Can one train alone and still win a marathon? by Justin Lagat

Wilson Kipsang, February 2012, Kenya, photo by

(Editor's note: Justin Lagat wrote this column on the benefits of individual and team training programs. It makes thoughtful reading. )
Can one train alone and still win a marathon?

There are athletes who move from one training group to another in search of a perfect one that will possibly enable them realize their full potential in running. There are still others who train individually and still hope to make it to the top. The question is, is it really more effective to train in a group than to train individually as an endurance athlete? Is success attributed to being in a particular training group, or to an individual's hard work and determination?

Perhaps the best answer to these questions would be, "one man's food is another man's poison". For this case, I will just state some merits of each side of the argument and leave the reader to carefully consider for themselves which side best suits them. For a fact, I have seen athletes who took either mode of training and those who mixed the two modes emerging as champions in the end.

Recently, an article in the IAAF's Spikes Magazine listed some facts (10 things you didn't know about Wilson Kipsang) about the training regime and history of Wilson Kipsang, the marathon world record holder, and one of the facts is that he has been, for the better part of his career, self-coached. This got me wondering whether each athlete could not be having his own unique way of training that best suits him and of the possibility that in one training group, other athletes could be losing while others are gaining.

It is becoming a common belief among runners that training in a group yields better results. I would like to assure those who train individually that, that is not a fact, and that they too can make it in their running. In fact, with the advancement in technology where we are now moving to interactive GPS smart sports watches and heart-rate monitors, perhaps they may even be better off than the rest; the devices are tailored for individual training.

Some of the reasons  given for group training being more effective is that; it is more fun, it ensures that one keeps a routine as they will be motivated and reminded by their training mates to keep a set time table and that the occasional competitions within the group exposes one to race-like conditions. There may be other reasons, but to me, these only seem to be more suitable for a lazy person, who is not so much into running and needs a lot of persuasions and accompaniments to do so.
I think that an athlete who is focused, self disciplined and serious about achieving a goal in their running will only need a sports watch, a good place to train and a coach.

Besides, there are many advantages of training individually as well.
One, you can push yourself to your limits in your runs. This is not always possible in a group because the pace is always controlled to suit everyone and deciding to push harder alone will easily be interpreted as "unhealthy" competition in the group.

Two, you can adjust your training to suit your own strengths and weaknesses. At times you can go out and participate in a race then realize what exactly prevented you from running well and what you need to adjust in your training before your next race. Perhaps in your group, everyone will come back with a different area they need to adjust; one may resort to work on his speed while another felt alright in his/her speed but felt the need for more endurance, and yet another one may have been okay with both speed and endurance, but had problem tackling a particular hill, etc. It will be easier to work on your unique problem as an individual.

Three, endurance running is almost all about time. One athlete may be focusing on running a marathon in under 2:07 while the other is focusing on running 2:20. One will automatically inconvenience the other if they were to do some track intervals together with fixed recovery times, for example 2000m interval training. Either, the faster one may have to recover too much while awaiting the other or the other may never get enough time to recover before the next interval.

Four, you get to listen to your body. It is easier to increase your work load or reduce it depending on how your body is reacting to previous exercises while training individually without having to seek the approval of the rest of the group. In fact, you can even wake up in the morning and, depending on how your body feels, change the training program for the day.

Five, you get to create a convenient time table for yourself. Runners come from all walks of life. Some are night guards, others work in offices, others are students, others farmers, teachers, business men, etc. A convenient time for each one to train is unique. Not only will you be able to tailor your time table to suit your other commitments in life, but can easily adjust it without having to consult anyone else.

Six, you avoid burning out and unhealthy competitions. Even when you agree in a group that a particular day is for easy runs, there are bound to be individuals whose competitive nature will not allow them to run as agreed, especially those who missed out on the previous day's hard training session. At some point, the run will get "spoilt" and you will find yourselves running at a faster pace and ending up doing more harm to your bodies in the long run. Training individually enables you to follow your program well and ensuring you remain strong.

I do not know if there is a scientific finding to support group over individual training, but according to my own life experiences and observations, I believe that it doesn't really matter whether you are in a group or training alone. What matters the most is your focus, self- discipline and determination to improve on your running.

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