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Group Training: What’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander.

As Summer approaches in the northern hemisphere, athletes will begin to take advantage of nicer weather and look for opportunities to train outdoors, often with others. For the past two seasons, primarily during warmer weather, I occasionally encounter a relatively large group of cyclists at some point during my Saturday long ride. The group’s size fluctuates from week to week, is comprised primarily of tri bike riders, and varies in ability level from beginner to experienced. Often, I will see them numerous times on a ride as they routinely stop to take breaks, let stragglers catch up, and who knows what else. Their group riding skills leave much to be desired also, as they regularly ride three or more abreast, and overlap wheels while riding in the aero position.

After observing what I refer to as the “peloton” in action over an extended period, I got to know a few of the regular participants and they provided me with some basic information on how the group functioned. Some participants were registered for a Fall Ironman or 70.3 event together, and therefore were training together for the same events. Other participants were training with the group because they wanted to train with stronger riders to improve their own abilities. A smaller contingent joined in on the fun because they were convinced that the group must certainly be a legitimate way to train for Ironman or 70.3 events, as almost everyone in the group was wearing official Ironman apparel. I say that in jest, but not really.

The “peloton” phenomenon is not unique to my neck of the woods. It is a common occurrence, and can be found in swimming and running circles as well. Why? Because misery loves company, birds of a feather flock together, and all those other catchy phrases that explain our need to congregate. Should we avoid being lured into group training at all costs, or should we seek out opportunities to share our suffering with others? The answer is yes, and yes.

Let’s begin with the perceived benefits of group training for individual sports. You get to socialize with people who have similar interests, while improving your health and well-being at the same time. Sometimes it seems easier to complete an arduous task when you aren’t doing it alone. You tell yourself that if others can do it, so can you. You also get to experience competition in the practice setting. Have you ever done a high intensity group run workout where you are just hanging on for dear life, but you won’t quit because you know that you are just as strong as the person running next to you, and if they can do it, so can you? Afterwards, you experience a feeling of euphoria, along with a heightened sense of self confidence that leads to numerous fitness breakthroughs shorty thereafter. In this case, the competitive nature often associated with group workouts pushed you to another level of performance. The group provides motivation for you to train.

Hold on! You spent $5,000-10,000 on a new bike during the off season and you need MOTIVATION to train? What was your motivation to buy the bike? Ok then, maybe you believe the group holds you accountable to your promise of participating in a specific event with them, and you don’t want to let them down. The accountability factor mostly works best with weaker and/or less committed athletes who may be new to the sport. The stronger, more experienced athletes are usually highly disciplined and require no extrinsic motivation or accountability to follow their structured training plans.

Peer pressure works with adults just as it does with teenagers, but not as much with self-absorbent competitive triathletes who have tasted success and are laser-focused on doing anything necessary to taste it again. The answer to whether one should venture into group training is contingent on the specific training needs of the athlete, and the specific training opportunities offered by the group. In short, the answer is specificity.

You are what you train to be. If you want to be a football player, then you need to practice playing football. In sport, training must be matched to the requirements of the sport to elicit the desired performance on game day. A coach’s job is to design training so that it addresses the individual needs of the athlete. When athletes fail to execute their scheduled workouts, they short-circuit their desired fitness gains. This is what happens with group training when it doesn’t meet the specific needs of the individual athlete. It becomes random training.

Group bike training is usually dominated by the strongest riders, and the workout will most likely meet only their specific training needs. In the case of the previously mentioned “peloton” group, the best athletes are held back, the weaker athletes are overextended, and a small percentage of the group comes somewhere close to meeting their specific training needs.

Unless you happen to be in that small percentage, the workout becomes what is commonly referred to as “black hole” or “gray zone” training. In such instances, for the strong riders the workout is too easy to improve fitness, and too hard to enhance recovery. For the weaker riders the workout is too hard to enhance recovery, and not easy enough to build fitness. Both might have been better off just watching a movie at home.

In theory, these rides are planned as long aerobic training rides for Ironman or 70.3 events. The disparity in fitness levels within the group leads to erratic pacing and unplanned stops to allow those who can’t maintain contact with the group to catch up.

Similar circumstances can occur with running groups as well. Athletes not being able to keep up with the main group can also present safety problems if workouts take place in secluded areas, or when it’s not yet daylight outside.

Group swim workouts aren’t quite as complicated, unless it’s an open water swim, which presents unique safety issues regardless of whether you swim alone or in a group. Master’s swim programs are popular, but most are focused on developing and promoting traditional swim technique that doesn’t necessarily transfer over to triathlon. The key to effective group training for triathlon is to ensure that you can complete your prescribed workout, or at least meet your training objectives.

Regardless of whether you train alone, or with a group, the primary objective is to complete your workout as prescribed. If you are inclined to do so in a group setting, you might consider the following suggestions to ensure achieving your objective:

  • Know the groups planned workout ahead of time so you can determine if it’s like yours, or if you can complete yours within the framework of the group workout. Don’t get caught up in the competitive nature of the group and allow it to disrupt your plan.

  • Ride alone, off the front of the group for efforts that require you to exceed those of the group.

  • Try to convince others to complete the group ride as a turbo trainer session. This way everyone can do their prescribed workouts without disrupting others. This also eliminates the tendency to ride someone’s wheel to rest when you are tired.

  • Settle for a group spin class as a last resort, as you should always try to ride your own bike when possible. Group spin classes using turbo trainers and your own bike would be more beneficial as long as the planned workout coincides with your prescribed workout.

  • If you want to swim with a Master’s swim group, try to swim on a day when the group workout will coincide with yours (ie. speed day, aerobic day, etc.)

  • Group treadmill run sessions at the gym are great opportunities to train in a social setting and still get your individual workout done:

  • Try and keep the group size as small as possible. Training with a few athletes of similar, or slightly superior ability and similar training objectives would most likely provide greater gains.

Ignore unsolicited training advice from “experts” in group training sessions when they try to convince you that you’d be better off doing the group workout instead of your own. If you have a coach that you trust, and total confidence in your training plan, you don’t need training advice from anyone else. There’s always going to be someone telling you that there is a better way to do something than the way you do it.

The bottom line is that you should be training with a technique tailored to meet your individual specifications, and a plan that is designed to maximize the effectiveness of your technique. Excelling at anything usually requires that you are selfish to a certain degree. Always put YOUR training needs above those of the group if you want to stay on track to reach your goals.

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