Cyclists and runners have always liked to work out in groups, which is part of the reason why many people are attracted to those sports in the first place. Weekend hammer fests with other like-minded endurance junkies can be fun and very addictive. The rush of speed and adrenaline that comes with competition can be rewarding as well as motivating. However, group training can also be detrimental to an athlete's overarching competitive goals, as too much intensity within a training regimen has limited returns.
This isn't the case with all group workouts of course. There are certainly those rare groups that meet and can enjoy a relaxed workout with a focus on social interaction. But by and large, most training groups go as fast as the fastest person wants to go, leaving everyone else to survive for as long as they can red-lined at their physical limit.
The number of group workouts and the selection of which group an athlete should train with is a big responsibility for coaches. Being a coach can be a tough role when it comes to helping your clients decide whether or not to participate in their local group rides and runs. Oftentimes the reason the client made large gains early in their athletic career was directly due to the participation in such group training. But at a certain point, a coach needs to step in and give some tough love, and explain how training does eventually need to become individualized and specialized in order to improve key limiters.
Benefits of Group Training
Showing up to a local group training ride has many benefits for cyclists and triathletes. Simply learning how to ride in close proximity to others helps with skills development. This is especially important for road cyclists or triathletes who compete in draft-legal racing. In addition, besides road racers and ITU triathletes, learning to ride relaxed within a group is a great skill to learn for any triathlete since most races these days have hundreds if not thousands of participants, and the bike leg can be very congested (especially when cornering or near feed zones).
There is only one way to learn how to ride relaxed in a group, and choosing the right group to train with is the key. A coach can help their beginning-level clients develop skills by suggesting a suitable ride in their client's area. You may even be able to organize a weekend ride for your clients where you can teach them how to ride safely within a group.
Joining a running or cycling group has some great advantages besides learning skills and staying motivated. By nature, groups of competitive athletes training together breeds an air of competition. This can be a good thing especially when the training micro-cycle calls for race simulation or high intensity. There is no better way to go hard and reach your limits than to train with your competitors. Group workouts can be ideal tests or "C"-level races to measure progress. Try to have your clients capture as much data as possible so you can analyze the results and keep track of the overall workload and performance markers.
Pushing the pace near maximum effort can also help improve economy. Remember, going fast is not always about making fitness gains. Economy of movement and simply learning "how to go fast" can produce significant gains.
Factors to Consider
Now that we have laid out some of the benefits of group training, here are some factors to consider before getting your clients out for group sessions. Cycling is certainly unique and very different from running groups since the dangers of riding with others is so much higher. Taking advantage of the benefits of drafting, yet at the same time managing how to safely ride near others on roads with vehicle traffic can be very stressful. Don't plan group rides for your clients unless you are sure they have the basic skills necessary first.
This isn't to say running groups aren't any less competitive or intense. There are plenty of running groups that are in essence simulated races and should be respected as hard workouts within a training program. Keep this in mind when balancing your client's schedule.
Another factor to consider when planning group training sessions are your client's personalities. Some athletes have personalities that are so competitive they can't go easy in any group they join. These people will race if ever given the chance, no matter what the goal of the workout may be. If you coach someone like this be sure to have them work out by themselves on recovery days so that they don't overdo it when rest is needed.
Risk vs. Reward
I'm sure we all know of someone (maybe yourself?) who shows up to the local group ride on a weekly basis no matter what month it is or how far off their important race may be. These athletes may be the fastest athlete around during the early season, but tend to vanish within the results as important races near. Now don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with this, as long as an athlete's goal isn't to reach their peak potential. Training fast with others is fun, but not always the best choice when trying to time a peak.
As stated earlier, too much competition and high intensity workouts can have their drawbacks. Plateauing performance levels and stagnation of fitness are the usual outcomes of too much group training. High intensity workouts do lead to great improvements but the body can't continue to improve on a linear path. The timing of high intensity workouts is like icing on a cake. First you need to build the layers of endurance, force, speed and muscular endurance. Once you have your base layers solidified, adding faster anaerobic workouts can be the last missing piece to a perfect peak.
Long-course triathletes and long-distance cyclists may want to be even more cautious when deciding whether or not to add high-intensity group training to their training programs since the demands of their events are not reliant upon threshold and anaerobic capabilities. However, there still may be benefits of doing hard group rides for long-distance athletes, but the opportunity-cost related to not spending time improving endurance and muscular endurance needs to be weighed against the benefit of gaining anaerobic capabilities.
An individualized workout can however be combined with group training to please the athlete's social and competitive needs, and the coach's demand for a specialized, targeted workout. Try asking your athlete to leave early and have the group catch them later. This allows the person to ride at their specific targeted zone and reduces the amount of time they spend with the group. This is a perfect way to introduce intensity late in a workout in a controlled manner. You can also do the reverse and ask a client to start the group workout but turn off at a particular spot. As the training program progresses you can add more total time spent within group training sessions.
At the end of the day each athlete is different, which demands flexibility on the part of the coach. Some people need frequent group-training sessions as a way to stay motivated and enjoy their sport. Others can perform extremely well by training entirely by themselves with very structured workouts. As a coach, try to remain aware of the common pitfalls that appear when too much competition and high intensity workouts exist within your client's training programs.