Jonathan Hughes found strength in numbers. Having signed up for a clinic to train for the Ottawa Marathon in 2002, he decided that training in a group was so much better than going it alone that it only made sense to form a running club with a few friends he met during the clinic.
"It was a way of keeping us going," says Mr. Hughes, 42, a strategy and leadership consultant from Toronto and "Chief Rat" of the RunningRats Run Club.
Marathon training can be incredibly solitary. The loneliness of the long distance runner can make it all too easy to stop runs short or not train at all on a given day. Running in a group provides not only a social aspect that can make long runs more enjoyable, but also gives runners the motivation they need to get out on the road. Just make sure the group doesn't push you too hard, experts say.
"There's what I call positive peer pressure," says John Stanton, founder of the Running Room.
Knowing that the group is waiting for you can get you off the couch when you'd otherwise rather stay home, Mr. Stanton says.
There were about a dozen members when the RunningRats launched. Today, there are close to 60 people in the group, with about 30 showing up for its Tuesday night runs.
"Our slogan is 'Run with the spirit,' and that's kind of the way we like to think about it. It's building a community, building a spirit between people and hoping each other succeeds through running," Mr. Hughes says.
Preparing for a race, especially a marathon, can pose a significant psychological burden. Joining others who are dealing with the same challenges and share the same goals can ease that burden.
"The biggest thing about running with a group is the support that you get," says Saul Miller, a Vancouver-based sports psychologist.
Dan Cumming, a member of the Pacific Road Runners, a running club in Vancouver, says that running with others makes it much easier to reach the finish line.
"It's a great way to meet people that have got similar abilities, interests, and it provides a support group as well that encourages you when the going gets tough," the 65-year-old says. "It's inevitable on a long run you'll start to feel a bit tired. You can gain energy from the other people, and sometimes you're the one that's giving that energy."
As well, running with others can often help people develop proper technique, especially when it comes to things such as pacing, Mr. Cumming says.
"One of the very typical things people will do if they're training for a marathon or even a half-marathon is they will go out and try to run too hard. That's a sure way to an injury and not even a very good time," he says. "If you've got somebody there saying, 'I think we're going just a bit too quick,' that's a good thing."
But running with a group can potentially be harmful, says Douglas Stoddard, medical director of the Toronto Sports & Exercise Medicine Institute.
Joining a group can put you "in an environment where you feel obligated to keep going," Dr. Stoddard says. If someone is developing an injury, the pressure to continue running with a group may only serve to exacerbate it.
As well, some runners, particularly beginners, may find themselves trying to keep up with a group that is far beyond their level, which can lead to injury or burnout.
"There are some people that are overreaching in their first start up phase of running, and sometimes the group environment can foster that," Dr. Stoddard says.
Most running clubs, however, are diverse enough to accommodate people of all abilities, says Melody Switzer, president of the Calgary Roadrunners.
"We have a monthly club night run and we also have some training runs that happen weekly. So depending on a person's interest and ability they could do one of three different group runs once a week," she says.
Those who are part of running clubs also say they are drawn to the camaraderie. Celebrating a good training session by yourself just isn't as much fun as heading out to the pub with the crew after a long run.
"We're really healthy people," Mr. Cumming says with mock seriousness. "But every once in a while we might [go to a pub] being a social running club. There's nothing like a cool beer after a hot run."
And while some people may prefer to train alone and feel the pain alone, there is much to be said for the chatting cure of running with others, Ms. Switzer says
"The majority of us are gregarious types," she says. "The time goes faster and it doesn't hurt as much."