I stared down the track in front of me. I’d already run a 1600, two 800s and four 400s at an all-out pace. Now just one more 800 stood between me and the end of the workout. I didn’t know how to run faster. But that was the task before me.
“Group 4, you’re up!” my coach yelled.
“Why do we have to run another 800?” someone moaned.
“Because it mentally prepares you to run hard, even when you’re tired,” he said. “All right, this is all-out. This should hurt. Group 4, go!”
I had a cramp in my left foot, a stitch in my right side, and I still hadn’t caught my breath from the last interval. Everything in me wanted to quit.
But I took one look at the rest of the runners in my group, and I thought, “I can do this.”
Over the years, team speed workouts have become my favorite part of half-marathon and marathon training. There are so many reasons to train with a friend or a team. Camaraderie, accountability and encouragement are some of them. But my favorite reason to show up to team speed workouts is that I like to run with the fast crowd. It’s inspirational, motivational and encourages me to push myself harder than I ever would on my own.
The running community is one of the friendliest and most welcoming I’ve encountered in my life—making room for runners of all speeds. My much faster friends never make me feel like I am less of a runner simply because I am not as speedy. On the contrary, they are incredibly supportive. They ask me in earnest how my training is going and wish me luck before big races. Unsurprisingly, they have been instrumental to my continued improvement as a runner.
Camaraderie is one of the obvious benefits of training with a team. Knowing people with whom you can talk the talk and walk the walk is invaluable. That’s what running friends are for. Where else will you find people who don’t think you’re crazy for being a runner?
And when you’re meeting a team or a friend for a running date, it’s a lot harder to punk out because it’s cold, or you’re tired, or your favorite episode of “The Golden Girls” is on. Thank you for being a friend: friends keep you honest and keep you running.
But my favorite reason to train with other runners, especially runners faster than me, is that I like the motivation.
I like being the slowest in a pack of gazelles. I like running with the fast crowd. It pushes me to run my best.
How To Run Faster Through Team Training
I’m a solid middle-of-the-pack runner. My best half-marathon time is 19:18 faster than the national median time of 2:19:48 for women. The men’s national median is 2:01:37. I’m a minute faster than that too. But I wasn’t always, as I chronicled in 7-Year Raceiversary Inspiration For Running Beginners, where I compared my first race times in 2007 to my personal records now.
One commenter on that post asked, “What did you do to get faster?” I thought about all the things that helped me improve. One of the most important, I think, is this: track workouts with a team.
When I started going to weekly track workouts with the New York Harriers, I wasn’t nearly as speedy as I am today. Heck, I’m still one of the slowest people on the team. But running with the fast crowd helped me get a lot faster.
I’ve got friends who can rattle off marathon times like 2:37, 2:41, 2:59 and 3:03—largely, people who have been running their whole lives, people with multiple Boston Marathon qualifying times under their belts. Quite simply, they kick my butt. But they also inspire me.
Hitting the track with them for a speed workout is motivational. Playing greyhound to their rabbit helps me push myself in ways I never would if I was training alone. And it gives me a vision of where I could be someday if I put in the time and effort.
We usually run workouts in four groups according to time. I like to joke that I’m group 4.1, bringing up the rear.
At my latest workout on Wednesday, Group 4 ran six 800-meter repeats at half-marathon pace with a 400-meter recovery in between. Hitting 4:02, 4:02, 4:09, 4:00, 3:58, and 3:59 as 800-meter splits, I finished every repeat faster than my half-marathon pace, and feeling good too, feeling like I had plenty more intervals left in me.
I also finished dead last on each lap. Does it bother me? Nope. There are always some people who are just a hair faster than me, finishing a few seconds ahead, and a few in back with me.
But regardless of our position, we encourage each other along. We start each interval as a group, no runner left behind. And runners in the faster groups cheer us as we race by while they’re on a recovery leg. As I’m rounding a lap of the track, there’s often a coach holding a stopwatch, telling me that I’m “looking good.” It’s like being at a race with throngs of spectators rooting for you. Motivation doesn’t get better than that. It pushes me to run my best, which just keeps getting better and better as a result.
So how did I get faster? I joined a team. And it’s one of the smartest things I’ve done as a runner.