Ditch the Group Run Angst

Heather Cote is a lifelong outdoors woman, getting her start as a young child with horses. She discovered ultrarunning, long distance hiking and a love for all things trail in 2013 and hasn’t looked back. Heather is an active member of the local race community, often volunteering for aid stations and helping mark courses. She is lucky enough to call the New Hampshire White Mountains her playground and will be thru hiking and section hiking now that she has a little more flexibility in her work schedule. When she isn’t in the woods, Heather is spending time with her husband and fur kids.

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I will be the first to tell you I had an irrational fear of running with others. My fear included not being able to keep up, being too awkward to identify with members of the group, feeling left out of conversations, and simply not enjoying myself. I am grateful I managed to shake off those nerves, because if I hadn’t, I never would have experienced some of the many adventures that still have me laughing to this day.

To put my fear into context, I started running about twelve years ago. Those early runs were on pavement, completing 5ks and simply trying to hang on for dear life over the course of 3.1 miles.  My training consisted of the run-walk method most of us have used to get going. I had a group of friends I ran races with, and eventually ran trails with, a few days a week. We all ran about the same pace, with someone inevitably having a bad day… evident by the swearing and tripping happening at the back of the line. These friends of mine liked running shorter distances and for the most part they continued short distance runs or stopped running all together. That left me running on my own as my endeavors eventually lead me to ultras. I had one friend I ran with frequently. We spent many miles together, but sometimes our schedule didn’t align and I simply wanted company out on the trail.

Now what?  

I could suck it up and do the bulk of my training alone, or I could start exploring running with new people. The very thought of finding new running partners was crippling. I was self conscious about my pace, my loud breathing, frequent walk breaks and subpar athleticism.  This sounds silly coming from someone who was training for a 50k, but in reality I wasn’t sure if I could actually lace up my big girl shoes and run with new people. I partially blame it on never playing sports (I was an accomplished equestrian instead of a team sports participant) and feeling conscientious of where I was in my running journey.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but I eventually started to join runs with people who were faster than me. They could climb stronger and more efficiently. They ran downhills with apparent ease. My new found running partners would either run at my pace or they would wait for me, and not in a way that seemed as if they were frustrated by me falling behind on a challenging climb. This led to an opportunity to pick the brain of more accomplished runners, to watch how they moved and tackled the trails. It also led to some incredible adventures. While I don’t recommend this, I met a friend at a local trail network during a snowstorm. I ran the mile and a half to the trailhead, where we then played in the snow for two hours, finally parting ways so we could return home and warm up. We laughed so hard that day, losing the trail and our sanity more than once. We still giggle about her knit gloves from the thrift store getting caked in snow! She is one of the most accomplished runners I have ever spent time with and she never made me feel slow or inadequate. I point this out because you will find people who aren’t concerned about running fast, climbing strong or getting in their best workout… rather they simply want to spend time with others enjoying nature and this sport.

Now that I am both a running coach and a Team Leader for the Trail Sisters Southern New Hampshire Chapter, I am cognizant of the anxiety that can come from group runs. There are generally two types of group runs:

Organized Runs: Usually put on by a run club or organization. Pay attention to the details for the run. Look for language that talks about “no drop” or “pace groups” to decide if this is right for you. Group runs generally have a pre-planned route, giving the route out in advance or waiting for the group at intersections. If the run lacks a description, don’t be afraid to reach out to the leader and ask some questions! Use these as an opportunity to push your pace a little bit. Work them into your training as a chance to run a little harder or climb a little faster than normal.  

Informal Runs: These are typically long runs or early morning runs before work. They often have an open invitation. My best word of advice here is to try a shorter run and feel the group out. Ask some questions about the route and average pace to see if you would fit here. Trust me when I say you will find a place! Most people land at these runs through an invitation from a friend.  

Now that we have covered types of group runs, here are a few tips for overcoming those nerves and enjoying yourself!

  1. Show up early and meet the group. This gives you a chance to make sure you have your fuel and gear for the run. It also gives you a few minutes to warm up. Groups do not always walk to warm up and if you need to limber up to prevent injury, get there early and get it done.
  2. Do not be afraid to talk about your run journey! We all started at the beginning once upon a time and lots can be gained from a new group of run friends.
  3. Run at a pace that is comfortable for you. If you are being coached or utilizing a training plan, work your training around this run. Do not blow yourself up in an effort to keep up with the group! My biggest problem I have when running with other people who are faster than me is slacking off on nutrition. Stop or walk when you need to in order to stay up on fueling. You will not be the only one!
  4. Have fun! This is an opportunity to create new bonds, learn new trails, and build some confidence that will spill over to your solo runs and races. Seems simple, but people often forget that these group runs are supposed to be fun and not all are competitive in nature.
  5. If you are in misery and someone asks how you are doing, just be honest. You may find someone else who is having a bad day too! Pushing through is good mental training for race day. The caveat here is to not push if you feel like you have an injury coming on. If you need to call the run early, don’t be ashamed. Rest what ails you and come back next week to give it another go.  

Once you find others of similar pace and interest, you will wonder how you ever survived training without a little camaraderie. The smiles and memories shared will last a lifetime and keep you going during long solo training runs and race day. In closing, I would like to quote a few lines from a 2017 blog post I did, entitled “Group Running Anxiety.” It goes like this: 

“What I am learning is even if I am the weakest runner, not everyone in the group is there to get a fast workout in. Most of the time, they are simply looking for company to get their own hard miles done. I vow to find solace in that. I am also vowing to do the run for ME on these group runs. I can only go so fast, climb so strong and go so far. I recognize my limits but also take chances sometimes and let the fast people drag me along. How else will I get faster? Stronger? It’s the best way to get motivated!”

I am happy to say I did take my own advice. Get out there and find your next group run!

About the Author

Heather Cote is a lifelong outdoors woman, getting her start as a young child with horses. She discovered ultrarunning, long distance hiking and a love for all things trail in 2013 and hasn’t looked back. Heather is an active member of the local race community, often volunteering for aid stations and helping mark courses. She is lucky enough to call the New Hampshire White Mountains her playground and will be thru hiking and section hiking now that she has a little more flexibility in her work schedule. When she isn’t in the woods, Heather is spending time with her husband and fur kids.

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