support, camaraderie, and a sense of community and shared experience that we crave as social beings. Physiologically, studies show people who exercise with a partner push harder, last longer, have more fun, and feel calmer, too. You don't even have to join your running buddy IRL. Research confirms that virtual training partners and social media connections can be just as beneficial as the friend running by your side.

As a race announcer for New York Road Runners (NYRR), the community organization that puts on the New York City Marathon, I witness running buddy love on the regular: Teammates push each other across the finish line, friends hold hands, families cheer each other on, passing out hugs, high-fives, and the occasional chest bump. It's no wonder. New York City has one of the most vibrant running scenes in the country. More than 200 running teams regularly represent at NYRR races alone, and that's not counting unconventional running crews, informal clubs, and many charity teams that take to the streets together. At the 2017 Marathon, racers from 446 teams showed up.
 

Why do so many people find a tribe with which to tango? The chance to connect with like-minded and like-paced people for one thing, and make some friends in the process too.

Lillian Park, 40, runs with Prospect Park Track Club. With 800 members it's the largest running team in Brooklyn.

“The nice thing about a club this size is that it's pretty easy to find someone running at your pace," Park says. “I love how just about every time I head out to Prospect Park, I run into a teammate. It makes the hard run easier and makes this incredibly large, anonymous city feel more like a village of strong interconnected ties."

Having those relationships can enrich your training and pull you through a slump, according to Olympian and NYRR Head Coach Roberto Mandje. “It's much easier to find support, inspiration, and motivation when you're part of a training group or have a partner, he says. “There's a reason some of the best marathoners in the world are part of training groups."

Take professional marathoners Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan. Since becoming training partners in 2015, they've pushed each other to the height of their careers—Cragg earning a bronze medal at the 2017 World Championships and Flanagan winning the New York City Marathon just three months later.

"I take pride in trying to elevate my teammates and make them better, because in the end it'll propel me forward," Flanagan told Zappos. "It's a very reciprocal relationship. Amy had a great performance. That inspired me to run well in New York and really put a lot into my training and put my heart into it."

Research reflects their success. A study in the Journal of Social Sciences found that exercise partners influence how hard we push ourselves during workouts. The science behind it? Working out on synchrony with others boosts pain tolerance and increases endurance, other researchers have found, mainly through a sense of a common bond.

That bond can be crucial to achieving our goals. One study found that people who commit to a weight loss program with friends or family fare better than folks who go it alone—175 percent better in the long term.

Park, who pens the running blog, “A Fast Paced Life," has seen tremendous gains since joining Prospect Park Track Club nearly three years ago. She's set personal best times in 1 mile, 5K, 5 miles, 10 miles, half-marathon, and marathon races. She even ran a Boston Marathon qualifying time, a feat that just 10 percent of marathoners achieve. She credits joining the team and working with a coach for her success.

“My teammates inspired me to push myself harder and to go faster than I ever had dreamed possible," she says. “Being surrounded by so many runners who constantly push themselves to become better runners, I couldn't help but wonder what I'm capable of if I really diligently trained."

 


 

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It's a phenomenon Mandje, who has been a coach for more than 10 years, has witnessed coaching NYRR Group Training sessions.

“I've seen runners accomplish goals they didn't think were possible simply because they were inspired by another runner in their group," he says. “Runners training together in a supportive and positive group setting can greatly raise the level of productivity, self-belief, and motivation. Yes, running is an individual sport, but when training in a group, you reap all the benefits of being on a team."

But what about virtual partners, friends on social media, and tracking platforms like Strava and MapMyRun? A growing body of research suggests that people can use these running buddies to their benefit, too—especially runners they view as faster, fitter, more dedicated, or any other superlative.

In one study, women who cycled with a virtual partner they perceived as better nearly doubled the amount of time they spent spinning versus biking alone. And when they worked as a team? Their results skyrocketed over time as they built a rapport, eventually lasting nearly 200 percent longer than going solo.

“The runners I've worked with have, over weeks and months, grown to become like a family," Mandje says about group training. “They're invested in their running mate's success as much as their own and I believe that sort of bond found in a group greatly elevates the experience for all involved."

When you can't physically get to a group run, programs like the NYRR Virtual Trainer offer runners real-world feedback from an online coach.

“I encourage runners to use virtual training in conjunction with the ever-growing popularity of social media," Mandje says.

That type of virtual motivation certainly worked for Park. As a blogger, she says she found a community of like-minded, supportive runners online.

“We commented and chatted about our running and lives through social media," she says.

She credits another blogger with inspiring her to get a coach.

“We had very similar PRs and training paces. Then I noticed that she was just killing it," Park says. “Her race paces were what I dreamed of in my fantasy. She said she got a new coach and the training was really working for her. It got me thinking, 'Why not me?'"

It seems that exercise behavior is socially contagious. That was the conclusion of a 2017 study that examined the workout patterns and social-network ties of 1.1 million people who logged a collective 217 million miles in 5 years. Simply put, we're influenced by what we see our friends achieve through social media, fitness tracking apps, and the like. Seeing the workouts of certain friends makes us want to run faster and farther. And a 2015 study had similar results. Virtual buddies—even when anonymous—encourage us to work out.

Park loves competing virtually with blogging friends and following teammates through Strava, a fitness social network where athletes can track and share workouts. “I like seeing what types of workouts other people do," she says, "but I also enjoy the casual competition and rivalry that arise from discovering that someone is running similar paces as you."

But it's not just about one-upmanship. For many, camaraderie—more than competition—is what gives runners an edge.

“There's a misconception that to be competitive in sports you have be competitive all the time, especially in running because it's seen as an individual sport," Cragg, the professional marathoner, told Zappos. “The reality is you'll raise each other up if you're more encouraging instead of competing in practice."

Park agrees. “I love the friendly, casual running rivalries that we have," she says of her running team. "It motivates us to train harder and run faster, yet we are still very supportive of each other. We take great pride in our teammates' accomplishments."

But camaraderie has deeper benefits too. “These fun rivalries keep my motivation for running high," Park says, "but above all, they prevent me from being complacent and taking my good health for granted."

After all, that's why many runners lace up and get out: the physical and mental benefits. Even if your goal isn't to get faster or run more miles, training with friends can still help. Exercising in tandem relieves more stress, according to multiple studies, by leaving you calmer than sweating it alone. And participants in yet another study reported being happier and enjoying their sweat sesh more when getting active with friends than when going solo. Running with a club made Park more committed, she says, mainly because she started to enjoy running more.

“The social component of group exercise is therapeutic," wrote the authors of a study published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

“Having a community of runners who are truly supportive and excited for your accomplishments makes a difference when slogging away the slow, arduous miles during the long, hot, muggy days of summer or the bone chilling, cold days of winter," Park says. “I've stuck with running for six years, precisely because of the community that I've found. When the days or training runs are bad, we cheer each other up. When we have a great race, we celebrate."

Osasumwen Eweka, 29, from Lynbrook, New York runs alone to “get to know" himself as a runner, he says. But he also runs with four different groups including Run LIC, New York Midnight Runners, Big Apple Runners, and Quicksilver Striders.

“Running with a team builds dedication, motivation, and inspiration to be a stronger runner," says Eweka, who finished his first New York City Marathon in 2017. “With others, anything is possible to achieve and believe."

So buddy up—in person or online—and reap the benefits that camaraderie brings. You just might become a fitter, happier runner as a result.