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Friends with fitness benefits

If you’re the strongest athletes at your CrossFit box, or the fastest runner at your club, then you’re probably training with the wrong group of people.

To ensure you continue to improve your performance, finding the right training group that offers the best dynamics may yield the best results.

Try to keep up

In terms of your training environment, it seems that you’ll get better results when you’re the under dog trying to keep up with those who are stronger, faster or fitter than you.

It is also worth choosing your training partners or group based on their attitude to training as those who are committed and have a good work ethic will ensure you achieve the goals of each session and will be less likely to skip out on hard training.

Furthermore, when it comes to running or cycling, the group can only train at the threshold of the slowest member. That means that as the slowest or weakest member of the group, it’s likely that you’ll work closer to your relative threshold than the stronger athletes in the group, more of the time, which has the potential to deliver the greatest training effect.

When done with the right frequency and in the context of a balanced periodised training programme, this approach can deliver better relative gains in terms of fitness and strength than those achieved by the stronger, fitter group members.

Competitive environment

What’s more is that new evidence also suggests that a competitive training environment is more conducive to performance gains than one where social support is the overriding culture. This is another reason to give some careful thought and consideration to the composition of any training partnership or group you intend to join.

A study by researchers led by Jingwen Zhang, Ph.D., which was published in the journal Preventive Medicine Reports, put almost 800 graduate and professional students at the University of Pennsylvania through an 11-week exercise programme that included running, spinning, yoga, Pilates and weightlifting.

Participants either worked out alone or in a team where the dynamics were designed to be either socially supportive or competitive. In the competitive group, participants could track the progress of five random training partners via a social network, but they had no other interaction with them. In the supportive group, participants were able to chat to, go to classes with and encourage their exercise partners. In the individual groups, people either worked out alone without access to a social network, which served as the control group, or with access to information about how they were doing compared to others.

The best performing participants, who won prizes, were determined by how many classes they or their team attended. What the researchers found was that whether a person was alone or in a team didn’t affect how many workouts they did, but those in competitive environments worked out more across the board, attending 90% more classes than those in social groups or individuals with no means to measure their performance against others.

Interestingly, participants tended to exercise far less while in the socially supportive groups than they did while in competitive groups or alone. These effects happened regardless of sex or personality traits.

The study’s senior author Damon Centola, an associate professor of communication and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, explained that group dynamics have a lot of power over exercise behaviour, because a competitive environment can shift the focus of the group to the most active participants who set the benchmark for performance. “As people were influenced by their neighbours to exercise more, it created a social ratchet, where everyone increased everyone else’s activity levels,” he was quoted as saying.

Psychological benefits

In addition, the moral support and encouragement within the right group also tends to be disproportionately focused on the underdog during harder training sessions – it’s human nature to do this, which is a social norm backed by a substantial body of research.

Better athletes, in whatever form, have also achieved their status as a result of both good genes, hard work and experience. It stands to reason then that you’ll be tapping into a wealth of knowledge and experience in whatever it is you’re focusing on by training with these individuals and can therefore benefit greatly.

Come race or competition day, bringing up the rear of the group’s collective performances can often be highly motivating as you try to outperform your previous best and shatter preconceived perceptions about your ability, whether that be your own or the group consensus.

And the acknowledgment and affirmation of your ability that comes with recognition from those who you perceive as superior to you in terms of their ability is also highly rewarding and motivational. This helps to build self-belief in your own capabilities and raises expectations of your own abilities.

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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