A look at how four types of group runs can make you a better runner.

By on December 3, 2013 | 10 comments

Ultrarunning is primarily viewed as a solo sport. Running with others, however, can boost your performance. Enter a race or join a group for a run and you’re bound to push harder and elevate your running to new levels. The importance of the group dynamic cannot be overstated. Running partners can inspire, support, and motivate us to loftier goals. Here are a few of my favorite group workouts that you can recreate on any type of terrain.

1. The Head-Start Workout

On paper, this workout should allow each runner to finish the same course at the same time by giving the slower runners a head start over the faster runners. However, the first runner to the predetermined finish wins.

Though this workout is group oriented, each runner spends a great deal of time alone. Like in many ultra races, this workout teaches us to push the pace when we’re alone in ‘no-man’s land.’ This is how it is done:

Choose a course. It should be a route that everybody is familiar with and knows roughly how long it will take them to complete. Each runner determines his or her head start based on prior finishing times. For example, if it takes the slowest person 100 minutes and the fastest person 80 minutes to cover the same course, then the slowest runner gets a 20-minute advantage. The objective is to never allow anybody to pass you. The fastest runner’s goal is to reach the ‘finish line’ before any of the other runners who had an earlier start time. Alter your head start as your fitness level improves or to make the workout more challenging.

2. The Adventure Run

We know our own strengths and weaknesses on the trails, but how often do we get the chance to aggressively test them besides on race day? This workout allows you to fly where you feel confident and hone your skills where you feel less so. Here’s how to do it:

Split the group into three subsets according to each person’s forte: Strong ascenders, fearless descenders, and those who are speedy on the flats. Plot a course featuring these three elements and go for a run. At the beginning of each hill or flat section, those who excel on that terrain go to the front of the pack and challenge the rest of the group to keep up with them. At the end of each hill or flat segment, the peloton regroups, recovers, and repeats the drill on the next segment.

3. The Surprise Surge Workout

This workout was a favorite of George Yuhasz, my college cross-country coach. He believed that when racing, nobody knows who will take the lead and when. This workout helped prepare my team and I for those surprise surges.

You’ll need someone not running the workout to help with the implementation. All of the participants will need a watch. Choose the length of the workout from between 60 to 120 minutes. Allot 10 to 15 minutes for a warm-up. Have the person who isn’t doing the workout write down a series of fartlek times and efforts and when they are to occur on index cards. For example, cards could read: At 15 minutes, run for one minute at 5k effort. At 18 minutes, run for 5 minutes at 10k effort. At 26 minutes, sprint for 30 seconds.

Create enough cards to fill the allotted run’s time frame. Note that an easy or recovery interval should follow each fartlek so that the group can recuperate and reform. Shuffle the deck, deal the cards to the runners, and tell everyone not to reveal their orders to anyone. Memorizing your cards would be best, but carrying them to ensure you get the instructions correct mid-run is okay, too. Begin the run, follow the instructions on the cards, and watch the workout unfold. The group’s goal is to stick with whomever is leading each random pace change. Keep going until everyone has done all of their surprise surges.

Each runner’s effort level will vary, but the workout will teach you to react to another runner’s surge and will build confidence in timid runners by forcing them to take the lead and hold it for a short time. You’ll be amazed at how quickly a two-hour run will pass in this format.

4. The Bagel Run

I attribute my recent successes at the Boston Marathon and JFK 50 Mile to this workout. Every Thursday morning, in Flagstaff, local and visiting elite athletes gather at the local bagel shop for an ‘easy’ 60- to 80-minute trail run. I attend as often as possible and am continually challenged because these runners’ easy pace is faster than mine. I have to work hard to maintain contact with them, but the payoff is worth it.

Find your own ‘Bagel Run’ by running with a group of runners who are faster than you. Make sure this is in fact their ‘easy’ day. Their easy pace will likely match your steady state or tempo pace. Hang on as long as possible. Stop or slow down and finish the run on your own when you’ve had enough. If done regularly, you’ll find yourself hanging on for longer the next time around.


Try to schedule one of these runs once a week to once a month. You’ll reap the fitness benefits on race day, have fun training with others, and forge a few new friendships along the way.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  •  How often do you join others for runs?
  • Do you ever use your runs with others as workouts?
  • Do you prefer to be alone or with others when trying to push yourself?
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Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at SundogRunning.com.