Many people get into endurance sport, or sport in general, for the social aspect of spending time with others while also getting fit. We meet new people, we bond, we hurt, we laugh and we come back for more thanks to the camaraderie of others being there for us and us being there for them. For athletes entering endurance sport or returning to fitness an audience can positively influence compliance and consistency. Studies show that athletes train harder and focus longer when in the company of others. Athlete reliability skyrockets when they know someone is depending on them to show up. The benefits of “exercising” socially cannot be disproven. So then what could ever be the problem with having training partners? The answer lies in context.
Over the years I have been apart of many training groups, clubs and teams. In my twenties I wore a “road racing” helmet and couldn’t imagine a ride without the company of twenty other cyclists dressed in the same kit and wearing the same socks with coaches at the front and back end of the group chomping at our wheel. The team would end at the same café for a post ride latte and jam session. Our goals were team-based sprinkled with race tactics and strategies to win as a result of a group effort. The comraderie was exceptional and when things came together in races, we knew the hard work in training together paid off. Each season had a plan and each session had a purpose. The whole was definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
Over time, my focus evolved, as did my desire to realize personal improvements and compete against the clock (gross simplification of 10-15 years). To honor this desire, my training partners had to evolve, as did my training sessions and the specificity of each one. It was wildly motivating to train knowing that each session fit into a bigger picture and gratifying to experience unique improvements. Group rides at random speeds and punchy watts continued to be a huge part of my training. In fact, the more fit I became with solo workouts, the more I could enjoy some of those Hammerfest rides and even test a few riders that always tested me in past years. What changed was the approach and timing of group rides. What changed was who the hammer was and who the nail was.
All of you have goals for the season, for next season and even beyond. Whether you are doing haute route, gran fondos, staged mountain bike events, ironmans, half ironmans, du-athlons or marathons, having training partners can be a key ingredient to squeezing out more effort and pushing your power, pace or volume to new limits. Group dynamics can also simulate race conditions by having others surround you, maybe uncomfortably so, forcing you to find comfort with proximity and the pressures of keeping up, holding your line, taking a pull or maintaining mental fortitude despite depths of fatigue and bleeding eyeballs. For those observant few, riding with seasoned well-conditioned road tacticians offers an incredibly opportunity to learn and apply in your own training. Whether you know it or not, chances are those seasoned riders also do, or have done, a fair amount of solo training to get where they are today.
So back to my earlier comment about context. The use of training partners and social dynamics gets slippery for endurance-focused athletes when used as a crutch to deviate from their plan and what it really takes to go after real goals.
As humans, we often look for the easy way to navigate challenges and do the least amount of work with the highest return on investment. In training, we are no different. Sometimes training partners help make things easier for us. For the record, I’m not calling the kettle black - I have been there too, we all have.
Here’s the thing…
Setting goals, having dreams of qualification, wanting to “race vs. complete” and becoming a competitive athlete is hard. It demands more of us, physically, emotionally and mentally, than we realize until the going really gets tough. Using training partners to make things easier on us – be it to help us get out the door, to draft off, to chat with for long rides or runs (at their pace), to use them as an excuse not to do your prescribed workout that was written based on your goals (this is one I hear a lot) or to simply make the training session less uncomfortable for you - will only result in one outcome...comfort zone with no depth for physical or mental stamina. When you hit the front lines in races and the gun goes, you get what you trained for. The more you use social training as a crutch to color a box green, the more foreign racing will feel.
As we head into the spring and the days are warmer, dryer and sunnier, you will have opportunities to train with others. Consider whether you are the hammer or nail? Some days you may even want to be the nail to practice responsiveness and get pushed. Some days you may want to be the hammer to push others and drive the pace. Some days you may need to opt out altogether and do what is right for you and your big picture. Either way, keeping perspective and avoiding the trap of using training company as a crutch or dissing the prescribed session altogether because you choose to ride with others that had a different agenda (and thus you were obliged to follow). When you do decide to “never mind” your training, no need to apologize to the coach. It is not them that miss out, it’s you.
Remember this: The best training partners are the ones that support your goals and give you the freedom to get your work done even within a social dynamic. Great training partners are few and far between. If you take your goals seriously, also take time to screen those you might be spending long hours with on a bike. Best be on the same page about who is hammering and who is not.
In closing, have a watch of a video posted from the 1970’s on David Gerth’s (Brite Coach & owner of Continental Repairs) blog. It’s fair to say that bikes, gear, apparel and video capabilities have come along way. Athleticism was at an all time high!