I joined the elementary school cross country team in second grade because friends were doing it and, I loved beating the boys. That started a long relationship that continued through high school and to college as a D1 athlete. Now, 16 years later, running with friends is still a major part of what gets me out the door.
We all need running buddies
Although I love running alone on occasion, there are certain circumstances in life that can make a running buddy a total gamechanger: bad weather, early morning runs in the dark, relationship troubles, a tough day at work, or an injury comeback. On the other hand, a running buddy can be great company when exploring new places, completing big workouts, or laughing with on a recovery day.
For me, running buddies have been a critical part of reaching my goals, holding me accountable, and transitioning into new phases of my running career. My experiences are not unique, however, the plethora of benefits that come from having a running buddy is also supported by empirical research.
Friend or foe?
My first running buddy and I started off as rivals.
In the prestigious 6th grade middle school cross country season, we both went undefeated until the championship race, where we would compete head-to-head for the first time. I remember exchanging dirty looks at the starting line and adopting a win-at-all-costs attitude. When the gun went off, we quickly separated from the pack and ran side by side for the majority of the race. I knew early on that I had gone out much faster than I should have and sensed my breathing was significantly more labored than hers. After solemnly receiving my second place medal, my rival approached me to shake my hand, and asked if I wanted to be part of a club team she was on that competed in races after the school season was over.
This olive branch of friendship surprised me–hadn’t we just acted like we hated each other a few minutes ago? Somehow, my middle school self was mature enough to accept the offer and move on from the rivalry that had been the center of my attention all season. We ended up becoming great friends and traveled across the country together to compete in various youth races.
Runners are often solitary beings, so it is easy to be standoff-ish. Comparing ourselves to others can sometimes be self-destructive. However, having a running buddy is much better than having a rival.
Finding community through running
Fast forward to a few months ago, when I moved from the suburbs of Sacramento, California to Bellingham, Washington to pursue a master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology.
When I first arrived here, I didn’t know a single person and moved into a one-bedroom apartment, where I would live alone for the first time. I knew Bellingham was an outdoor-oriented community with lots of runners and mountain bikers, but I wasn’t sure how exactly to go about making friends in a new state during a pandemic. A few weeks into school, another student in my cohort sent me contact information for a friend of his who lived down the street from me and ran for a local club team. I hesitantly reached out via text, wondering if this girl would respond or if she would think I was crazy. Thankfully, she replied, and we met for the first time with headlamps on in total darkness to go for a morning run (in the winter it doesn’t get light out until around 8:30 in Bellingham).
If you’ve seen the movie About Time, our experience was a friendship-forming version of when Mary and Tim met on their blind date, except that we had headlamps on and were running on trails instead of sharing a meal in a fancy restaurant. Since that day, we have become close friends and rely on each other to get the miles in when training gets tough. Although we are very different runners (my friend prefers speedy road workouts whereas I prefer slower, longer trail runs in the mountains), we strengthen each other’s weaknesses and inspire each other to pursue our different goals.
The psychology behind running and companionship
As a student of sports psychology, I have learned a few theoretical explanations for why running buddies are so important.
Self-determination theory states that humans have three basic psychological needs (Deci & Ryan, 2012):
- Autonomy: feeling like you are in control and have a choice.
- Competence: having an optimal level of challenge; that goals are achievable.
- Relatedness: feeling connected to others around youn.
If these basic needs are met, one’s quality of motivation is more autonomous, making them more likely to achieve their goals.
I imagine most people reading this article have their autonomy and competence needs met (likely, most of you typically have a choice in the decision to go for a run and also feel relatively capable at doing so). However, since distance running is an individual sport that often attracts slightly introverted people, I would imagine that the relatedness need is lacking for many.
Those with more autonomous forms of motivation have been shown to put forth more effort, achieve their goals more often, demonstrate greater persistence, and rate their life satisfaction as higher compared to those with more controlled forms of motivation (Deci & Ryan, 2012). Additionally, running buddies can provide fresh perspectives, introduce new training ideas, and be great listeners.
For me, making the transition out of college during the pandemic left me running alone frequently, which often led to me feeling bored and unmotivated to run. Although I know COVID-19 has made it difficult to connect with others, I encourage anyone reading this who finds themselves frequently running alone to seek out a running buddy, even if it’s from 6 feet apart.
Consider seeking out a person who runs at a similar pace and has a similar work schedule. In order to be a good running buddy, focus on being reliable, supportive, and open to trying new trails or workouts. Last but not least, it is very important to never one-step your running buddy!
Share this with your favorite running buddy. Comment below about how friendship has helped you as a runner.
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Peyton Bilo is a trail runner, mountain biker, and skier living in Bellingham, Washington. She is a Cal Poly alumni currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Sport and Exercise Psychology at Western Washington University.
During her time at Cal Poly, Peyton competed in Cross Country and Track at the NCAA DI level and earned 2x All-American accolades along with multiple Big West Championship titles. She is now transitioning her running career from the track to the trails with plans to race the 50k distance in 2022. Peyton is a member of the All In Trail Running Collective.