In a previous article I had written that discussed the quantitative and qualitative factors to consider when forming a training group, one of the topics I briefly touched on was “ego” (Read: Picking Your Ideal Training Partners). Over the years I’ve seen ego rear its ugly head at almost every level from high school, to university, to adult groups I’ve been a part of. Ego and pride can be a significantly counterproductive element of an otherwise synergetic training group, but tends to be one of those taboo issues that do not receive a lot of attention in running literature. Are runners typically too polite, by their nature, to confront ego when it begins to contaminate a training group? By this time of the year many training groups have been formed as like-minded runners are working together towards their spring goal races, but perhaps ego has also shown up as an uninvited guest. This article discusses the types of destructive tendencies that can lead to contention within a training group and offers suggestions on how to address such behaviour.
When I trained competitively for cross country and track and field in high school and university, there was always one guy who would look like an all-star during mid-week practices, but when the weekend would come around and it was time to race, that “all-star” often seemed to under perform. They would constantly “win” the workout, but then finish in the middle of the pack when it counted. These people seemed to have no concept of a recovery or easy run; every run was an all-out effort. There was one guy in particular that I recall from my varsity team. Each Monday and Wednesday workout he would be right up with the bona fide medal contenders, often putting in a surge at the end of each interval to cross the line first. On the Tuesday and Thursday “easy” runs, he would quickly turn them into a lactate threshold tempo run, or even a time trial it seemed on some nights. The problem with this is that the rest of the team would follow suit and everyone would push themselves too hard and not allow their body to recover from the previous day’s quality workout. Then on the weekend the team would spend hours on a bus to travel to a meet, and this person would consistently be disappointed with how he raced, and the team would wonder how he could finish in the middle of the pack when he was stride-for-stride with the national-calibre athletes on the team all week. In hindsight, the answer was pretty simple – he left his race in the workouts and maintenance runs and was too fatigued to perform well come race day. After a month or so of this trend the team captain finally had a discussion with the coach, and the coach in turn had a discussion with the problematic runner. I wasn’t privy to either of these conversations, but soon thereafter this person became more of a team player, and this was to everyone’s benefit. The team now arrived at meets fresher and hungrier, as we hadn’t been preoccupied with racing each other from Monday to Thursday.
Pride is something that certain people never seem to grow out of, as I’ve observed with some of the adult groups I’ve been a part of over the past few years. How many of you have been out on a Sunday long run, and someone will put in a surge about a third of the way in, then maintain the same 30-50 metre separation for the duration of the run? So even though you are both running the same pace for 90-95% of the run, you’re working largely independently and not reaping the benefits of a group dynamic. Another irritating tendency is known as “half-wheeling”; this is when someone that you are running with is not right at your side, but constantly a half wheel in front of you. If you surge to pull alongside them, they will in turn surge to maintain their half wheel gap. These runs can quickly turn into an effort that is more taxing than originally intended, thereby increasing the likelihood that you will be fatigued for your next quality workout. If these situations arise, resist the temptation to turn what is supposed to be an aerobic run into a pissing contest. Know what heart rate or pace zone is appropriate for your run, and don’t let someone tempt you outside of that range, as that is not the purpose of the run. Be confident that running within your comfort zone is what is best for your long-term development. Don’t be afraid to encourage someone to run ahead if you perceive them to be running against you and not with you. Keep the following anecdote in mind if the above situation sounds all too familiar:
I was recently coaching a person who was fortunate to have connected with three other dedicated runners who had all run between 1 -3 minutes faster than my client in their marathons the previous season, and all four had upcoming marathons they were preparing for. When I would check in to see how their Sunday long run went, the answer was often, “I think I’m too slow for this group; they’re always racing ahead of me and I can’t keep up”. I’d ask what her pace was, she’d tell me, and I’d reply, “That’s exactly where you should have been for your long run, averaging about one minute per mile slower than your marathon pace.” This exchange became a trend when I finally tried to reassure her: “when the season is over, I predict you’ll have run the fastest out of your foursome. The others will have beaten each other up before even getting to the start line.” Once everyone in that group had raced, my client had taken her personal best down by nearly seven minutes; two of her training mates hit the wall during their goal race and were reduced to a slow trod over the final 10km; and the fourth ran a respectable race, but came out quite injured and my client hasn’t seen or heard much of them since.
I, too, have succumbed to pride, and in one instance it resulted in a strained hip flexor and two weeks on the elliptical. It was early September 2009 and I was preparing for the Hamilton Marathon which was in two months. I was on a recovery week and transitioning into the speed portion of my training cycle. Steve, my training partner from my senior year of high school had just moved back to town and I texted him to see if he wanted to meet up at the local track for a workout. (I use the term “training partner” loosely, as he had a much more decorated high school and collegiate career than I ever did, and although we would carpool to the track and be running circles at the same time, he was in another league from me – we would basically warm up and cool down together, but that was about the extent of it.) Anyways, for this particular track workout a decade later I felt like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite; Steve was no longer the NCAA 5000m finalist he was a few years prior and this was my opportunity to “win” the workout. I had run the intervals well under my 5km race pace, which is about the pace at which I reach my VO2max, and going any faster achieves minimal incremental benefit yet subjects me to undue risk. Sure enough, the next day when I headed out for a recovery jog my gait was significantly compromised and I was forced to turn back. I got what I deserved by trying to show up my good friend in an interval workout – it was a painful lesson in humility. Fortunately I had just recently married a physiotherapist and was quickly nursed back to health.
I subscribe to several running magazines each month, but not once can I recall an article that touches on the subject of “ego” within training groups. It can certainly be a sensitive issue to bring up, but is nevertheless an important one to address before it negatively impedes the healthy development of dedicated athletes. Runners are typically very reasonable people, and being frank with someone whose behaviour is detrimental to a cohesive training group can often have a very positive outcome. But if having an honest discussion is met with contention or does not effect the desired change in behaviour, there are plenty of open roads out there to share with those who will save the racing until they’re wearing a bib number.
About the Author: Greg Wieczorek is a Chartered Accountant and 2:25 marathoner residing in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He has coached his wife Maura from a 4:17 marathon debut to a personal best of 2:58 and helps others maximize their road race potential through his online coaching service Project PB.