Buddy System

Every athlete can benefit from training with a partner or group. Here’s how to be sure you’re getting the most out of your time together.

Anyone who can get you out of bed to work out at 4:30 a.m. is a very special person in your life. You share a unique bond. You are bound to know the highlights of each other’s life history, and to know the central points of each other’s joys, worries and dreams. You do not flinch at the sight of this person in a Speedo. You know the pattern that sweat makes when it appears on his or her back. You may have guessed: This special someone is your training partner.

Training partners are, quite simply, people with whom you regularly work out. This might be a person who shares your daily lunchtime run, a person who spots you when you lift or a group with whom you go on extra-long bike rides once a month. Training partners are great. They can motivate you to reach for your goals, rise to your potential and, of course, have fun along the way.

But every relationship needs examination now and then. The more you depend on your partner to set your schedule and pace, the more you should examine your relationship. Are you and your partner meant for each other? Are you getting the most out of your relationship? Are you too dependent on your partner? Should you spend more time on your own? Perhaps even more important: If you don’t have a partner, what might you be missing? Check out this list of pros and cons and ask yourself if you’re taking full advantage of your partnership – or suffering from the lack of one.

PRO: You’re more likely to show up for workouts if you’ve made a date.
There is a certain synergy that comes from training with a partner or group. It starts with accountability. When you tell someone you are going to do something, you feel responsible for holding up your end of the agreement. It’s harder to cut a workout short, back off on hills or skip a workout entirely when you’ve made a pledge with a partner.

“I feel guilty if I blow somebody off, so I tend to show up, even if I don’t feel like it,” says Susan Vickery, a triathlete in Boise, Idaho. Making a commitment to others can be a way to promote follow-through on your part.

CON: It’s easy to grow dependent on training partners.
Unfortunately, some training partners don’t always place the same importance on workouts that you do. Maybe you’ve been there: You show up at your designated meeting spot in the early dawn twilight only to wait in vain for your partner. That’s a problem if you rely on others for motivation.

“You can’t always depend on training partners,” says triathlete Ed Stygar III, from Palatine, Ill. “If they don’t show up, you still need to train. I know people who fall short of their goals because they depend too much on training partners.”

Are you the person who completes the workout alone? Or do you climb back in bed? Finding yourself in that predicament is when you really test your mettle and your commitment to your training.

PRO: Training partners can push your limits.
My parents always told me to study with people smarter than I was, and perhaps that same advice applies to training. If you work out with people faster and stronger, you can rise to their level.

For this reason, Vickery says she prefers to cycle with men. “When I ride with the guys, it always makes me go harder and faster,” she says. “I know that if I show up, I’ll whip through 50 miles at a faster pace than I would on my own.”

Steve Caswell, a triathlete in Davis, Calif., has also found speedier friends to train with and is reaping the benefits – physically and mentally. “I’ve discovered that I can always go a little harder,” he says. “It’s also boosted my confidence for racing. When you know that you’ve been training with people who contend for the overall win in a lot of races, it helps you feel prepared.”

PRO: Partners can get you through the harder parts of your workout.
Training with others helps pass the time, and if the workout is particularly grueling, that old adage comes into play: Misery loves company.

Distance runner Lynn Massey of Norwalk, Conn., loves the way her chats with training partners distract her from the length or intensity of her daily runs. “The miles go by and I don’t notice how far we’ve gone because I’m so involved in conversation,” she says. Partners can help you through the lowest moments, too. “When you bonk, training partners are there to pull you home and listen to you whine,” says Vickery.

CON: Keeping up with a group can lead to burnout and overtraining.
Baltimore-based triathlon coach Troy Jacobson warns athletes who train with others to keep their expectations realistic and remember their own agendas. He recalls the story of a mid-pack athlete who was preparing for an Ironman with a top-area triathlete. “They did all of their long rides together and the mid-pack athlete rode at a level over his head,” Jacobson says. “When it came to race day, the mid-pack athlete was so tired and overtrained, he had to drop out of the race.”

CON: Sharing workouts can distract you.
Performing every workout with a partner or group can leave some skills – physical and mental – undeveloped. “It’s good to incorporate group workouts into your plan once in a while,” says Jacobson, “but athletes need to learn the art of focusing, which is easier learned when training alone.”

Some workouts depend on an athlete’s solo status. “If I’m trying to determine their lactate threshold or want them to hit certain splits, I would rather see athletes train by themselves so they don’t have to worry about someone else’s pace,” says Jennifer Harrison, a triathlete and coach in Chicago.

One popular reason to go solo is the time it offers to clear your head. Plus, you may have certain workouts you prefer to do alone: Maybe it’s an easy workout and you don’t want to keep up with others. Or it might be a more complex workout specific to your race goal. Sometimes it’s just a matter of convenience: You have so much time on this certain day and you have to squeeze it in with or without company.

Meet Your Match
If you haven’t matched up with any like-minded or like-paced athletes, it may be time to find your “sole” mate. Harrison has easy guidelines for finding that someone special: Make it someone you like. “All you need is someone you look forward to seeing, who motivates you and keeps you on your toes,” she says. “I also think different kinds of training partners meet different needs: Some are great for motivation, some for accountability, some work because they are faster, and others because they are not as fast.”

Finding a good training partner isn’t hard to do, and neither is keeping a good training partner (see “The Rules,” below). Begin your search through clubs or coaches. Often local running and cycling stores offer group runs and rides.

If you’re lucky, your relationship will blossom beyond tracking distance together. You’ll see the best and worst of each other and become trusted witnesses to each other’s fears and dreams. Most important, you’ll have someone who supports your fitness goals and encourages you to do your best. And at the end of the workout you can exchange those words that every athlete loves to hear: “Good job!”

Kara Douglass Thom is a triathlete and author of Becoming an Ironman: First Encounters With the Ultimate Endurance Event (Breakaway Books, 2001) and a children's book, See Mom Run (Breakaway Books, 2003).

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