Weekend Reading: Four Ways Friends Make You a More Successful Athlete

Endurance sports are often looked at as individual pursuits, you against yourself as much as you against the competition. There is some truth to that, and some appeal as well. Often, my training time is also the only period during the day when I really get to be by myself. But when it comes to undertaking big challenges, it doesn’t pay to be loner.

Friends make training and competitions better. And that’s not just some touchy-feely, hippie talk. There’s real science to show that athletes have stronger performances in a group setting compared to solo training sessions or competitions. Science also shows that athletes with training partners are less likely to skip workouts, and less likely to stop workouts early

This week, as I was adjusting to being back in the office without Team CTS from the Amgen Tour of California Race Experience around me (Photo gallery from the ATOC Race Experience!), I came across an interesting article from PsychCentral.com on the “5 Ways Friends Make us Stronger and Better” and I think there are clear ways that four of them apply to endurance athletes:

  1. “People who are anxious in social situations are less likely to fumble in those situations when a friend is nearby than when they are alone. One way this works is that fewer negative thoughts about yourself run through your head when a friend is at your side.”

For endurance athletes, I’d replace “anxious in social situations” with “doubtful in athletic situations”, but I think the response is the same. I know, without a doubt, that I wouldn’t have made it through the recent Amgen Tour of California Race Experience without the camaraderie of the athletes who were there with me. Those first few days in the heat of the California desert were brutal, and if I’d been alone I would have been defeated by negative thoughts about the heat, the mileage, how I wasn’t acclimated, etc. Alone, I would have stopped, put my thumb out, and hitched a ride to the finish. But with Team CTS around me, I didn’t have those negative thoughts and the idea of quitting never occurred to me.

I think this extends to technical skill for athletes, too. In a group setting on a fast road descent or a sketchy mountain bike trail, normally anxious athletes ride with greater confidence. They don’t overthink the technical problem in front of them, and that helps them go faster and ride better lines.


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  1. “Challenges seem less challenging when you are with, or just think about, a friend. In the research, participants stood in front of a hill either alone or with a friend, and then estimated the steepness of the hill. Those standing with a friend thought the hill was less steep. In another study, just thinking about a friend made a hill seem less steep when compared to thinking about a neutral person or a disliked person.”

As athletes, we don’t just estimate the steepness of a hill, we go charging up it! But there’s no doubt that major climbs seem less daunting when you have a team around you. One of the athletes from the ATOC Race Experience sent me his SRM data, and for the 2013 event he rode for 8 days, climbed more than 40,000 vertical feet, and did more than 25,000 kilojoules of work (roughly equivalent to burning 25,000 calories on the bike). John’s normalized power for the whole event was 218 watts, he was on his bike for 40 hours, and the average temperature for those hours was 83 degrees (including periods at between 104-112 degrees in the desert). When you lay that information out in front of a middle-aged amateur cyclist who has a career and family, it can sound like an insurmountable challenge. And yet, working together Team CTS has turned this formidable challenge into a huge accomplishment for more than 70 athletes over the course of three Tours of California and one US Pro Cycling Challenge.

  1. “Friends make foes seem smaller and less formidable. Men who were with a male friend saw a potential foe as smaller and less muscular than they did when they were alone.”

At the Tour of California, Team CTS obviously has no “foes”. But in racing there is definitely something to the idea of foes seeming less formidable when you’re part of a team. It’s not that the team makes you stronger individually; it’s more that the team has your back. They can support your efforts if you’re strong, and they can give you a hand if you’re weak. (Did you know we have a Club & Team Coaching Package?)

You can also turn this scenario back on itself. When you’re the lone racer up against a big team, remember that this same research says they’re likely to underestimate your strength. Use that to your advantage. Be patient, pick your moment to show your strength, and catch them off-guard.

  1. “We are more modest in the ways we present ourselves to our friends. With strangers, we are more likely to toot our own horns.”

When you’re among friends, you admit when your legs are bad. Your friends aren’t going to laugh at you or attack you; they’re going to shelter you from the windy side of the paceline and understand when you skip some pulls. But when bull-headed riders are among strangers they often keep their mouths shut and push themselves to impress the group, even if that means riding well above their capabilities and suffering for it later. With the Bucket List Race Experiences, the events are so long that everyone – every. single. rider. – has a bad day, or at least a rough patch during one day. I think that’s part of the reason why our Race Experience teams are such supportive environments. When you’re strong you don’t rip everyone’s legs off just to show you’re the big dog, because maybe tomorrow it’ll be you who needs a push just to hang on to the back.

To be honest, it’s hard to go back to the office and back to solo training rides after spending a week reconnecting with old friends and making new ones at an event like the Tour of California. Fortunately, I won’t have to wait until next May have that experience again. I’ll be riding the US Pro Challenge Race Experience in Colorado with another iteration of Team CTS this August, and I hope you’ll come with me! The experience of facing a huge physical challenge together as a team is unforgettable, and it forges friendships that last a lifetime!

Have a great Memorial Day Weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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