When I started running in 2013, it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. Several times a week before work, I’d jog laps of Highbury Fields in north London, stopping for breath against a designated tree and psyching myself up for the hill ahead. It was what a seasoned runner would call an “undulation”, but to me it might as well have been the Matterhorn.
Having signed up for the Great North Run, I was going to pursue my new hobby no matter what – stubbornness can be a powerful motivator. That said, it was definitely a slog. There were fleeting glimpses of the “runner’s high”, but many lows too: blistered feet, chafing sports bra, the eternal battle between post-work drinks and my scheduled training run.
One evening, at a loss for something to do, I found myself scrolling down a community website. I clicked on a group called London Social Runners, which described itself as “a bunch of people who enjoy running and socialising afterwards”. Apprehensively, I headed to their meeting spot outside the National Theatre. If nothing else, I was down for the “socialising afterwards”. Each of us going at our own pace, we ran a 7km loop around the South Bank and Victoria Embankment, taking in Tower Bridge and Blackfriars and photobombing dozens of tourists. By the time we arrived back at the starting point – sweaty, jubilant and ready for a beer – I was sold on social running. I also discovered there was nothing like a group run to bring out my competitive streak.
Five years, five half marathons and 15 wrecked pairs of trainers later, running has become as much a habit as brushing my teeth. I’ll get out there whatever the weather and whether or not I have someone to run with. That said, my favourite running memories, almost without exception, involve being with other people.
There was the time when, having signed up to my local parkrun, I discovered a full-blown running community on my doorstep. Another time, having joined a more “serious” club, I paced myself against some speed freaks and ended up with a string of new personal bests. Then, having moved to another country, I found a club that instantly took me under its wing. And this is not to mention all the races themselves, which feature the same kind of camaraderie between strangers you’d encounter in a festival dance tent.
It’s a cliche to say it, but runners in general are a warm and welcoming crowd of people. Whatever your speed and whatever you’re looking to achieve, they’ll accept you as one of their own – the only criterion being that, every so often, you go running.
Social running can be whatever you want it to be – competitive, motivational, or profoundly supportive. Sometimes there’s nothing better than catching up with a friend as you jog at a gentle pace, before stopping for coffee and cake.
The unsung joy of social running, however, is having people you can talk to about running. As your passion for the sport deepens, you find yourself getting interested in topics such as split times, cadence, age-grade calculators and the relative benefits of interval sessions versus “fartleks”. Nine times out of 10, your non-running friends won’t care (although they might have something to say about the word fartlek). A group of running buddies will not only cheer you on, but also share the love and know all the lingo.
They all have their own war stories too – tales of injured knees, races that didn’t go as planned, and trail runs that led to face-planting in the mud. As you start running more frequently, you’ll have highs and you’ll have lows, and it takes another member of the tribe to understand it.
Although there’s always a place for solo running, social running can benefit both your running and your social life. I’ve made friends, amassed all kinds of new experiences, and – best of all – am no longer quite so terrified of the hill in Highbury Fields. For any reluctant runner, who’s considering a parkrun or running club, there’s nothing to be lost by trying it.
This piece was written in conjunction with Voltarol for Guardian Labs