I started running in high school, as a member of my school’s cross-country and track teams. Being part of a team didn’t just contribute to my overall high school experience, it gave me a group of friends who knew, intimately, the agony of shin splints and what it meant to log six or seven miles in brutal Central California heat after a full day of school. When I graduated, I didn’t stop running, but I did stop running with others. I simply wasn’t fast enough to compete at the collegiate level and although I could occasionally convince my boyfriend or a roommate to join me on a jog, none of my post-high school friends really cared about running the way I did. I became a solo runner out of circumstance, not choice.

After a while, running alone became second nature. Over the years, I successfully trained for several marathons and shorter races alone. There were occasional meet-ups with running friends I’d met online, a couple of weekend running getaways with my high school running partner, and even a few 10ks I convinced my husband to run with me. But most of my mileage has been logged as a solo runner, with only my podcasts to keep me company.

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Two years ago I moved back to my hometown and, to be honest, struggled a lot with the transition. In the years prior to moving I had become a little burnt out on running and racing. If I “raced”, it tended to be at non-competitive events like mud runs and color runs. To shake up my exercise routine I got into P90X, and then yoga. I still ran several times a week but I wasn’t training for marathons or working to bust my PRs.

Missing my yoga studio and needing an outlet, I began to up my weekday mileage as I explored my new neighborhood. By summer I was beginning to think of training for a half marathon, my first in three years.

An old friend invited me to join her running club, which was in training for several fall marathons and half marathons, including the Nike Women’s Half Marathon, the race I’d chosen and gotten into. I showed up at my first long run of the season, wondering if I would fit in and if I could ever get used to running without the voices of my favorite podcasters as company. I shouldn’t have worried. Joining a group turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made.

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Running with a group—either a formal training club or an informal group of like-minded friends—can be a great way to shake up your routine. If you’re on the fence about running with others, consider how group training can benefit your running.

It’s a social outlet

When I joined my running club, I began to make friends who shared my interests. Although many of my friends from high school and college lived nearby, many were in different stages of life, with younger families and demanding jobs. The parent culture at my kids’ school just wasn’t as inclusive as the one we’d left behind. When I joined a running club I found my people, a diverse bunch with membership ranging from an 18-year old high school student to 20- and 30-something singles to married couples to middle-aged empty nesters. We’re united by our love of running but the social aspect is not taken lightly. We may train and race together, but we like each other so much that we often go out for post-workout Mexican food, take out of town running retreats, and go wine tasting together.

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Diane T. Bergin, a runner based in Albuquerque, NM, concurs. “I started running with a trail group back in Kansas City,” she says. “We mostly ran trails—some easy, some fast. We ran up to ten miles. I loved meeting up with the group to run and chat and catch up on current events—girl talk. It makes the time go by fast. There are lots of benefits besides getting in miles.”

Adds Tammy Chase, of Chicago, Illinois: “It’s free therapy, being able to talk about everything under the sun. Multi-tasking!”

Running with a group can help you push your limits

Sonya Heilman, of Marion, IA, was in Air Force Officer Training School when she started running. “It was during PT that we began running in groups,” she recalls. Though the regimented nature of military training precluded socialization during these runs, she says, she did feel pushed to improve her running.

“I remember running and seeing one of the guys in my squadron ahead of me,” she says. “I only noticed, really, because he was around 6-feet and. He was easy for my short self to find in a crowd, so when I saw him during our runs I would keep my eye on him and try to stay behind him. This guy was fast so it pushed me to improve my running, even though I hadn’t realized I was doing that at the time.” Eventually, Heilman says, they were placed in smaller groups where they did standard track and field drills and timed runs, with the goal of improving their speed. Eventually, Heilman was awarded the title of “Fastest Female Runner” for her squadron.

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Like Heilman, I’ve found that belonging to a running group has helped me become a faster, stronger runner. Surely some of that has to do with the coaching and variety of workouts (running stadium stairs, speed work at the track) we do, but a lot has to do with the people. On “easy” days I try to keep up with my faster friends. What is an “easy” pace for them is still comfortable-yet-somewhat-challenging for me. My body has gotten used to running at a faster pace, and that has resulted in faster race times. Either way, I would not be inclined to put in speed work or pick up the pace on my long runs if I were just running on my own.

Groups offer encouragement and support you don’t always get running on your own

Often, organized running clubs provide coaching and training tips—not just for experienced runners, but for those who have never raced or who want to increase their mileage. Chicago’s Chase first joined a running group when she decided to train for a marathon. “I had never run more than six miles,” she says. “I knew I needed a lot of help.” Chase joined the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA), which offers marathon training groups, for support. Eventually, after completing several marathons and half marathon, Chase volunteered as a pace group leader. “Many in my group had never run more than five miles,” she says. “It was fantastic to watch them grow stronger and their confidence build as our mileage increased.”

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Chase no longer runs with an organized group, but she does run with a large, loose group of friends. “One of the most awesome benefits is that I can almost always find someone to run with me,” she says. “That was particularly helpful last year, when I trained for my first ultramarathon and had to cram in 50 mile weeks before the crack of dawn.”

Heilman, though no longer in the military, now belongs to a local running club in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She joined their “Couch to 5k” program after taking some time off of running due to injuries. “This particular running community was so positive, so encouraging,” she says, “that if there ever were a day that I’d had a horrible run, I’d feel like I was getting support from these other runners.” Heilman says she has brought her young daughter to some of their training runs, and her fellow runners have been very welcoming and encouraging. “She’s really liking running now,” she says of her daughter, “and wants to join her school’s running team.”

Joining a running team gave me a supportive community and shocked me out of my running slump. The result? I not only have several new friends, but I’ve hit PRs in every distance I’ve raced since joining the group nine months ago. I still love to hit the trails alone, especially when a new episode of my favorite podcast drops. Old habits die hard. But these days, more often than not, you can find me out on the trails or track with others, proud to be part of the team.

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