Dr Josephine Perry runs through the benefits and potential pitfalls of training with company
Mo Farah and Galen Rupp are fierce competitors when they have a number on their chest. But in training they are great partners. It sounds counter-intuitive, for you would think it is risky training with a rival. What we know as psychologists, however, is that the right people working together can bring out the best in each other, spurring each other on to better and better results.
The benefits of a training partner can be extensive. Studies have suggested that just the presence of an audience or being in competition with other athletes when training can improve performance. The improvements could come from trying to match your partner on effort or outcome, wanting to impress your partner, copying better technique from them or from simply being really inspired by them. So how can you pick someone who will help, and not hinder you?
Craig Winrow (pictured above) is the endurance performance coach at St Mary’s University and a big fan of training partnerships. This, he says, is partly down to having such a successful partnership when he was competing as an 800m runner.
“I had a training partner, Paul Burgess, and a big part of my success came down to him,” Winrow recalls. “If I didn’t have him pushing me at times I wouldn’t have done as well as I did. When I won the European Juniors 800m in 1989, Paul came second. I left that training group when I was 19 and didn’t break through as a senior for four years. It may have been a co-incidence but the year I did break through I’d started training with Paul again.”
Such positive impact may be simply down to the fact that most of us enjoy training a lot more when we are with others. Studies have proved that the presence of others shows us that someone else is in the same boat as we are and always provides a friendly face at events.
For those just starting out in athletics, the enjoyment factor is hugely important as the more you look forward to a session, the more likely you are to turn up and stick to your training. For serious athletes it has been suggested that this social aspect can reduce your risk of over-training or burnout.
We all have days when our motivation is lacking or we find ourselves procrastinating because we have a tough session planned. Knowing your training partner is relying on you to turn up can increase your accountability to your own training and remind you that you have a moral obligation to try your hardest.
Alistair Brownlee, the double Olympic triathlon champion, who is well known for doing much of his training alongside his brother Jonny, has written about the importance of this in his book: “Even at our level it’s so much easier training hard and well when you are doing it with someone else. I know if I can meet a friend at the track to do a hard session together it makes it seem possible, when otherwise I would just be thinking about how hard it was going to be.”
Rio Olympian Steph Twell has a similar view and has previously told Athletics Weekly that when she raced the World Juniors and won the 1500m title she did so with her friend Emma Pallant.
Twell said: “Without Emma I wouldn’t have pushed myself so hard. I rarely experience the shared passion and determination to succeed that I had when I trained with her,” Twell said.
The benefits are not just mental. Danish research in the Journal of Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy looked at training partnerships among trampolinists and found they helped the athletes learn from each other, becoming each others’ performance analysts. And 2014 research published in Scientific Reports found that physical interactions with others can change our own motor behaviour for the better. In other words, spending lots of time training with someone else could mean their good technique rubs off on you.
However, for all the benefits of a training partner there are also risks. Research looking specifically at distance runners has found that when 12 male distance runners did three 6.4km runs on an outside trial – one alone, one with one training partner and one with two training partners – the runners enjoyed the run most when they were with the two others, but actually they ran a lot slower. This may be because the athletes spent more time chatting rather than focusing on their training or rushing to complete the session.
With a long-term training partner it can be mentally difficult to cope if they perform better than you. Jealousy, resentment or over-competitiveness may arise. This was shown when researchers looked at what influenced 424 masters swimmers to keep on training. They found that pressures from training partners reduced the likelihood of them wanting to continue to commit.
Winrow admits this can be the case as some athletes have their confidence knocked, especially if they are used to being the best in their club back home and suddenly they find people in front of them.
“They could use it to their advantage but some struggle. They need to change their attitude. You can’t turn up and be brilliant every time,” Winrow says.
When you end up competing against a training partner you need to remember that they know you really well. They will know your hopes and fears, whether you have a sprint finish or whether you freeze under pressure and, in the heat of competition, could use this to their advantage or your disadvantage.
So what’s the answer? Perhaps the best approach is to consider a training partner for technique or recovery sessions, or for those times when you need a good mental and physical push to work a little bit harder and mix it with going alone.
FIVE TIPS TO PICKING A PERFECT TRAINING PARTNER
1. Have a couple of training partners – each for different purposes. If one is injured, on holiday or tapering for a different race then you have another.
2. Choose a partner who is more experienced than you. They can help you push yourself a little bit more and you can pick their brains about training strategies.
3. Consider the personality and traits you’d like to see in them. If you like to ease gently into the day in quiet and your training partner likes to burst into the day full of beans you may not be suited to doing morning workouts together.
4. Find someone you really get on well with. Winrow says: “For a training partnership to work you need to be a good friend and understand it is training and not racing. It is about pushing each other but not trying to kill each other, not turning training into racing.”
5. Discuss how you will behave if you are training for the same event. If you do well and they don’t, it could be difficult for them and you may fear sounding patronising. If they beat you, will you want to face them for your next training run?
» Dr Josephine Perry is a sports psychology consultant at performanceinmind.co.uk