Critical Mass: members of California's Mountain View Masters Swim and Social Club
Critical Mass: members of California's Mountain View Masters Swim and Social Club (Tim Archibald)

Strength in Numbers

Are your workouts an exercise in solitary refinement? Supercharge your performance with a little help from your friends.

Critical Mass: members of California's Mountain View Masters Swim and Social Club
Neal Thompson

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REMEMBER THIRD GRADE, when working out consisted of a rubber dodgeball and ten friends? The 10:45 recess bell would ring and you’d sprint to the playground to peg your classmates in the head—probably burning 500 calories in the span of 15 minutes. Exercising was nothing more than goofing off with pals; performance goals and losing the spare tire never entered the equation. But now you’re an adult, and workouts have become dutiful and often lonely interludes—you running alone on a trail or grinding away on a stationary bike—with as much appeal as a trip to the dentist.

Critical Mass: members of California's Mountain View Masters Swim and Social Club Critical Mass: members of California’s Mountain View Masters Swim and Social Club

It’s not too late to put playfulness and group dynamics back into the mix. From Boston to Burbank, thousands of like-minded outdoor athletes—cyclists, runners, and swimmers—have banded together to form clubs that add camaraderie to their cardio routines. These groups aren’t like the anonymous shoulder-rubbing of health clubs. In return for modest annual dues (between $35 and $300), you’ll get professional coaching, new regimens, and a workout schedule that reads like a social calendar (sprints on Tuesday, distance on Thursday, competitive bottle-lifting on Saturday night). “When you only train by yourself,” says David Keating, a coach with the D.C.-based Washington Running Club, “it’s like a really miserable, bad-paying job. But a club is like another world you can escape to.”
Companionship isn’t the only benefit. Paying dues and peer-group pressure may increase your motivation to make early-morning workouts; coaches can correct bad habits; and most important, a little friendly competition will ramp up your own performance.

“The best way to improve,” says Mark Wilson, coach at the Hudson Valley Triathlon Club in Woodstock, New York, “is to train with people who are better than you. It rubs off.”

On the following pages you’ll find a behind-the-scenes peek at three of the country’s most active clubs—the Washington Running Club; the Mountain View Masters Swim and Social Club in Mountain View, California; and, for cyclists, the Century Road Club Association in New York City. With spring approaching, we asked them to divulge their favorite group workouts for getting in shape for the upcoming race season. Take their lessons back to your own club or start a new one. Working out won’t be as easy as dodgeball, but the surprise truth is, misery hates company.

The Technique Tweak

Mountain View Masters Swim and Social Club

An MVM coach directs a cool evening workout. An MVM coach directs a cool evening workout.

WHEN AMATEUR TRIATHLETE Laura Schuster wanted to get serious about her training, her first target was her dismal time in the swimming leg. After countless frustrating hours alone in the pool, she decided to join the Mountain View Masters, a Bay Area swim club with 250 members and a paid coaching staff of seven. Jumping in a pool with a legion of Speedo-clad swimmers analyzing her technique was daunting at first, but after just one day Schuster had a breakthrough. What happened? Like many swimmers, she had problems stemming not from weak endurance, but from bad form. An MVM coach pointed out her short stroke and poor hip rotation—and almost immediately she became more efficient. “Personally, I’m a faster swimmer now because of the club,” said Schuster, whose 100-yard splits have dropped 10 seconds and who has gone from slowpoke to club president. “And now I love having other people telling me what I’m doing wrong.”

The MVM offers a different workout six mornings a week, but the most rigorous group sessions are head coach Alan Liu’s Monday-morning anaerobic-threshold sets—fast-paced intervals broken up by short rest periods. Try it with a few friends:
1)Warm up at a slow pace for 10 minutes, followed by another 15 minutes focused solely on technique (ideally a club coach can monitor your strokes).
2) Now the real work starts. With each swimmer in his own lane, sound the starting gun and swim a fast-paced (i.e. 90 percent of your maximum effort) 100 yards followed by five seconds of rest.
3) Repeat the sprints with five- to ten-second rests for 30 minutes. Record your total distance; the goal each week is to beat the previous week’s best distance. Fast swimmers should be able to complete about 2,500 yards; slower swimmers about 1,500.
Contact: (408) 735-1326;

Spinning Classes are for Sissies

Century Road Club Association

DURING HIS 50 YEARS with New York City’s oldest cycling club, professional bike racer Lou Maltese established a cantankerous, competitive tone that has lived on at the Century Road Club since his passing. “There’s definitely an air of crankiness that we proudly maintain in honor of Lou,” says former club president John Eustice. But don’t let the gruff facade fool you; the CRC welcomes newcomers and a no-nonsense competitive atmosphere might be exactly what you need.

If you’re already a serious cyclist, you’re probably a wonk: You know how to diet and how to read a heart-rate monitor; you use the words “lactate threshold” in everyday conversation. What’s missing are the intangibles that can make you a better racer. “Cyclists are pack animals,” says Eustice. “You have to learn gamesmanship if you want to compete.” Trying to develop cycling strategy solo, he adds, “is like trying to learn football by yourself.” That’s where the CRC comes in. During weekday-morning distance workouts and in weekend interclub races along their six-mile rolling loop in Central Park, you’ll glean Tour-level pointers—where to position yourself for a sprint finish or how to get the most out of a draft line—from teammates and coaches every time you straddle the saddle. After a full season, maybe you can replace fitness wonk with sprint champion.
Jump-start the season with head CRC coach Dave Jordan’s anaerobic power workout:
1) Start out riding with a dozen cyclists in a pace line at a moderate cadence.
2) After a one-mile warm-up, have a front rider lead the group for a three-minute interval at a “breakaway” pace (about 80 to 95 percent of his maximum heart rate or, for nonfanatics, a pace he feels he could only keep up for about ten minutes).
3) Slow down, rotate someone else to the front, and ride for one minute at a moderate “recovery” pace (60 to 80 percent of MHR).
4) Continue rotating the leader and repeating “work” and “recovery” intervals on both hills and flats. Total workout should be roughly 20 miles, or about an hour of riding.
Contact: (212) 222-8062;

Long-Distance Lovers

Washington Running Club

WRC members gang up to tackle the loneliness of weekly distance workouts. WRC members gang up to tackle the loneliness of weekly distance workouts.

WITH 120 MEMBERS, ranging from former professionals to four-and-a-half-hour marathoners, the Washington Running Club is the D.C. area’s ultimate prescription for the malady that plagues every runner: the dreaded performance plateau. WRC members are by no means running despots, but club president Jim Wadsworth has fostered an atmosphere that helps runners focus on a specific goal—and keep after it. “A lot of people use [the club] for motivation,” he says. “They figure if they pay some dues and commit to something it’ll make them get out and do it.” With runners of all speeds, members form pace-specific groups at almost every workout. Tagging along with stronger runners can push you beyond your comfort zone and into the next performance category.

Veteran and rookie marathoners will discover a secondary bonus from club membership. Group distance runs, like those held every Sunday by the WRC, will be your elixir for the acute boredom and dire loneliness of the weekly two- and three-hour runs you’ll be hoofing to get ready for a marathon. Members meet in Georgetown at 8 a.m., break into groups based on distance and pace, and then run between 10 and 20 miles with conversation buzzing over the entire route. After continued yapping at the postworkout coffee social, a sore jaw will replace the misery of tired legs.
The WRC’s Sunday runs are popular during fall’s marathon season, but to clean the cobwebs off this spring, try coach Dave Keating’s infamous short-distance speed sessions:

1) Start with 15 minutes of stretching and warm-up jogging.
2) With a group of runners of roughly the same ability, run a fast-paced mile (i.e. about 45 seconds faster than your marathon or long-distance pace).
3) Run a slow-paced quarter-mile—about two minutes—to recover.
4) Continue running fast miles with quarter-mile rest periods until you reach a total of three miles.
5) Try the routine once a week, aiming to increase your distance to five miles over the next two months.

A Club to Call Your Own

Most decent-size towns should have at least one club in your chosen sport; find one by asking around at sport shops or do an Internet search. Still can’t find what you’re looking for? Rally other enthusiasts into your own club. Here are some guidelines for getting started:

1) SPREAD THE WORD through flyers at gyms and sport-specific shops, or run a classified ad in the local paper.
2) CREATE A WEB SITE. Newcomers to a town will search for you that way. Clubs we spoke with say homepages are their strongest marketing tools and great places to post photos and club news.

3) START A NEWSLETTER. This is crucial for sharing news of members’ race results, listing workout schedules and social events, and sharing fitness articles.

4) BE CLEAR AND FRIENDLY about your club’s mission to newcomers. Whether they’re serious racers or repentant couch potatoes, letting new members know exactly what to expect from the club prevent them from becoming disenchanted.

5) PLAN A MONTHLY SOCIAL event barbecue, potluck, or happy hour at the local brew pub—that brings members together for something other than working out. It will help keep the group intact and attract new athletes.

6) RECRUIT GOOD COACHES. Members will expect a lot of feedback and a variety of workouts and venues. A club should charge annual dues that can pay for a part-time coach (say, $15 to $20 an hour) to run regular training sessions.

7) ELECT OFFICERS (president, vice-president, and secretary are enough) if your club grows to more than a handful of neighbors, and create a board of directors and a treasurer to oversee the club budget.

From Outside Magazine, Mar 2002 Lead Photo: Tim Archibald

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