Book review: The Way Of The Runner by Adharanand Finn

At the end of last year the team behind Like the Wind magazine along with some wonderful friends opened a Pop-Up for a week. We had film screenings, talks, workshops and hundreds and hundreds of runners coming in. It was actually a bit of an overwhelming experience and there were too many amazing experiences for there to be highlights – it was all one massive highlight.

In the middle of the week, on a rare quiet moment, a man walked in through the doors. I instantly recognised him as the author of one of the books that I love and that we were selling in the Pop-Up: Adharanand Finn. Author of Running With The Kenyans.

It was great to meet Adharanand and I was really excited when he told me that he was writing a new book. He had decided to travel with his family again to experience another hot-bed of distance running – Japan.

A week ago his latest book – The Way Of The Runner – dropped on my doormat and I immediately started looking for opportunities to dive into the pages.

The Way Of The Writer

IMG_3089One of the fantastic things about Finn’s first book was the way that he threw himself into running with the Kenyans who were his neighbours in the village where he and his family lived for a year (hence the book’s title). This was not a dispassionate look at the way that east Africans train, live, eat and race. Adharanand was out there with them trying to understand why they are the best marathoners on earth whilst also trying to improve his own running.

And so it is with this latest book. Finn wants to get inside Japanese running and especially the Ekiden – wildly popular road relays that have millions hooked on the TV as they take place.

Whilst Finn’s brilliant way with words, self-deprecating humour, intensity about his running and journalistic rigour are as much in evidence in The Way Of The Runner as they are in Running With The Kenyans, it is clear that Adharanand wasn’t as welcome in Japan as he was in Kenya. Actually that doesn’t make the book any less interesting, but I was left feeling frustrated for Finn that he didn’t get as involved in the Japanese running scene as he seemed to be in Africa.

Points of comparison

It isn’t just the access issue that allows Finn’s two books to be compared. Adharanand refers regularly to the differences between east African and Japanese runners. Sometimes favourably, sometimes not. There is clearly a question that gnaws at Adharanand, which is why, when looking at the Ekiden in particular, Japanese runners are clearly capable of taking on the Ethiopians and Kenyans at their own game, and yet they don’t? Runners who cover 20km legs in the Ekiden at a pace equivalent to a low-60 minute half marathon never graduate to the global marathon scene.

It also seems to me that Finn’s young family also had a harder time integrating themselves into Japanese society than they did in Kenya. They clearly have the ability to land in a very foreign land and really get on with people there, but again I got the feeling from reading the book, that they didn’t really settle and I wonder if that made it harder for Adharanand to spend as much time with the runners that he did meet as he would have wanted to?

A great insight

Despite the fact that Adharanand appeared to have a harder time getting into the running scene in Japan than he did in Africa, the book is still utterly fascinating. I could spend much, much longer telling you about all of my favourite bits from this book, but I won’t. Because I really want you to buy it. In fact I want you to buy two and give one away. I believe that there is not enough good storytelling about running (there could probably never be enough for me!) so I want people like Adharanand Finn to keep doing what they do.

As you would expect from such an accomplished writer and journalist, the stories flow and it is a really lovely book to read. It is also satisfyingly long, not just a brief synopsis of the Ekiden phenomenon and a few personal observations. No, for as long as it takes you to read this book, you will be immersed in the scene. It has certainly made me want to go to Japan even more and take my running shoes. It is as though Adharanand is fast becoming my personal fantasy-travel agent. I wonder where will be next…

Running with (two) Kenyans

How much longer do we have to run? I am tired and hungry. Are we nearly finished?

These were the words that Joan said to me, whilst looking up – with pleading eyes – while we waited for Tom, who was leading our early morning group run, to return from trying to find Peter, another member of our group who we had apparently dropped some time before. I am sorry to have to admit that I lacked sympathy for Joan.

After all, she is a 32:30 10km runner.

I told Joan that we didn’t have too much more to do and promised that we could all have a coffee and something to eat once we had completed the last couple of miles.

What was I doing coaxing an elite athlete to carry on running?

Two elite runners... and me!
Two elite runners… and me!

Last week I received an email from my friend Tom Payn, who works as an athlete manager at RunFast, asking me if I would like to join him and a couple of the athletes that he is hosting in London, for a run on Hampstead Heath. I jumped at the chance. After all, it is a long-held dream of mine to go to the Rift Valley and see what it is like to be amongst the best distance runners in the world. That is not likely to happen anytime soon, so them coming to me seemed like a perfect solution.

The run was scheduled to start at 6:30am, which I was happy with that as I’m usually up way before that anyway and it would mean that the run was done and dusted in time for me to have breakfast before the start of the working day.

I must admit that I was a bit nervous – what if the definition that I have of an ‘easy run’ and the definition that a 32:30 10km runner has of an easy run, were different? Well, as it turns out, they were, but not in the way I was fearing!

The other person that came for the run was Peter Emase, a 62 minute half marathon runner who had recently returned from winning the Madrid half marathon in a new course record. He actually seemed to be even slower than Joan on the morning we ran together, probably because he was happy to wait for her.

However all joking aside, these two athletes really did take the concept of easy or recovery running seriously and a couple of times, as Peter ran up past Tom and I – hardly breaking a sweat whilst in a full tracksuit – I saw how effortlessly he and Joan move over the ground which left me in no doubt that I was in the presence of really great runners.

Lovely people AND great runners

It was lovely to talk to Joan and Peter. They seem to really enjoy what they do (aside from Joan complaining about being hungry!) and they seemed to be very happy to have a slightly out-of-shape Brit along for a run. They both seemed very relaxed about their racing plans for the future although Tom told me that both of them take their running seriously and have great futures.

For me, just meeting two runners like Joan and Peter increased how much I would love to go to Kenya or Ethiopia one day to see how these athletes live and train when they are at home. I know that it is too late for me to get any benefit from a trip like that, but I’d still love to see the best athletes in the world of endurance running do what they do best. Hampstead Heath on a Wednesday morning is lovely, but it isn’t quite Iten!

London Marathon Race Report 2012 by Catherine Wilding

Such a perfect Day

After days of torrential downpours, the skies cleared and the morning broke to brilliant sunshine in a cloudless blue sky.  There was a chill in the air and the temperature was around 7 degrees.   It was a perfect day on the streets of London for anyone running or indeed watching the London Marathon.

Kenya had declared the race their official Olympic trial.  There was never any doubt that the Kenyan’s were going to dominate both the men’s and women’s races.  If you were a betting man, you would have had your money on a Kenyan.  But with past winners, defending champions and world record holders in the field, there was no clear choice for winner.

A race within a race

To add to the excitement the British were also battling it out. With five women contending for the one remaining spot for the Olympic Marathon and in the Men’s race four men aiming to run inside the Olympic qualifying time of 2.12.  Scott Overall was the only man to have already earned selection for the British team, after running an impressive debut marathon in Berlin in 2011 in a time of 2.10. He was toeing the start line here in London in a bid to pace his fellow Brits to a sub 2.12 finish and a place on the team.  On the women’s side, Paula Radcliffe and Mara Yamauchi had already been selected.  Jo Pavey was a contender for the final spot but had chosen not to run in London having clocked 2.28.24 in London last year.  A dramatic sub-plot to the main race was about to unfold.

Even before the gun went off, it was shaping up to be a spectacular day.

The Elite Women

At 9am the women set off at a conservative pace. The early miles unfolded in a way that suggested they were sticking to their race plan.  The front group dominated by the African runners were being lead by the pacemakers and with no clear leader emerging they seemed to be working together.  A little further back and the British women were also sticking together lead by their designated pacemaker.  Louise Damen was heading the pack at 10k, by which stage Liz Yelling had already dropped back.  A veteran by comparison and with two Olympics behind her it appeared Liz’s third and final bid at the Olympics was already slipping away.  However, another veteran, the 42 year old reigning Olympic champion, Constantina Dita was here  just to run a qualifying time in a bid to defend her Olympic title in August.

At the half way mark the leading pack of ten runners were maintaining a consistent pace and still working together.  With a half split of just under 1.11, it didn’t look like the Kenyan’s were on course to break records.

A Fast Pace

Meanwhile the men’s race was already under way and unsurprisingly had set off at a blistering pace with a first mile of 4.41. Following the pacemakers was a pack of thirteen men including the World record holder Patrick Makau;  three time London Marathon winner Martin Lel; last years winner, Emmanuel Mutai  and his five Kenyan countrymen all in contention for Olympic selection.  At the 5K mark with a pace of 14.37 we were potentially looking at a new World Record.  29.36 was the eye-watering pace at 10K but didn’t seem to be quick enough for Makau who was pushing the pacemakers. By mile 10 however we lost Makau who dropped off the course with a hamstring injury.

It was Wilson Kipsang’s turn to surge forward with a half way split of 62.12 as the rest of the pack struggled to keep up. At the 25k mark there were three men in contention and both a course record and world record was still on the cards.

A new Kenyan Record on the Mall

Back in the women’s race, the defending champion Mary Keitany had already broken away from the pack in the closing few miles with a 4.59 mile.  She was heading towards the finish line and with another London title in sight was looking confident and at ease with a virtually effortless running style. With her last two miles in 5.02 and 5.03 she had completed the second half just over 3 minutes quicker than the first to cross the line in 2.18.37.  Her time being the third ever fastest for a woman and breaking the Kenyan record previously set by the great Catherine Ndereba.

With 800m to go Edna Kiplagat gave a quick glance over her shoulder to ensure that second place was in the bag.  She also broke the 2.20 mark running 2.19.50.  Just behind her in third place was Priscilla Jeptoo to make it a Kenyan-only podium with all three earning selection for the Olympic team.

Battle of the Brits

The excitement was still unfolding in the women’s race as Louise Damen had dropped back and Claire Hallisey was leading the British women with Freya Murray just a few steps behind.  Hallisey strode confidently into the Mall to finish in 2.27.44 and 11th place knocking almost two minutes off her personal best and earning herself a place in the 2012 Olympics.  Just behind her in an incredibly impressive debut of 2.28.10 was Freya Murray.  A relatively disappointing 2.31.37 was the time on the clock for Louise Damen.

Kipsang Surges Ahead

Back in the men’s race and Kipsang had surged ahead just after the 20 mile mark opening up a gap.  The only question now was whether he was on course for a new record.  As he took the right hand turn into Parliament Square and along Birdcage walk there was no-one else in sight.  It was a clear win. Only narrowly missing out on the course record by four seconds, he crossed the line in 2.04.44 .   There was a closer fight for second and third place.  Having hung on until the final miles Kirui started to fade and Martin Lel outsprinted Kebede to finish in second place more than two minutes behind Kipsang.  Kebede took third.

Despite his second place finish, Lel was not selected for the Olympic team.  Such is the level of distance running in Africa, neither was Kebede selected for the Ethiopian team

Lee Merrien had the honour of being the first British man across the line in a personal best of 2.13.41.  Outside the 2.12 qualifying time for Olympic selection it was initially disappointing.  However Merrien was later selected on appeal.

Then came the rest

They may be no match for the Kenyan’s and the Ethiopians, but the serious amateurs in their club vests running impressively fast times are also worthy of applause.  It takes commitment, dedication and guts to even be in the same race as the professionals running 100+ miles a week.  With 800m to go and not long after Kipsang had passed the same spot, a Mornington Chasers vest stood out.  A smiling Simon Freeman managed a wave to the crowd [actually the wave was only to you Catherine! ed], on the home straight and confident of a new PB.  Much further back came the fun runners in their costumes making the London Marathon the colourful and fun race that encourages nearly 40,000 runners to take part every year.

London will be alive again come August with the World’s best runners over the 26.2 mile distance. Surely the African nations will be set to dominate again.

The three E’s: engaged, enabled, and energized

You need three of these...

I recently read an interesting post on Fast Company about how to get the most out of employees. I was fascinated by what the article called the three states that employees need to be in, in order to deliver the best possible results for their employer: engaged, enabled and energized.

It made me think about what it takes to be the best runner you can be and I think that the same three words can be applied here too. I have just finished reading Adharand Finn’s book, Running With The Kenyans, in which he strives to uncover the secret to Kenya’s dominance in distance running and the marathon in particular. Without going into too much detail, the ‘secret’ isn’t really a secret at all – it is an ideal mixture of circumstances, motivations and opportunities that are exploited in that part of the world more and better than anywhere else.

Three important aspects of what Finn discovers, however, are that the runners he encounters are:

• 100% focused on running and do whatever it takes to be the best – they’re engaged

• they have ideal facilities in the form of traffic free, dirt trails at altitude, a plethora of training partners and some excellent coaches – they’re enabled

• they are surrounded by reminders of the benefits that running could bring them – they’re energized

What does that mean for me?

So how does that relate to our running? Well I think it is important to try to create our own ways to have the three ‘E’s in our running lives.

For me that will involve surrounding myself with the best runners I can to inspire and advise me. That will mean that I am engaged with what I am doing.

I will make sure that I am getting the best possible advice, in my case from my coach Nick Anderson, and being part of a training group, so that I am enabled to improve.

And I will keep reminding myself of why I run – to try to find out how good I can possible be and to create a situation where I can inspire and help as many runners as possible – which will ensure I remain energized.

So what will you do? How will you make sure that you have all the three ‘E’s in your running: engaging, enabling and energising. Please let me know what will work for you.

Book review – Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

Make this top of your reading list

It is not all that often that I wait with real anticipation for a book to be published. Even less common for me to pre-order it online and count the weeks and days until it will arrive, mainly due to the fact that I always have a pile of books next to my bed that I have yet to start, so adding to that pile is never a priority. But a combination of some brilliantly written articles in advance of one particular book and the fact that the subject matter is something I am fascinated by, meant that I was impatiently waiting for my pre-ordered copy of Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn from the day that the publishing date was announced.

Thankfully my great friend and mentor, Charlie Dark, passed on a pre-publication copy that he had been sent to read so I was able to see whether the book would live up to my rather high expectations earlier than anticipated.

I was hoping that the book would be part-training manual, part-inspirational tome and part-sports psychology discussion – maybe a combination of Paul Thoroux, Rasmus Ankersen and Professor Tim Noakes. It turned out to be a bit of all of them, though perhaps not in the proportions I was expecting.

The big question

There is no doubt that there is a plethora of literature, research, opinions and even movies about the reasons behind the recent and current domination of endurance running by people from east Africa and in particular the areas around Iten in Kenya and Bekoji in Ethiopia (there is a pretty amazing film coming out about Bekoji and you can see the trailer here) and the question that comes up again and again, is what is the secret behind their success? I have my own opinions and I’m happy to talk about this until the cows come home. But this is about what Adharanand discovered…

The (bigger) answer?

In Running with the Kenyans, Finn transports himself and his young family to Iten for a year to try to find the answer to the vexing question of why there are pockets of outstanding achievement in endurance running in east Africa. Along the way to trying to answer that question, Adharanand has adventures, set-backs, triumphs and no small amount of self-discovery.

I loved the parts in the book when Finn starts to train regularly and discovers that he is capable of much more than he thought he was. The descriptions of some of the runs – those that went well and those that didn’t go quite as well – had me variously laughing, wincing and nodding in sympathy. Finn ran the full gamut of experiences (pun intended) on his way to becoming the best runner he could be.

All along the journey of self discovery, Adharanand met people who gave him hints and tips, ideas and little nuggets of advice. But the answer to the big question always seems slightly out of reach. There are many examples of runners who are not super-human, of little set-backs, of every day struggles which makes the amazing achievements of the greatest runners alive seem even more extraordinary. So does Finn finally get the answer he is looking for?

I think in the end up Finn does answer the question. Certainly the answer might not be to everyone’s liking, but the end of the book has a very satisfyingly concise conclusion, that only someone who has really got up close and personal and lived the experience that Finn has, could confidently come to. The book is very well written – so really easy to read: I finished the book in two days on my warm-weather training camp – and whilst I personally might have liked a little more ‘science’ (I’m a running geek after all), I was massively inspired by the book and my desire to go to Iten has been stoked more than ever. And when I do pack my bags for Kenya, I’ll most certainly take a copy of Running with the Kenyans because is it well worth a second read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Despatches from the front line

I’d done my run this morning (actually my wife, who, being Swiss, is genetically programmed to forgo drink, food and sleep in the presence of snow, had me out running by 7am this morning in London’s first snow this winter) and I had settled down to write a blog post or two and check what the world was up to when I happened to notice that Ben Moreau (@ben_moreau) was online. Ben flew to Iten in Kenya a week ago for a few weeks’ training in advance of his attempt at Olympic qualification at the London marathon in April this year. So I jumped on the opportunity to ask him how things were going. He updated me on what was happening out there and I thought I’d pass on his news.

Ben said that he has finally acclimatised to the altitude and had “experienced one Kenyan training session”. How was it? “It was brutal”. Now coming from a man like Ben Moreau, who I have seen train and race on numerous occasions, when he says it was brutal, that means it must have been massively tough. Ben also said that he is being sensible, but that has to be put in the context of where he is and what he is doing – his sensible and most other peoples sensible are certainly going to be different!

I mentioned to Ben that I’d been out running in the snow and how hard I’d found it and he replied that whilst I was jogging in the snow he had discovered myth #1 about east African runners: that Kenyans always start runs slow. He told me about the long (erm, slow) run that he did yesterday where the 3rd mile was 5.28 min/mile and he was hanging off the back of the group!

Today included a well earned easy 45 minutes run after yesterday’s run and who can blame Ben for taking it easy. The long run was 16 miles in 95 minutes with the last 4 miles uphill.

Ben sent me his Garmin stats for Saturday’s run, just to give me an idea for what a long slow run looks like in Kenya:

Total time: 1hr 40mins
Average pace: 6:10 min/mile
Fastest pace: 4:59 min/mile
Elevation at highest point: 7,845 ft

Ben's splits for his long run in Kenya
It's not flat then...

But whilst those stats tell a story of running in a very different place, some things never change. Ben told me about catching another runner whilst out on that run who appeared to be labouring somewhat. As Ben passed him, the chap in question rushed back past Ben and shot off into the distance… until about eight miles later when Ben caught him again. This time when Ben went past there was no response! Sounds just like the people who hate to be passed on the canal towpath around Victoria Park in east London!

So we had covered training. And seeing as Ben was on Facebook, I think it is safe to assume that he was resting. So what about nutrition? How was Ben getting on with Ugali for breakfast, lunch and dinner? Well, who knows? He told me that he was having… wait for it… spaghetti bolognaise for dinner. What??? He did say though that he loves the chapatis that are served in Iten. At least that is authentic Kenyan cuisine!

Hopefully I will have the opportunity to catch up with Ben again and find out how he is getting on, but for now I think it is safe to say that he is in a great place to train well and come back in the best possible shape to make the Team GB selectors sit up and take notice. I hope you’ll all join me in wishing him luck.

Is the Kenyan smackdown coming to London?

I recently wrote about the ‘difficult’ problem that the Kenyan selectors have choosing their marathon squads for the Olympics. It might be amusing for the rest of the world to watch the Kenyan selectors squirm, but there is a serious point here – how do you pick only three when your nation has produced such a massive plethora of incredible runners?

How to choose?

One idea that was mooted was that there should be a US-style smackdown with all the Kenyan runners who hope to be in contention racing one marathon and the first three past the post come to London for the Games. Brutal but arguably fair… and at least it takes the pressure off the selectors. The ideal race for this to happen at, of course, is the London marathon – an iconic race perfectly timed four months before the Olympic marathon and with a field that always boasts a fantastic array of the worlds leading runners.

Well it seems as though, whether the Kenyan selectors have sanctioned this plan of action or not, the smackdown is in fact coming to London. The BBC has reported that several of the best runners from Kenya are coming to the Virgin London Marathon in April (read the piece here) including:

  • Emmanuel Mutai  – defending London marathon champion who won last year in 2:04:40
  • Patrick Makau – world record holder with 2:03:38 in Berlin last year
  • Abel Kirui – current world champion
  • Wilson Kipsang – winner of the Frankfurt marathon in 2011 with 2:03:42
  • Martin Lel – three-time London marathon winner and second place finisher in 2011
  • Vincent Kipruto – world championship silver medalist (behind Abel Kirui, above)

Now if I was in charge of picking a team I might be tempted to say that the first three Kenyans in London in April are in the Olympic team, but life is rarely that simple. In a further twist in the plot two others will also be vying for a spot:

  • Geoffrey Mutai who will be racing Boston on April 16 (and who won last year in 2:03:02)*
  • Moses Mosop who was second in Boston last year in 2:03:06 who will be racing in Rotterdam on 15 April

So I would say that if you are watching the London this year make sure you get there early or turn the television on to catch all the action, because I think this is going to be an incredible race. As Dave Bedford quite rightly has said:

With the Olympic men’s marathon due to be held here exactly 16 weeks later, we expect the battle for podium places to be even more ferocious than usual.

Too right Dave, too right!

* in case you are wondering, Geoffrey Mutai’s blistering 2:03:02 is not the current world record because the Boston course does not conform to the rules that the IAAF set out for an eligible course for a world record. But still… 2:03:02 – the mind boggles!

The benefits of running with the pack

Don’t tell my wife, but I harbour a dream of going to Kenya for a fortnight to go running. I realise that financial considerations make the chances that I will rather remote. But I will keep that dream in my heart. It might surprise you to know that the reason I want to go to Kenya is not for the benefits of training at altitude. I have previously spent many weeks at a time at altitude in the Alps, Pyrenees and the Andes in Peru. But a fortnight at two and half thousand metres does not a champion marathoner make. No, the reason I want to go to Kenya, is to experience the early morning group runs.

The Kenyan way

Personally I really love the social aspect of training, whether chatting whilst on a long slow run or encouraging others on the track whilst completing a hard session. In Kenya, the runners seem to make a virtue of running in a group, as described by Toby Tanser in his book “More Fire, How to Run the Kenyan Way”:

The chilly pitch-black darkness that spreads around the high-altitude training center like a watchman’s cloak will soon disappear; the sun rises with the speed of a jugglers hand on the equator. There are no street lights in Kamariny, and there is little noise to be heard save one noisy rooster cleaning his throat. Although it is barely 6:00am, a group of well-trained athletes, with hardly an ounce of fat apiece, silently mill around the camp…

No words are spoken, as some athletes are still sleeping in the camp. There is a group of visiting European runners, and they will wait until after breakfast for their run. Another group of runners who usually leave at 7:00am will still be sleeping now. The Kenyans, however, typically all run together on non-specific training days. The leave in a group and then the tempo and distance are worked out literally on the run.

And during his time in east Africa, Adharanand Finn ‘enjoyed’ many group runs, often with elite level athletes. In one of his first despatches in the Guardian he writes about the first time he joined a group on an early morning run in Iten, Kenya

runners suddenly start appearing from everywhere, materialising out of the darkness. Within a few minutes there are around 60 crack Kenyan athletes standing around. Some of them are talking quietly and stretching. They are mostly men, their long, skinny legs wrapped in tights, some wearing woolly hats. I suddenly feel out of my depth. What am I doing?

Without any announcement, they all start running, heading off down the dirt track. The pace is quick without being terrifying, so I tuck myself into the middle of the group. Up ahead the full moon lights the way, while behind us the dawn is creeping across the sky, making it easier to see. The last few stars go out as we hurtle along out of the town and into the African countryside.

You can read more here.

Running groups around the world

All over the world, groups of fantastic runners congregate for training. Nike and the US Olympic team utilise Alberto Salazar’s Oregon Project where Mo Farah has recently stated that he and Galen Rupp do nearly all of their training together.  Liz Yelling has written and spoken about training with a group of top runners in Bournemouth, and I could cite instances all over the world where runners train together to push each others performances to better and higher levels.

As well as knowing the benefits of training in a group anecdotally, I want to know if there is any actual evidence that training in a group is better. Almost every book, article or blog I have read has stated that the majority of the greatest elite distance runners in the world do most if not all of their training in groups.

The coach’s perspective

From a coaching perspective, Nick Anderson, who coaches runners of all levels of ability with RunningWithUs [www.runningwithus.com] says:

The group brings competition, support and fun when athletes are working hard. At the highest level of running, competition as found in group sessions is crucial.

Similarly, in last weeks Marathon Talk podcast, the new superstar of British marathon running, Scott Overall, talked about the importance of training with a partner. Of course at his speed it is difficult to find enough people fast enough to keep up with him to make up a ‘group’!

Given the ubiquity of training in groups and the perceived benefit, I wondered if there was any scientific evidence to accompany everything I intuitively know? Well, Stuart Holliday, from The Focused Mind, gave me valuable information for this piece, starting with some background on Norman Triplett, the psychologist who in 1892 researched what eventually became known as Social Facilitation (you can read more about that here).

Psychology and Social Facilitation

 

Triplett found that cyclists had faster race times in the presence of other cyclists. Triplett theorized that the faster times were due to the effect of the members of the group increasing each other’s level of competition. Further research in other sporting situations confirmed to Triplett that the presence of others increased individuals’ performance levels. Findings across a number of different sports suggested that when individuals perform a familiar task, the presence of others leads to a performance enhancement. When individuals perform an unfamiliar task in a group, the opposite has been shown to be true.

I personally think that in the case of running, it would be extremely rare for a runner to find their competition performance deteriorating due to the presence of others – after all how many marathoners talk about the immense boost they receive from crowds by the sides of the roads in big city marathons? However, if a new runner does join an experienced group for a track session, it can be extremely daunting.

Stuart goes on to say that rather than worrying about how one performs in relation to others, the other runners in the group should be used as a gauge. Stuart advises runners to not feel too downhearted if on your first few sessions you feel like you’ve been left behind. Unless you use a watch, what you won’t have noticed is that your lap times get quicker week by week.

Holliday offered further advice when he told me “Stick with the weekly track sessions with others. You will find yourself getting faster and be able to sustain consistent speed for longer periods. But make sure you compare your performance against your previous efforts and not against others! As I’ve found training with some Kenyan and leading British runners, it can be a fruitless task training with certain individuals! Equally, on those long training runs, having a running buddy or two can keep the spirits up as the legs ache after 2 hours.”

Personal experience

Personally I’ve benefitted enormously by running with others on my personal running journey. I’ve been encouraged and supported and can feel and see the improvement in the training cycles leading up to big races, such as the London marathon this year or 2010’s Florence marathon. And a final word from Stuart Holliday really emphasises the value of running in a group: “Don’t forget its a two way street though. Even the fastest runners appreciate a word of encouragement and such help in training can mean the difference between getting or missing a PB in the race situation.”

I believe (and now have the evidence of well established research) that running in a group is really beneficial. I feel a definite performance boost from cruising along in a group on a long run or blasting round the track in a speed session with others. Running in a group provides an incentive and encouragement that plodding along on my own will never do. If you don’t believe me, when I’m back from Rift Valley I’ll tell you all about the benefits on a group run! Just don’t tell my wife…