Aikido · competition · Crossfit · cycling · fitness · racing · Rowing · team sports

Things you learn from working out with others

I really enjoyed Tracy’s post about solitude and working out alone. It offered a very different perspective to my own approach to physical activity. There’s so much we agree about and yet in some areas, we’re ‘chalk and cheese’ as my mother might say. I’m enjoying exploring our differences in light of our shared starting points.

In contrast to Tracy, almost all the physical activities I do involve communities and teams. Aikido, rowing, and Crossfit are all group efforts. I suppose I could ride my bike alone but I don’t. It’s more fun with others. Crossfit style workouts (this morning was 60 sec box jump, 45 sec rest, repeat x 4, followed by 10 min of ‘on the minute every minute’ 7 push press, 7 pull ups) I can’t imagine doing by myself. I’d give up and quit half way through, I think.

For me working out meets social needs. I like meeting people with similar goals and values. Healthy living abounds in running, cycling, and martial arts communities. I like that and I find support for my goals and lifestyle choices in these communities. I also spend so much time doing various physical activities that I often find myself getting friends to join in. That’s especially true with road cycling and Aikido. I’m passionate about both and I want to spread the joy.

I’ve also learned a lot about physical activity from other people and it’s that value I thought I’d try to articulate here. I’ve written about some of the training advantages of running and riding with others here.

An aside: I’m not writing with the goal of persuading anyone that my way is the right way. Mostly I’m trying to articulate for myself what I get out of the company of other athletes because lots about Tracy’s alone time sounds attractive too. I’m a professional philosopher and spend a fair bit of time offering arguments for my conclusions and trying to show that I’m right. That’s not what I’m up to here at all. I’m offering reasons in a much more exploratory fashion, trying to understand what works for me and showing those reasons to others to see if they fit.

Here goes.  What I’ve learned from working out with others:

  • Fitness comes in all different shapes and sizes. When I first started cycling, I assumed that cyclists were thin and that speed and size were correlated. But I’ve been passed enough by bigger people and done lots of passing of smaller people to know that’s false. Ditto assumptions about size and strength in the case of weightlifting. I no longer assume that people smaller than me can’t lift heavier. It’s one thing knowing intellectually that fat people can be very fit and that thin people can be very strong, but having the actual embodied reminder chat with you after a ride or after a round of power cleans, is another thing all together. I see people in the world in a different way and make almost no assumptions about size, shape, and physical abilities.
  • I’ve also been shocked by how different we all are when it comes to responsiveness to physical training. We all  follow various plans for fitness that are written in a ‘one size fits all’ way but in every group there are outliers.  In my first 6 weeks to 5 km group there were people who did all the workouts but couldn’t manage 5 km at the end, and people who could run 5 km, within a  couple of weeks, without much effort at all. It seems that in each sport there are people who can do half the workouts and still make gains. I hate those people! They’re blessed with bodies that are extremely responsive to training. Others slog along, working very hard, doing everything exactly as prescribed, but never seem to get much fitter or faster.  They’re known as the “non-responders.” That would be so sad. I first heard about this when a friend took part in a study on the effects of training as a research subject. And I  read about this in Gretchen Reynolds’ book The First Twenty Minutes but again it’s much more striking to see it in action.  Gretchen Reynolds blogs about this here. You can read a bit about it in this blog post too, Are You a Non-Responder? It Could Be Your Genes.
  • Most of what I’ve learned about the value of competition comes from training and racing with others, but so too the value of teamwork and cooperation. I love in team sports that a group of people with very different skills, strengths, and abilities can all contribute something to the mix. In soccer, I don’t have the drive or killer instinct to play forward. I’m one of those people who when shooting for the net seems instinctively to aim for where the keeper, or goalie, is rather than where she isn’t. It would be funny were it also not tragic. Luckily I don’t have to play forward.  I play defense and I can guard our net and keep other players away with intensity and focus. In defense, I don’t have to run too far with the ball. I get it up the sides to our midfielders, strong and agile runners, who get it up the field to the other side’s net, to our forwards. Teamwork is key.
  • I’ve also learned about the sport that I’m doing from participants who’ve been it much longer than me. My favourite example of this was racing with the Vets in Canberra. Some of the older guys had been racing their whole lives and they loved to pass on wisdom and tactics. Yes, I’ve taken classes and had coaches for various sports but you learn a lot more, I think, from the people who run/ride/row with you. I often encounter this over breakfast after a run or a ride, but sometimes, these days, it happens in online discussion forums with teammates. Where can I get a spare battery for my old polar bike computer? Someone will know and they might even bring the battery in to the next ride and swap for coffee!

19 thoughts on “Things you learn from working out with others

  1. Great post. I learned a lot. I too need a partner nowadays for my resistance training. If Renald wasn’t there this morning I would probably not have made it out of bed. And once out of bed, I would not have worked as hard and would likely have cut my workout short because I really didn’t feel like it. The post also got me worrying that maybe where running is concerned I’m a non-responder! I just don’t seem to get any faster, even though I’m going further and able to run for longer. It still feels like a challenge every time I go (I like it, but I’d like to be improving more). I also like yoga as a group (in a class). But where we really differ is in the team sport thing. I wonder if that has more to do with my feelings about competition than actually preferring solitude in all things.
    Anyway, I’m pushing out of my comfort zone this week — have plans to go running with Anita (I’m bailing if the windchill is more than minus 10 though).

  2. Two quick thoughts: If you ever want to give Crossfit a try, I have free guest passes! You could blog about it too. Also, on the non-responder thing: I think it’s really helpful to realize that there is a wide range of response to training. Some people never get better, no matter how hard they work or how much they put in. Others get better fast, with very little effort. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. My beef with the 6 week to 5 km programs is that some people can run 5 km the first time out and others need 12 weeks. Nothing wrong with that but we tend to overlook the variability. Have a great run with Anita!

  3. Very interesting, Sam. In general, I don’t work out to satisfy social needs. That said, I very much enjoy training sporadically with more accomplished people at the gym, and especially on occasion with my nephew. As you said, one often gets a great deal of insight regarding new exercises or how you’ve unknowingly stopped using the proper form with certain weightlifting exercises, etc., when hanging out with such people. Working out with a person less experienced than I can sometimes make me feel good, as it can make me feel like I’m giving back to something beyond myself – to a person who is or may become part of a community that has provided me with joy and energy, and so much more.
    However, I become increasingly uncomfortable when the training becomes a social event or seems to have some even remotely negative social implications or aspects to it (like seeing avoidance tactics being displayed, attempts being made to establish a collusive relationship, negative comments being made about certain people or gossip-y type conversations beginning, etc.) as opposed to something where I am actively learning, contributing, working hard, connecting to myself with controlled focus (and sometimes even fury), or to something “almost spiritual” beyond myself. That is why for the most part, I enjoy working out alone.
    That said, I also like it when people at the gym make me laugh. Months ago, one guy and his girlfriend started in total jest giving another dude a bit of a rough time for taking time off training. The dude (who was actually in excellent shape) said things were bad, and when the waitress asks whether he would like salad or fries with that, he now lowers his head, looks down at the floor, and shamefully under his breath mutters: “Fries”. The dude then laughed and he had a very infectious laugh.

    1. I spend enough of my life being physically active that if there wasn’t a social component I’d be pretty solitary. I write alone a lot of the day as it is. I also love teams and working with other people in competitive situations. Amazing to see the range of contributions people can make and how much faster–in the case of cycling–we can go when we work together. As with body size and shape, it’s one thing to intellectually know these things about team work, and another thing altogether to practice it on a regular basis. And Crossfit style workouts, there’s no way I’d do it that fast or put in that much work without people cheering me on, or calling out the time. But different strokes for different folks, as they say. I’m much more interested in exploring differences than in persuading…

  4. I will take you up on the crossfit pass at some point (not in the next month, but perhaps in March or April), if only to satisfy my curiosity and give me something to blog about. Realistically, I can’t consider adding anything new, but I am curious to see what cross fit is all about. It would also be fun to work out with you — I do like it when we do things together even if I tend to the solitary! Thanks for the offer. And thanks for your feedback about non-responders. I’m probably one of those in the middle of the pack, since I actually am able to go further and for longer than when I started.

    1. And lots of people work on endurance and distance first, speed later. Looks like you’re doing great from your running app Facebook posts.

      1. Thanks. That’s what I’m doing. I was out this weekend in Caledon and ran about 5.8 K in a very hilly area. It was hard and slow, so I think that always feels a bit demoralizing. But I managed to do it, which is encouraging. I’m on 8 minutes running, 1 minute walking x 4 this week. I have one more day of those then it goes to 9-1. Once I’ve got the distance and time under my belt, I’ll do some speed training, mostly hills and fast intervals seems to be what’s recommended.

  5. I agree completely. By saying what I’ve said about my preferences, I too am not trying to persuade anybody about anything. And yes, people are amazing. I saw this skinny guy with a really little head a while back benching 100 lb. dumbells with ease. I have no idea how he could do that! As you say, it can be surprisingly difficult to judge people’s strength andf fitness level by their appearance.

  6. I enjoy the social aspect of my activities, too. That being said, at my running club’s weekly runs, I’m usually out there on my own. We start off as a group, the fleet of feet take off, and the tortoises are behind, and there I am in the middle, plugging along. It happens every time. I struggle with this–i’m newer to the group and don’t want to seem standoffish, but I can’t kill myself to run with the gazelles and I would be frustrated going slower than I already do.

  7. I’m probably on the more solitary end of things, myself. I spend a lot of days either practicing yoga alone (which, as a general rule, I prefer) or running or hiking with a single partner (and we tend to go to places where we won’t be interacting with a lot of other people while we run/hike). Usually, I feel like I need that time to myself (or nearly to myself) in order to recharge.

    That said, I love teaching my weekly class at school, and I never stray too far away from my local yoga studio. (I may only make it on days I have off from work, but I make it a point of being there when I can.) Once, a teacher asked me what I wanted to get out of my practice — and the only thing I could really think of (and it’s true) was, “A sense of community.”

    I think a lot of my solitary practices help me to recharge for when I’m doing things like teaching (which basically requires that I interact with every student, whether I am feeling it that day or not). But sometimes, I think attending classes as a student (where I can choose my level of interaction versus observation) can help me recharge in order to enjoy my time alone.

  8. One of the biggest things I learned is similar to your first point, which is that the standard image most people hold of what an athletic person looks like does not actually match up with reality. When I started running road races, I expected that everyone was going to look like the little whippet-thin kids that used to run cross country in high school, and of course that has not been the case. The same is true for triathlon. It really forced me to confront my own prejudices and re-evaluate the way I thought about bodies and sports, which has in turn led me to have a more inclusive perspective when it comes to these things. Anything that can pry open one’s mind is a good thing, I think.

    1. Agree completely. And it’s one thing knowing it, and another thing actually meeting and competing with people who don’t fit the stereotypes. It knocks your fixed ideas loose pretty fast!

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