Do you run faster by yourself or with others?

There are many runners who seem to push their limits only under competition conditions (against another person). There are some who can compete with themselves (against a past time or distance). Some runners never run as fast in a race as their conditioning and workouts would indicate (i.e. choking).

There are different elements to consider about this phenomenon. Social comparison is stonger for some people than others therefore they want to perform better when others are present. Competition itself, ego enhancement through winning (being better than another), or a need for recognition play roles in how we view our performance and therefore the effort we put into it. Fear of failure, stress, tension and being generally uptight on race day contribute to poor race day performances.

But, what about just being able to push yourself to your limits? I for one have been able to push myself against the clock anytime anywhere just as fast as any race I’ve ever run. I enjoy the sense of being able to “max out”. For me, that is a rush. I don’t need someone else there to validate what I did. My PRs for several distances have been in workouts. It is the case for my 400m, 800m & 20 mile.

The 800 is an anomoly since I never race that distance it was a time trial by myself. I just wanted to test myself. The 400 is real. I raced it all through high school but bettered it in a time trial by myself. On the other hand the day I ran that 20 miler, my goal was just to have a “good run”. I felt good mile after mile. It was like the run fed off itself. It was effortless and I felt like I was just flying. I decided to pick it up and keep it up until I got home. It was one of those days you wish that it had been race day.

Contrast that to some runners who from day one push themselves to their limits. As a coach in fact I need to regularly reign them in so they don’t do too much too soon and end up injured.  

And what about the runner who doesn’t explore limits until race day? Is there a psychological barrier to discomfort. Research has now found a very strong component to the whole experience of fatigue is psychological. Each of us interprets discomfort differently. The ability to handle discomfort varies widely. Some runners at the slightest sense of discomfort will back off. Anything such as breathing hard, feeling hot, muscles aching, burning sensations in muscles, general nagging fatigue, or even just breaking a sweat for some; can make come people back off. Everyone experiences these sensations differently.

And then there are the runners who rarely if ever push themselves. I will run with many of my runners during workouts. It always surprises them when they can do more repeats for instance when I run with them than when they are on their own. Most acknowledge that it isn’t boredom but just that they can’t “push” as much when someone isn’t there (or right beside them). Similarly, there are times a runner will tell me that they can’t go any faster. If I pair them up with someone or I run with them they blast a 400m repeat like there is no tomorrow.

In each of the above scenarios I do not want to convey that it is somehow noble to push through pain, or promote a no-pain-no-gain philosophy, or even to say that pushing limits is even essential to being a runner and enjoying running. I merely want to contrast and explore the phenomenon of exploring limits and pushing oneself.

Here is one of my findings: for myself, I’ve noticed a very vivid prerequisite. I must be physically strong (in shape) and sharp for the mental aspects to take over and make me push ever harder. When I am out of shape I cannot demonstrate the same mental ability to push my limits (even if those limits are appropriate for my condition). I certainly have the ability to push my limits, race or no race – I’ve demonstrated that.

So, it generates questions for each of us. A couple that come to mind immediately are:
Does the physical precede the mental or does the mental precede the physical? 
How do we tap into that ability on demand – at any time?

Tell me what your experiences are and what you think.


About Dean Hebert

I’m a mental game coach, author and speaker. I work with individual athletes, parents, coaches, and teams on sports performance enhancement. Beyond my academic post-graduate work in sports psychology - the psychology behind athlete performance – I am a certified Mental Games Coaching Professional (MGCP) and certified hypnotherapist. I’ve authored several books and hundreds of articles. “Coach, I didn’t run because…” (2008) is a seriously light-hearted look at making excuses not to workout and how to overcome them. “Focus for Fitness” (2009) and “Screw the Goals Give me the Donut” (2010) are two of my eBooks on mental game approaches for the everyday athlete. I wrote these because I believe that everyone can benefit from the powerful mental techniques that the world’s best athletes use. I have been cited in Runners World, Best Health magazine (CN), SWEAT Magazine, and the Washington Examiner amongst many other publications. I have been a featured mental games coach in Runner’s World and for the internationally acclaimed trail running resource - I also regularly appear on sports and fitness talk shows such as LTKFitness, Runnersroundtable and for more than three years I have co-hosted a weekly video series with Coach Joe English for I specialize in mental toughness training. My clients include tennis, synchronized swimming, golf, race-kart, soccer, motocross, volleyball, MMA, cycling (road, off-road, time-trialist), running, duathlon and triathlon, basketball, football and baseball athletes. I have coached world-class athletes and athletes internationally. I have a passion for working with youth athletes and helping them apply mental game skills and techniques to all areas of life. Most importantly, my aim is to have people enjoy sports and life to their fullest through peak performances.
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9 Responses to Do you run faster by yourself or with others?

  1. david says:

    Until the other day, I really thought I needed someone around me to run fast. But a slower-than-I-wanted tempo run led to me running a mile by myself in less than 7:30. But I’d still rather have someone pushing me, or someone to try and chase down.

  2. So you can push on demand even by yourself though… I’m curious how fast is 7:30 for you compared to maxing out for you?

  3. jim says:

    I have always wondered about exactly what you have written. For me personally..I have been able to push myself to some pretty fast paces while alone. In fact, in many ways its a great headgame thing to be able to push, then push more, and when it is really uncomfortable, take it one more level, all without the help/aid of training partners. No question I have run harder workouts by myself than with others.
    However..with that said…sometimes there is nothing like a little head to head workout with pride and ego involved that really can put you over the top. ( example ..a couple of runs…a certain 7 miles run with a certain person where the pace kept getting faster and faster until it was agreed to ease back…or the famous 15 mile run in AZ where someone kept upping the pace, then easing it back, then upping the pace..and so forth ( who could have done something like that?) ah..good times…good times

  4. James – I thought exactly of those runs myself. I’ve had them with various people – yours and my runs are definitely among some of the most satisfying and were a real test never wanting to be the first to give in. These are some of the best “times” I’ve ever had running. Whether by myself or with others – that testing of limits, pushing another notch higher – has always given me a satisfaction that is beyond description. I wonder if others can relate.

  5. Pingback: Getting Mentally Tough Does not Require High Altitude « The Running World According to Dean

  6. Press says:

    I can not push my self to my limit when running alone. It always feels like it but I know it’s not my limit. My 5k record is 20:42 and was set at a race. My 5k record for running by my self is 22:09. I also find it easier to push my self is when I’m beating someone that is usually faster than me.

  7. Dean Hebert says:

    It is important to know that about ourselves. The only downside is that for high quality workouts which lead us to our fastest times may always have to be done with someone else in order to reach the goal reps or splits for instance on a track workout. if you don’t have the person, the odds of truly improving are decreased greatly. We only get faster by running faster.
    Good stuff!

  8. Pingback: Getting Mentally Tough Does not Require High Altitude « Everything Mental Toughness

  9. Pingback: It’s not all about Altitude – It’s also about Attitude | Trail Running Club

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