A Group Of Cyclists Race Down The Road On A Closed Course At The 2022 Ironman World Championships In Kona

Social Psychology: Athletes Going Farther by Going Together

BY Phil White

Helping athletes choose the right training partner(s) boosts motivation and performance, especially during challenging conditions. Training in groups also increases pace, fosters camaraderie and provides a support structure.

You might have heard the old saying that suggests, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” When it comes to endurance sports, there’s an increasing amount of evidence from large data sets that this statement is true. Let’s look at some of the most recent findings and explore the psychology explaining why teaming up could be the key to unlocking your athletes’ full potential.

Social Facilitation and the Theory of Competition

Strava’s recently published Year in Sport 2022 community survey showed that among 7 billion training activities logged by more than 100 million members, “Athletes in pairs went longer in both time and distance than when they were solo.”[i] This was true for running, walking, and hiking duos and even more so when two people took their bikes out together. “Globally, cyclists, in particular, went almost twice as far in pairs compared to solo efforts,” the survey report stated. I reached out to sports psychologist Dr. Jim Afremow, my co-author of The Leader’s Mind, to find out why the buddy effect is so pronounced in endurance sports.

He mentioned the concept of social facilitation, which was introduced by Indiana University’s Norman Triplett in 1898 and coined by psychologist Floyd Allport 22 years later. Triplett was an avid cyclist and a big fan of the sport’s elite competitors, who raced in front of big crowds in that era. He conducted one of the first social psychology studies (arguably the earliest related to sports, a century before pro teams and athletes had their own mindset professionals on call). Titling his paper “The Dynamogenic Factors in Pacemaking and Competition,” Triplett evaluated observational data from competitive cyclists and, on the other end of the performance spectrum, children spinning the reels of fishing rods.

“The bodily presence of another contestant participating simultaneously in the race serves to liberate latent energy not ordinarily available,” Triplett concluded after noticing that when racing against other people, cyclists improved their per-mile split time by up to 5.15 seconds compared to when they were competing against the clock.[ii] Afremow noted that this theory of competition also applies to tasks like running, hiking, and walking evaluated in the Strava survey, which, although not easy, are technically fairly simple. He also believes that accountability plays a big part in training partners pushing each other.

“If you know someone’s waiting on you or that they’re coming to pick you up, you’re far more likely to follow through on your commitment,” Afremow said. “You don’t want to let them or yourself down.”

Picking the Right Partner to Power Through With

When your athletes are primarily training outside, the most challenging time for them to stay consistent is going to be when the weather is wet or wintry, and the sun sets early. It’s all too easy to take a look outside, see that it’s cold and dark and find an excuse to skip a session. That’s when the motivation of a training partner or group can be at its most powerful. The Strava survey showed that “In January, cyclists and runners with grouped activities recorded 87% and 78% more active time, respectively, than their solo counterparts.”

“Having a training buddy helps you show up and then throw down, particularly when the conditions aren’t conducive to running or cycling,” Afremow said. “There’s also camaraderie in shared suffering, and your partner can help encourage and distract you.”

He went on to suggest that when picking a training companion, your clients should choose someone who’s close to the same level so that they don’t get discouraged by being too far off the pace or feel like someone is holding them back with less capacity. “If you’re way behind or out in front, having a training partner might do more harm than good,” he said. “Try to find someone who fits your ability and who you respect, as you’ll want to do more for them.”

Going Farther and Faster in Groups

The Strava survey revealed that athletes usually increased the duration and distance of their training even more than in a pair when they were part of a group of at least three. In some cases, they upped their pace too. “Cyclists also rode faster in groups than solo,” the summary stated. Afremow suggested that the social hierarchies that humans like to create could come into play on group rides and runs.

“There’s bound to be a competitive aspect in a larger group, and nobody wants to be at the back of the pack,” he said. “Fear can also be a factor, as people worry about getting dropped, left behind, or embarrassed by their training partners. When we’re in a group, there’s also positive peer pressure to show up and do well, and no one wants to let the team down.”

I also asked Afremow where mindset comes into play for your clients who constantly compete to one-up each other, post the fastest times, and establish themselves as the alpha in their training group. “Athletes with dominant personalities will want to take the lead and keep it,” he said. “In social settings where everyone’s swapping stories, coming out on top earns you social credit from the others.”

Another benefit of your athletes forming groups (or you doing it for them) is the support structure that a team environment provides. “A lot of endurance athletes are used to being lone wolves but can grow when they come together in a pack,” he said. “We tend to see others more accurately than we see ourselves, so one group member might push you on a day when they know you don’t have your A game, while you help them reign it in if they’re going too hard on a recovery ride.”

Getting into Virtual & Time- and Race-Specific Teams

Generic groups are great for bringing social facilitation to bear, offering accountability, and creating a sense of community among your clients. Bringing people together around shared goals can be even more potent. Whether it’s a team trying to break the three-hour mark in the marathon or preparing for races in Chicago, New York or Boston, Afremow believes that getting in a group with a common aim can increase motivation and improve outcomes.

“Being a part of something bigger and having a higher purpose helps us get beyond ourselves,” he said. “Individual skills and attributes are great when we’re training alone but can benefit everyone when we get together. For example, group members who are strong in hill sessions, speed work, or long runs could take the lead and help others who find them difficult.”

If you’re using TrainingPeaks to manage many of your athletes remotely, trying to get them into a group might seem daunting. But most of the benefits of in-person training can be realized if you create online teams, which could be augmented with regional meetups or getting together before races.

“The wonderful thing about social facilitation is that even the implied presence of others positively impacts individual and team performance and mindset,” Afremow said. “This means it’s a benefit of virtual and in-person groups.”

Starting Sub-Groups

If you have enough clients, you could help them organize around a time goal, race or age bracket. The next step might be to break up the larger group into smaller teams to amplify the mental and physical advantages of competing against each other in training. For example, this could be done by city, state or region. Once these smaller teams are formed, you can take the lead by not only providing tailored programming but also guiding, encouraging and leading them.

“Forming sub-groups can add an extra element of competitiveness and camaraderie,” Afremow said. “As the coach, you can boost everyone’s confidence by celebrating their wins, highlights and breakthroughs. You can also harness the power of positive reinforcement with awards for runner of the week or month and sending out swag for the best performances and greatest consistency. And if you can give people leadership responsibilities, such as organizing social media for the group, they will become even more invested and take greater ownership.”

Afremow believes that another key to getting the most potential from group training is to create a high level of trust between members. He pointed out that we only trust people we know, so creating an environment that promotes open communication, appropriate levels of self-disclosure, and mutual encouragement will help your athletes go farther and longer and have a better experience.

“When a group first comes together, it helps set the tone if the coach is vulnerable and shares some of their past struggles,” Afremow said. “A brief exercise like everyone sharing a hero, hardship, and highlight can help team members get to know each other better. Gratitude can also be powerful in groups, which can be as simple as each member sharing why they’re thankful for the sport. It’s hard to feel stressed when you’re feeling blessed.”


[i] “Year in Sport 2022,” Strava, available online at https://www.strava.com/yis-community-2022.

[ii] Najma Mohamed, “Norman Triplett’s Experiment,” Social Facilitation, available online at http://socialperformance.weebly.com.

Coachcast Dirk Friel Cta Image With New Logo

Never Miss a New CoachCast Episode

The TrainingPeaks Podcast

In each episode, we’ll sit down with industry experts to discuss coaching methodologies, the latest research and leading tools for endurance training. Available on your favorite podcast platform and YouTube.

About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

Related Articles