How to Pick the Right Running Partner

The best running buddy will help you go faster, farther, and more often

By: Louise Jarvis 

The Buddy System

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

A decade and three children stood between 37-year-old Jennifer Lonneman and her last marathon. Training solo near her home in a Cincinnati suburb, she couldn't seem to go faster than 10 minutes per mile and wondered if a little company might help. So she started running with a small group. "Every little push, every person who was faster became the invisible rope pulling me along," says Lonneman. A year later she ran a marathon in 3:53. "My partners keep me running smart."

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Sports psychologists have known that athletes perform better in groups than alone since possibly the first study of social facilitation among cyclists was published in 1898. Simply put, this study shows athletes will exceed their expectations or personal bests when performing with a group or in front of a group, says Steve Portenga, PhD, the University of Denver's director of sports psychology.

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"You're more focused, and less distracted by pain when others are watching or running with you," says Portenga, who is also the sports psychologist for USA Track & Field. "The key is to find someone who keeps you focused on your goal."

All runners can benefit from group training. Less experienced striders may find that the accountability a partner provides is what they need to commit to a 5 AM run. More motivated runners prize buddies for helping them add miles and shave minutes. To maximize the advantages of this crucial alliance, keep a few principles in mind.

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Pick Wisely

Finding others who run isn't hard—strike up a conversation with a runner you frequently see at the park, ask a colleague if you can tag along on his lunchtime workout, or search the listings at a social site like Finding someone you want to run with again and again is a little trickier. Be prepared to ask—and answer—direct questions about training schedules, as well as short-and long-term goals, says Portenga. (Search: What's a realistic goal for a new runner?) You want to know up front if you have common expectations and a similar workout ethic. Do at least two trial runs before you commit to more. You'll know pretty quickly if the other person is positive and reliable.

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Make Pace a Priority

The big-picture goal doesn't have to be the same for each runner as long as an aspect of the training is shared. For instance, a runner training for a 5-K could do track work with someone signed up for a 10-K, while a 10-K racer and a marathoner could pair up for short runs, as long as they agree about their preferred pace beforehand. (Print it: Download this free poster to motivate your running—and your friends') "Pace is even more important than compatibility," says Barbara Walker, PhD, a sports psychologist and founder of the consulting firm the Center for Human Performance in Cincinnati. "You aren't going to be happy if you don't run your pace, if you feel too fast or too slow for the group."

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Avoid "Friendly" Competitions

"When you get too competitive, you lose sight of your training program and you deviate from what's ideal for you," says Portenga. "In the end, it can sabotage your performance. If you're going to make a competition out of practice, then you should compete with only yourself." (Try it: Our new Fit Tracker tool is the perfect way to focus your running progress on you) A better use of that time together, he says, may be to help each other through plateaus and work on checking off incremental goals. This is one area where veterans pair well with newbies: Running with a beginner can counter the culture of toughness that can take over between two experienced runners of equal ability. And practiced runners can help newbies stick with it.

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The bond between running partners is unique: It lacks the shifting dynamics of a typical friendship, the baggage of family, and the professional distance of co-workers. "It's like being in therapy," says Lonneman. "The act of running somehow allows the words to flow easily. We share things on our runs that I might not even tell my closest girlfriend. What else are you going to talk about over 20 miles?"

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Walker says that maintaining clear boundaries in her running relationships has been essential to her success as a marathon runner and triathlete. "My running partners and I have an agreement that what's said on the trail stays on the trail," she says. "If we're out to dinner, I don't want conversation crossover."

Biochemistry may be what makes these highly compartmentalized relationships so fulfilling. "Your endorphins are flowing, so your guard is down," Walker says. "Cortisol is low, so stress is low. It's this parallel relationship where you aren't even facing each other. There's a rhythm; it's a meditative state."

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