Vaneet Johal would never have considered entering the Paris Marathon were it not for her boss. Before she began training in earnest, Ms. Johal, the 27-year-old senior account manager for a tech startup in Vancouver, jokes that she could only run "maybe five minutes" at a time. Marathons, she figured, were for high-end athletes.
Then, last fall, a group of four co-workers, prompted by the CEO in their office of 10, decided they'd train together for their first marathon - more than 42 kilometres through the streets of the Paris. "This was go big or go home," Ms. Johal said in a phone interview last Friday as she was about to board the plane to France with her colleagues. More than a few times she almost gave up, but having someone to talk through the rough spots at work the next day always made the difference. "We are all supporting each other," she recalled. "You are involved in this together 100 per cent and it's a huge commitment."
And as it turns out, betting a bottle of wine with your cubicle mate that you can finish the race is an excellent way to guarantee that you will finish the race. Research shows that exercising with a group of friends or co-workers - as opposed to strangers at the gym or alone - makes people less likely to throw in the sneakers. A 2006 University of Western Ontario paper that reviewed 44 different studies found that the best way to dodge a return to couch potato status is to sweat it out with a cohesive and supportive team. "If they are debating whether to go on this run today, [thinking]'The weather's pretty crappy, do I really want to do this?' and someone trots around to your front door and says, 'Let's get out and go', you are probably more likely to do it than if you are on your own making those decisions," says Mark Beauchamp, an associate professor in the school of human kinetics at the University of British Columbia. "Groups can be a really powerful mechanism to support motivation."
Amielle Lake, the CEO at Tagga who came up with the idea of running the Paris Marathon, says that it often helped to talk to someone working toward the same goal, even if it meant simply talking through a route she was dreading. The company also allowed the runners to work flexible hours so they could find time to train, especially in the dark days of winter. Ms. Lake says just chatting about the run had a positive impact on the workplace - even on the staff not participating. "You could see confidence rising," she says. "It just had a really powerful energizing effect."
Training with officemates can also go the other way, however. While the idea tends to originate with employees - and companies typically make it clear participation is not mandatory - there's still indirect pressure to sign up, especially if the boss is involved. Mickael Damelincourt, the general manager of Trump International Hotel and Tower Toronto, is under no illusions: Adding his name to a race list definitely spurred on his staff. Last week, 33 employees completed the Harry Rosen Spring Run-Off. "There's the idea that if the boss is doing it, then we have to do it," he says.
At Triluxe Fashion Group, team captain and sales director Candice Shuster went through the office and personally "encouraged" everyone to join the team. "It's not like I am forcing them to do something that's not good for them," she said. Of course, it's also a good idea to make sure you're willing to go the distance, since dropping out at the last minute doesn't make for good office politics. At another Toronto company, one team captain made it clear on a Monday morning that a co-worker who didn't show up at the starting lane had "disappointed" her team.
Dr. Beauchamp says his research has often found that people prefer their exercise groups to be homogenous - young people prefer to work out with those of the same age, woman prefer training with other women, and so on. Often workplace running teams tend to break down along gender lines. Ms. Johal says no one in their group had ever run a full marathon before - a bonus because they were all at the same level. But workplace teams also throw together experienced runners with rookies, which creates a beneficial peer pressure to perform on both sides.
Samantha Bailey, 32, a server at Toronto's HotHouse Cafe, had completed several races before leading a group of nine co-workers , many of them "newbies," into the Harry Rosen run. "The more we talked about it at work, and the more other people knew, you became committed to it," she says. A few made wagers of a free dinner or bottle of wine. (Ms. Bailey, as it turns out, won: "I have my eye on a nice German Riesling," she says.) But what made the group work, she says, was that the wagers were all friendly - the focus was not on who was fastest but on doing your best.
Certainly, this was the case for Scotty Redmond, 29, a part-time manager at the restaurant, who now owes Ms. Bailey a bottle. He says part of the push to finish was show to his often-teasing coworkers that he could do something they saw as outside his character. "It just became a rivalry between us - who was going to beat who - and just really built staff morale," he said.
Aside from the motivation factor - and the bonus of running for charity - corporate team runners say the experience creates a bond and also introduces them to an activity they may not have tried on their own. (Mr. Redmond, who described himself, as "not an athletic person at all," is already considering his next run. "I may even start using the gym in my condo.")
As they boarded their plane, Ms. Johal, Ms. Lake and other two runners were just thinking of getting over that finish line together on Sunday. "We are definitely going to help each other through it," says Ms. Lake. And then it's on to champagne toasts and fine French cuisine.