Friday, April 22, 2011

Running Clubs: The Dark Side

As I've been cogitating on the upcoming NYC Running Show panel discussion (4pm this Saturday April 23), I've also been mulling over an old post of mine about the benefits of joining a running club. I boiled it down to four major factors:
1. Connecting - with others, across many walks of life
2. Learning - from experienced runners, coaches, leaders
3. Improving - by training with a group, perhaps following a plan
4. Supporting - club members are there for each other, through thick and thin

As I wrote that post, I made an unstated assumption: the club you would belong to is essentially a good organization, led by good people. This basic rubric would describe the vast majority of running clubs that I've known or been a member of over the years. However, I have seen exceptions to that rule, and I thought I'd throw a few "beware of" factors out there for anyone who is considering joining a team, or who is feeling a bit uncomfortable with their current team.

1. The "We Rock, You Suck!" Syndrome. Beware of any team or club that revels in itself too much. It's only natural for folks to feel like the club they joined is definitely the best club out there, but watch out for clubs that take this a little too far. A strong, confident team with the right attitude should have more of a "We Rock, and You Aren't So Bad Either" approach to others. In other words, just because your club is great, that does not mean that all others are terrible.
2. The Animal House Complex. Some clubs get a little too gung-ho about their partying (and possibly their initiation rituals). Don't get me wrong, I'm all in favor of good parties. But I'm less in favor of drunken slobberfests and the proverbial lampshade-on-the-head antics (or worse, but let's not go there). Having fun is great, being an embarrassment is not.
3. The Crossing Swords Problem. In my earlier post, I wrote that you are more likely to get the full benefit of a hard workout if you run with a group. While that is true, it's also important not to train with a group that tends to turn every single run into a race. Workouts are for improving your fitness, not competing. Save the competition for the race course. If you are part of a group in which everyone's ego is on the line each time you get together, your risk of crashing and burning is very high.
4. The Isolationist Manifesto. One risk of any group is its tendency, over time, to be increasingly inward-focused. Beware of a club that spends all of its energy and capital only on itself. Each club should recognize that it is part of a larger community; as such it should be both a participant and contributor to that community. If you find yourself on a club that has no interest in anything but itself, then know that all the others in the community probably refer to your team as "those jerks".
5. The Autocracy Model. Beware of clubs that concentrate all power in one individual (or a small set of "royalty"). As a member of a club, you should be entitled both to some transparency into how club leadership is making decisions, as well as some say in those very decisions. In addition, any coach worth more than a penny should be happy to answer the "why this workout today?" question. Coaches who start with "because I said so" are, well, lousy coaches. A good training plan stands on its merits, and a good coach can tell you exactly how and why each workout fits into that plan.

Before closing, I want to reiterate a few main points:
- Nearly all running clubs are led by great people and offer many positive benefits to members. I encourage runners to join clubs, but I also encourage them to evaluate a club before making a commitment.
- The list of potential pitfalls (above) can help you sort out the wheat from the chaff as you evaluate the team you will join.
- Finally, if your current club is headed in the wrong direction, speak up and see if you can help get it back on course. And no running clubs that I know of require you to sign lifetime contracts, so if you find that your club is not what you want/need/expected, you have every right to jump ship.

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