To Group or Not to Group

Group workouts are all the craze these days, but are they really better?

It’s a windy March evening in Manhattan’s East River Park as the setting sun turns the Williamsburg skyline across the river orange. The track is wet and riddled with small puddles. By 7:15, more than twenty people have congregated behind the soccer goal on the south end of the field.

“All right everybody, today’s workout is one I’m very excited about,” begins Samantha Thomas, one of the four group leaders. “We’ll be running a timed mile!” Uniform applause follows and one hand is raised for a question.

“How many high fives should we give out?” jokes Chris Ho, another leader. While the response is laughter, by the time it’s all said and done, easily more than a hundred high fives will be shared amongst the participants of The Most Informal Running Club Ever (TMIRCE: NYC).

TMIRCE may have a relaxed atmosphere, but it’s far from unorganized. With over 1,500 members on the club’s Meetup.com page, they organize several runs every week across the city. The turnout varies, but there are often three or four group-affiliated leaders in attendance.

Running can be done nearly anywhere, so what draws people from across the city to a crowded, torn up track? “Commitment,” says Joe Mullins, another one of the group’s co-organizers. “When you do things on your own, you’re playing a game with yourself. You set aside the time, but you’re just as likely to blow it off.”

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TMIRCE members gather before a group run

Mullins, a former soccer player with strawberry blonde hair and a muscular build, lives in Brooklyn’s Park Slope, but doesn’t mind going out of his way for the sake of community. “It’s way better coming here and doing this with other people than it would be alone at my own convenience,” he says. “Fundamentally, it’s a two birds-one stone situation. I get to come here, see my friends, hang out, get a workout in—it’s a little bit of everything.”

While TMIRCE members were dodging puddles on the track, Amy Russell, a third year medical student at Temple University, was running by herself along Huntington Beach, California, where she’s studying for a licensing exam. “That’s a huge stress relieving thing that I do when I’m taking a break from studying,” she says.

And she prefers to do it alone most of the time. “It’s my own quiet mind time,” she says. “I usually blast music and just would prefer to be in my own head than run with someone else and feel obligated to talk.”

Practicality plays a part in her decision as well. Russell says it’s hard to find others who will run at her pace. With candidates on both ends of the spectrum, running alone is usually a more convenient option for her. “I have a friend in med school that is an ultra marathon runner who I would never run with; and then, I have some friends who haven’t run in five years,” she says.

With so many variables, it’s not always clear what type of workout is best suited for a given individual. Professor at Southern Illinois University, Dr. Curt Lox says everyone is motivated differently when it comes to exercise. Finding out what those motivating factors are is not always a simple task. “I wish it were as easy as putting a few numbers into a formula and it kicks out exactly what you should do,” he says. “It just isn’t that simple.”

Lox, who is a co-author of The Psychology of Exercise, points out that exercising with other people is often distracting. Depending on the person and the circumstances, this can either be an obstacle or a benefit. For example, talking to a friend can extend a run by making it more enjoyable and taking the focus off the physical exertion. It may also require a slower pace, one conducive to conversation. Similarly, having a spotter when lifting weights can help safely maximize repetitions or lead to unproductive time in between sets.

While Lox acknowledges being an introvert or extrovert may influence personal preference, it’s more complicated than sending extroverts to CrossFit and banishing introverts to a stationary bike in front of the TV. An extrovert who finds herself around people all day may find a healthy escape in an hour of solitary exercise. “We all need some alone time; some need a little, some need a lot,” Lox says. Of course, the opposite can be true as well.

Despite choosing to run alone most days, Russell admits working out with other people can be worth the inconvenience sometimes. “It’s a balance for me. If I happen to be inside studying all day, then I would absolutely be more likely to seek someone else to work out with,” she says. “I think it kind of casually interplays to whatever I am experiencing in the other parts of my life.”

Chris Ho, sporting a hooded Columbia rain jacket and gym shorts, is sitting out TMIRCE tonight as he nurses tendonitis in his Achilles. Ho may not be running, but he still showed up to encourage his mates; ringing a small cowbell and shouting encouragements to runners by name. “Doing group workouts is almost more of a social event than an exercise,” Ho says. “It’s almost the fear of missing out that motivates me more so than anything.”

Ho played soccer and ran track in high school and recognizes that team sports aren’t always accompanied by camaraderie and encouragement. Competition resulted in negative energy on his soccer team, he says, but TMRICE resembles the unity he found when he started running track. “If you don’t have a good day out here, it’s no big deal,” he says.

Ho sees a healthy competition in group exercise, but that’s not why he participates in TMIRCE. “The cross training is helpful, but I mostly just want to see my friends,” he says.

Another factor is the type of exercise. Five years ago, Jason Venema was tired of working out recreationally and looking for ways to cross train and supplement his weight lifting. He began mountain biking casually, but ending up falling in love with cycling. Once he started racing seriously, Venema sought more ways to mix it up and is now a competitive triathlete. Based in Tallahassee, Florida, he has competed in dozens of races across the country. He finished 11th overall in the 2015 Augusta Ironman, which included more than 2,500 athletes. Venema does most of his training alone, primarily because of convenience and customization aspect of a solo workout. Still, he sees the merit in working out with others.

“I do enjoy working out with others, but I’m honestly probably more productive when I work out alone,” Venema says. “For a triathlon, you usually have pretty specific training goals that would be pretty hard to do in a group.”

Motivation can be hard to find when the alarm goes off before the sun comes up and Venema acknowledges a partner can help with that. “If you wake up in the morning and you’re planning for an early workout, if you’re working out alone you can skip it,” he says. “Whereas, if your buddy texts you, ‘Hey are you ready to go?’ it’s motivating and it kind of prevents you from skipping out.”

The social aspect may be even more appealing for cyclists who, as a safety precaution, typically won’t listen to music while riding outdoors. “With biking, you can ride side by side with somebody for a couple hours and just chat or shoot the shit and it can be fun,” Venema says. “It helps pass the time.” However, as is the case with running, less conditioned cyclists can get left behind in group rides.

Venema has also participated in Masters Swimming groups, which feature highly competitive, intense swimming sessions. They aren’t designed for the casual swimmer—typically they are comprised of former competitive swimmers—but they provide a group dynamic for what is a largely individual exercise.

While the swimmers don’t do much talking while in the water, he believes attending these events is a good opportunity for serious triathletes to learn from more experienced swimmers. “Swimming is the hardest thing for a lot of people because it’s all based on form,” he says. “The Masters swims help people have a structured workout, because most people don’t know what they’re doing when they’re swimming.”

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Venema and fiancé Becca Goodwin after an Ironman race in Louisville in 2013

Venema’s fiancé Becca Goodwin is also a triathlete, and is very supportive of his rigorous training schedule. “That does help,” says Venema.  “If you become even become semi-serious in anything any kind of sport—not just triathlons, even cycling or running— you spend a lot of time doing it. If the other person doesn’t do it at least casually, or just enjoy fitness in general, it’s a can definitely be a strain on the relationship.”

Venema says he knows a lot of couples that have divorced as a result of the lifestyle change. While he does most of his training alone, sometimes the two exercise together. “I definitely enjoy working out with her but I also enjoy working out by myself sometimes,” he says. “I think it’s all a good, healthy balance of both.”

It’s safe to suggest a competitive triathlete is further along in the discipline of consistently exercising than the Average Joe, so what’s the answer for beginners and those wrestling with complacency or boredom from their current workout? Dr. Lox suggests the process of motivational interviewing can be implemented in health coaching for maximum long-term results.

The term was first popularized in the early 1990’s to get patients motivated for cognitive behavioral therapy by identifying how the therapy could improve their lives. As it relates to fitness, Lox believes having conversations prior to implementing a workout plan is essential for professionals in the field to ensure sustainable, healthy results from clients. Questions may revolve around personality types, goals, physical limitations, exercise history, dietary aspirations, as well as time constraints. The idea is to create a regimen and wellness plan best suited for the individual, one that is geared toward establishing realistic, long term success.

“For example,” Lox says, “Let’s say you took somebody who is very self-conscious about themselves for whatever reason. You might say, ‘Okay, here’s what I want you to do at home. We’ll just get you started with that until you feel confident. And then over time, if you really want to get into exercise classes, then we build up to that.’”

Personal trainer Shayne Staley had a client very similar to Lox’s example. The client was worried she would feel embarrassed by attending a group workout, so Staley made it their goal to bring her to a place where the client could feel confident walking into a class.

While Staley acknowledges that classes create an intimidating environment for some, she also sees the benefit in being around people who are in excellent physical condition. “Maybe you’ve never lifted over five pounds because you’re afraid of bulking up and then you see this girl she’s not huge but she’s lifting twenty pounds,” she says. “And you’re like, ‘Whoa, okay, I guess maybe it won’t make me big.’”

Staley has been training Manhattanites for more than a decade, but she also teaches spin, total body, dance, and kettle bell classes across the city. Understandably, she believes the primary appeal of a class over a free meet up group is the instructor. One of the most important aspects of any exercise is form and a qualified expert providing guidance and detailed assistance makes a big difference. “If you find an instructor you like, it motivates you to come to class,” Staley says.

Of course, boredom is a factor as well. “When the gyms feel like the students are getting bored, they tend to change the format of their classes to spice it up,” Staley says. On the flip slide, complacency from a solo workout can draw an individual into a class. Still other people throw cash into the wind and rely on classes for the entirety of their exercise routine. “There are class junkies,” she says. “For some people it’s their routine, they would never do it on their own.”

Back at the East River Park, Joe Mullins straps on his camping-sized backpack and readies his bike. In New York, commuting can be an exercise in and of itself. While he gets ready to head back to Park Slope, he ponders the idea of working out alone. “I probably don’t always want to work out with people,” he says. “I think…well, no I take that back. If I could flip my fingers and have my buddy to run at the track with me, I’d always want him there.”

At the end of the day, it’s about finding something sustainable; which for most, means enjoyable. “Some people who enjoy the activity itself don’t need these external stimuli to keep them involved,” Dr. Lox says. “Others don’t particularly love it, but as long as they have other people they can talk with, that helps them get through it.”

For many, the enjoyment can come after the workout is over. “Of course, some people just love to be seen as an exerciser, to be part of that culture,” Lox says. “To be able to go back to work and tell somebody, ‘I was out at the gym today…’ A lot of people like that association.”

Author: Zac Howard

Freelance Journalist based in NYC

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