Running alone or in group? The influence of others

Generally, performance is understood to be based on the athlete’s physiology or psychological attributes. This is true in solo events when the context is stable. But in direct confrontations, what about it? These factors remain subject to other issues: tactical issues. Yes, sometimes we surprise ourselves thanks to the opponent ahead! However, in training, we know too little about how to take advantage of others, whether they are adversaries or partners…

 

IN THE FACT.

When a performance is being achieved, we can make 2 remarkable observations related to the presence of others: first of all more frequent technical-tactical readjustments during effort (ex: repositioning in the group, technical finesse…) but also unusual levels of physiological stress (ex: tolerance of high lactate levels) ! Such effects can be explained by:

Affective (renewed motivation): having an athlete in line of sight tenfolds the efforts (generally) ;

Perceptive (moving attention outwards): thinking about the opponent rather than the burning legs allows you to “get out” of your effort;

Cognitive: having an opponent nearby acts as a reminder to stay in the task and keep control of the situation.

 

IN THEORY.

The literature is “conditional” on benefits: these could only be perceived under conditions of:

To have an opponent of a level close to ours. If it is not “challenging”, it will not galvanize the expression of our potential.

To have an opponent present, visible, concrete! Yes, fighting against something concrete is more effective than fighting against an imagined opponent.

To have an opponent located at an optimal distance. This so that the anticipation of the effort to be made raises a palpable stake: if the opponent is too far away, the situation will not be interpreted as an “opportunity” and it will not worth it.

To have an opponent who adopts a coherent attitude. Because an opponent who uses a strategy that we know unsuccessful will not stimulate our interest (eg. a too fast start).
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IN PRACTICE

1- In training: since others are a non-negligible helper, they “must” serve as a resource! In particular during the HIT sessions which often require a surpassing of oneself: running in groups will maximize the physiological solicitation while encouraging a mental projection in competition.

Nevertheless, at least 1 session per week must continue to be done alone (HIT or race pace). This is important because the stakes are twofold: more precise listening to yourself (speed experience, muscular/digestive cues) and mental resistance subjected to challenge. You know it, these 2 psychological variables are fundamental in endurance.

For light sessions, they can be done in groups if they allow the session to pass faster. A training partner will then reduce the impression of effort and limit the general feeling of fatigue. In the same spirit as the intense sessions, keep a few light sessions alone to adjust your technique, breath and mental strategy.

2- In competition: the influence of others varies according to personality traits. Example: Benefits are mitigated in athletes who are motivated by the event itself rather than by the competition. They are also reduced in very long races (ironman, ultra-trail…) where it is especially the personal challenge that counts.

 

One point remains to be noted: this is a limiting factor of the presence of others. Due to a change in the perceived difficulty of effort, group sessions are more difficult to quantify in terms of training load. Because the perception that accompanies them may not accurately reflect their real demand. In order to carry out a reliable follow-up of the athlete, an adjustment in the monitoring is therefore necessary. This one could cross:

– Objective parameters (cardiac responses to exercise: FCmax, FC recovery, average FC);

– Subjective parameters measured at distance from the training session (activation capacity, fatigue level, mood);

– Subjective parameters measured only on solo sessions (RPE).

 

To go further: Hettinga et al. Frontiers Physiol. 2017