In big city races you may have the opportunity to run as part of a large group of runners or a smaller pack. Should you go it alone or stick with the group at all costs? Let’s find out.
Don’t hold back
In my first 20 mile race, I settled in with 3 other runners, one I knew and the other two knew one another. We’d converged around mile 4 and worked well together for 8 miles, nobody pushing, but holding a steady pace and feeling good. On a windy and uphill part of the course, I heard one of the other pair say “stay back, let them take the wind” to their friend. I can’t write the words that went through my head at that point. Don’t get me wrong I understand it was a race, but it seemed to go against the unspoken agreement we’d seemed to have.
At this point I decided I’d had enough and pushed on, hoping my team mate might come with me. As it turned out, I managed to increase my speed and run each of the last 8 miles faster than any of the previous 12, finishing several minutes ahead of the group. I realised then that I hadn’t pushed hard enough, and had prioritised running with a group over pushing my own capabilities. Lesson learnt.
Despite the last section, there’s little denying that running in a group can help with the perception of effort, making a faster pace feel that little bit easier. The downside however, can be that you don’t check in with how you’re feeling on the day and pace it poorly. I felt I was running faster with the group than I would on my own because I didn’t ask myself questions. You could fall into the same trap, or conversely end up running faster than you should to stay with the group, only to burn out in the latter miles.
As many of us saw with the Nike and then NN Running team sub 2 hour marathon runs by Eluid Kipchoge, drafting in the same way that cyclists do in races can make a small difference. To be honest, unless you’re in a group where they’re all running in perfect formation, it’s unlikely to have much benefit. Thrown in the diminishing returns experienced from drafting at slower paces (they were running 4:34/mile after all), and drafting is probably not much use for us as amateurs.
The one caveat I’ll add is that in windy conditions, working as a team taking turns at the front can be useful. I’ve tried to get people on board with some success in smaller races, but perhaps at larger races you’d be able to get people to team up more easily.
Watch your step
If you’re running particularly close to other people, be very aware of your surroundings. I try to keep a few feet back so I can see and react to any sudden dips in the road, drain covers (especially when it’s raining or has been raining) and look for the shortest line.
Some people weave a lot when they run as well, or have a very variable cadence, meaning you could end up wasting energy and focus to dodge their feet or worse, end up tripping over.
If you can find the right group to run in, then running as part of a pack can be an amazing and very fruitful tactic. Just be careful of your own pacing, and keep your race plan and internal feedback in mind to avoid the potential drawbacks.
Written by Kyle Brooks, Running Coach based in Norwich, Norfolk