This article was written for RunnersGoal.com by Lindsey Appleford, a guest author. Lindsey is a freelance writer, longtime runner, and one-time reluctant triathlete. Though she sometimes misses her knee cartilage, Lindsey can’t imagine a life without running, and she is currently flirting with the idea of completing her first 50K.
Like so many things, running groups are formed for all kinds of reasons. In an effort to improve employee health and help keep medical insurance premiums low, a company might establish a running group for its workers. A charitable organization may sponsor a running team whose members raise awareness for their cause. Many running groups are formed around races. Nearly every marathon offers some kind of group training leading up to their event.
My running club impetus was almost entirely accidental. I moved to a new city and, lacking other ideas for meeting new people, I decided I’d join a running club. Like Goldilocks, I started scouting possibilities, trying to find the club with the right running fit for me.
The first club I tried, one sponsored by a local running store, was too fast. Many of the club members introduced themselves as former college runners, local age group winners, and Boston hopefuls. I, like most runners, hope for Boston, but my hope for Boston is the same as my hope for winning the lottery and just as likely to happen. I knew my chances of meeting new people would be much better if I could actually catch them, so after finishing one group run five (okay, ten) minutes off the back of the pack, I looked elsewhere.
The second club I attended was the local branch of the Hash House Harriers. This club was too cool for me as I was far too harried a hasher to hang with this crew. I have trouble successfully navigating marked streets and routinely mistake north for south. This group ran unmarked trails, through bushes and over streams, trying to follow a hare-designated runner whose main goal was to lose us in the woods. Add to that the beer-laced aid stations, and I knew there was a very real chance of my having to bivouac Survivorman-style, lost in a forest for weeks while the Hashers wondered what had happened to their new runner.
The third group I tried, a newly established running club of twelve midpackers, was just right. They were laidback runners who enjoyed Saturday morning three mile jaunts followed by coffee socials. But, after two months, the club was disbanded when the group leader, Megan, stepped down.
Megan’s desertion, while disheartening, had given me an idea. Why couldn’t I start a running group? I knew a dozen runners who were now likely looking to join one. I could host Saturday morning runs. I could even continue the post-run coffee socials. Everyone likes caffeine. I emailed all of Megan’s former group members to let them know our runs were resuming while simultaneously informing them of the change in command. Within an hour, I was contacted by Byron, an enthusiastic runner who offered to share leadership responsibilities and help make the new running group stick.
Nothing to it, right?
Byron and I scheduled our first run for Saturday and spent the week beforehand promoting our group, hanging flyers in parks and running stores and handing brochures to anyone who looked like they were even remotely interested in owning a pair of running shoes. That Saturday, we both showed up at the park forty-five minutes ahead of our run’s scheduled start time. I had enough Gatorade in the trunk of my car to hydrate a six-hundred entrant 5K race. Bryon had brought a sack of bagels and a bunch of bananas large enough to sustain a family of monkeys for quite some time. We waited with relish for our throng of new runners to arrive.
Five runners showed up that morning. Two of them were Byron and me. Only one of the runners, Shanna, was from the original group of ten. Another runner jogged for about a quarter of a mile, then walked back to the parking lot, and left. The fifth runner was an affable beginning runner named Alvarro. The remaining four of us completed that morning’s run. We snapped a picture for posterity (and the group’s website), got in our cars, and drove off.
Our first group run was not what I considered a rousing success. Besides the low turnout, Shanna, Alvarro, and I had gotten lost on the park’s, looping figure-eight trails. Unbeknownst to me, a race was being held on the other side of the park that morning, its start time roughly coinciding with ours, so parking was in short supply, and our group often found ourselves running upstream against a pack of 5K participants. I spent the rest of that Saturday glumly drowning my sorrows in warm Gatorade and overripe bananas.
Had the second Saturday run been the same, my running group may have died on those park trails I’d been so lost on the week before. But, things were better. Alvarro came back, and Shanna brought her friend, Dawn. Three other runners showed up. This week, I’d cut the snacks but thoroughly scouted the location, running the route beforehand during the week. Afterwards, we went out for breakfast at a café down the street from the park. The run wasn’t perfect (one runner still got lost), but it went much smoother.
More runners started showing up on Saturday mornings. Some repeats, others new. Byron and I added a Thursday run to the mix. And, later, a long run on Sundays and a trail run on Wednesdays. Then, a speed workout on Tuesdays. More and more runners kept joining us. We recruited other group leaders who hosted other runs. We entered races as a group and started training for a fall marathon. We celebrated our 100th run, then the group’s first year anniversary. Two years later, the group had swelled to include over a thousand members, one hundred or so of those active at any given time. The club was hosting five or six runs per week. For some of those runs, particularly a popular Thursday night run, fifty or sixty runners would turn out, a far cry from our first, four person event.
I’d like to claim some kind of inherent savant-type genius for launching a successful running group. But, I can’t. My running group experience was gleaned through a lot of trial-and-error. I noted what things worked for our group and what things didn’t. I watched other running groups start up. Some, like ours, grew and stuck around. Others dropped off. After a while, I could tell which groups were going to succeed as they all followed a similar formula, for instance:
Successful running groups host consistent weekly runs.
Running is a sport that rewards consistency, and runners appreciate consistently scheduled runs, runs that are held on the same day, in the same place, and at the same time each week. Weekly group runs encourage regular training for new runners, and seasoned runners want to add dependable weekly runs to their training program. Consistently scheduled runs also make it easier for members to juggle group running with family and work commitments.
Running groups that struggle to gain traction seem to host either too few runs (like monthly or bi-monthly runs) or have a running calendar that varies a little too much. One week they may host a run on a Wednesday night; the next week the run may move to Monday.
Thinking runners would like variety, Byron and I scheduled our Saturday runs at different locations each week. Our Saturday turnout seemed to stagnate at about eight runners. After a few weeks, we added a Thursday night run. For convenience sake, we always held the Thursday run at the same park. The Thursday run grew quickly, and we soon had twenty-five (or more) runners showing up. When we settled on a permanent location for our Saturday run, we had the same result.
Successful running groups also schedule runs at times that people actually run.
While some lucky runners can hit the road at 2:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, most can’t.
And, while most runners are free to run on Saturday nights, most don’t want to. Running groups get better runner turnout when they host runs at popular running times. Hold weekday runs outside normal business hours, say 6:30 a.m. or 7 p.m. Schedule weekend runs in the morning , no later than 10 a.m. Save Friday evening runs for special events, as Friday is a rest day for many runners.
Successful running groups schedule runs, especially races, as far in advance as possible.
The more time a group has to advertise its run, the more likely someone will hear about it in time to attend. Plus, it’s helpful to be able to promote upcoming group runs during the current group run.
And, if the group is planning on entering a race, the members need time to train. And, register. I’m on the contact list of one running group who routinely sends me messages about races they’d like me to join them for. Unfortunately, I only get these notices a week before the race. Some of the events they’ve invited me to have already sold out. At minimum, I’m stuck paying the higher, late entry fee.
Successful running groups have multiple leaders.
There’s little doubt in my mind our group would have quickly fizzled into oblivion had Byron not offered me his help. If I couldn’t make a scheduled run, he could, and vice versa. In fact, our running group didn’t really start gaining in popularity until we added two more group organizers who hosted additional runs during the week on different sides of the city.
Running groups with a single leader just don’t seem to last. It’s difficult, if not downright impossible, for one person to manage all aspects of a running group: scheduling runs, scouting locations, promoting the group, hosting social events, managing training for races, and being available for every group run. Single leaders have to cancel events far more frequently than groups with multiple leaders, and single leaders are at a higher risk of burning out, leaving their group behind, and never being heard from again.
Successful running groups promote their group.
In order for a runner to join a running group, the runner needs to know the group exists. It’s also helpful to have a platform to easily reach members in case an event needs to be moved or cancelled. When starting a running group, set up a group website and take advantage of social media. Listing your running group on sites like meetup.com or Yahoo! Groups makes it easy for new members to join and find the group’s running schedule.
Well-advertised running groups capitalize on team shirts and establish relationships with race directors and local running stores. Several running stores let us hang flyers or leave pamphlets in their store advertising our club. One running store even offered discounts to our group members. Some race directors were willing to repay our club’s volunteer efforts by letting us slip our group’s information into their race packets. We also sold tech shirts, with our name, logo, and website address, to our members at cost. Companies like Custom Ink and Cafepress will print custom team shirts for relatively reasonable fees.
Successful running groups keep runner safety in mind.
Remind members to follow safe running practices, including running in a group, running on the left side of the road facing traffic, and carrying water on hot days. If possible, print maps for all group runs and encourage runners to carry phones or use mobile apps like MapMyRun. If you can get permission to mark the run course, consider using temporary flags, chalk, or flour as course guides. Cancel runs if it’s lightening or extremely hot, and provide sports drink or water at runs whenever possible. Consider asking group members to sign in and out at a run, especially when a lot of members are attending the event.
Successful groups do more than just run.
While running is, of course, at the heart of any running group, scheduling other events helps maintain group interest and attracts new runners. Host social events, like new runner meet-and-greets or pre-race pasta parties. Encourage the group to go out for coffee or a quick drink after the run. If your group is particularly sweaty, look for establishments that offer outdoor dining. If your group is not particularly sweaty, you didn’t run them hard enough.
Contact race directors about having your group man an aid station. Or, have the group volunteer at city park and trail clean-up events. Celebrate group milestones, like anniversaries and landmark runs, with family barbeques.
If one of these alternate events includes a little running, so much the better.