Whether you’re a race-hardened veteran or new to trail running, there is always the choice to log your miles solo or with others. Our schedules probably naturally pull us in one direction or the other, but we’ll go over some of the pros and cons of each to shed some light on which option may benefit different aspects of training. Since the trail and ultra community is all about just that, the community, we’ll start with the pros and cons of running with a group.
To quote Woody Allen, “80 percent of life is just showing up.” Group runs hold us accountable. It’s far more difficult to talk yourself out of a run if you’ve got a great group of people relying on you to show up. Even if it’s just one other person that you don’t want to let down, you’re far more likely to show up for your run.
We all know how daunting the thought of a long run alone can be. Knowing you’ve got at least one other person committed makes the hours of running ahead of you far more achievable, and even enjoyable. If you have a large group, and the free time, make the best of it. Turn a long trail run into a cookout afterwards. Everyone brings some food and beer to contribute. Not only do you have your post-run meal, you’ve got yourselves a party!
Running with a group is a great way to push your limits, too. The only way to run faster is to run faster. We’ve all had those runs where we fall into the same comfortable pace, but with a group there are runners of all paces, and there is almost always someone faster than you. The same way we get caught up on race day running faster than we should, during a group run you’ll end up trying to stay with the front runners without even a moment’s consideration. Sure, we may not be able to hold that pace the entire outing, but every time you go out faster, you’re conditioning your body to handle the harder effort. Eventually you become that faster runner that people are trying to stay with.
And you won’t run just faster, but further! It's easy to talk yourself into a few more miles if you’re having a great time and everyone is going a little farther as well. When I first started running, anything beyond three miles was the stuff of fiction. I showed up to one weeknight group run, and the usual route was six miles. It took some time, but every week I pushed myself a little further until I could go the full distance. If someone else can do it, then so can you. The same mentality can carry you all the way to the ultra distances.
Do you know all there is to know about running? Yeah, me either, but there is a wealth of knowledge out in the trail community, and almost all the runners I know are more than happy to share their passion for trail running, their trials and errors with fueling and hydration, great race stories, and even some lessons on trail etiquette. The only way you’re going to learn any of this is to get out and be a part of that community.
While all of the previous sounds fine and good, there are definitely times when it’s beneficial to go it alone. Maybe you prefer to run solo, and you know it, and just use a social group run to break the funk? Perhaps the only time you get a run in is with the group, and you need some encouragement to tackle some solo miles? Maybe the only time you have to squeeze in a run is at 4:30 a.m. from your front door? Whatever the case, here are reasons to go it alone.
Some of us choose to take our trail running to an actual organized event. Whether you call it racing, or just paying for aid stations, that’s up to you, but if you have a set event in mind to measure yourself against, there are some days you have to put in some focused work. Whether it’s an easy run on a recovery day, hill repeats, or a hard tempo run, you can’t always get the most out of those days if you are keeping up with or waiting around for others. Sometimes your pace has to be your own.
Nothing builds mental toughness like a long run by yourself. When you hit that dark spot, whether it’s mental or physical, the only person that is going to keep you putting one foot in front of the other is you. The more you can confront that in training, the more prepared you’ll be on race day.
In the end, there are probably far more benefits to meeting up with other trail runners when the opportunity presents itself, but solo runs do have their place. If you’re disciplined enough, you can even reap the benefits of both at once. Use the group to hold you accountable so you show up, but maintain your own pace or workout for your training needs.
Sometimes it’s motivation enough just knowing someone else is out their on the trail. And if you’re new to trail running, and all of your runs have been done solo, be sure and introduce yourself to the other runners on the trail. You’ll hardly find a more welcoming family than the trail and ultra community.
Author: Denzil Jennings is a member of Terrain Trail Runners living in Edwardsville, Ill.