When I started competing in triathlons I have to admit I didn't exactly know what I was doing. That's not to say I didn't have structured workouts. I did. I was working out with a local running and triathlon club. I was working hard. I was training hard….and I was improving. As a relative beginner (even, at the time, in my second full season of racing) I was still seeing improvements, but the gains weren't as significant as they used to be. On the flip side, I had moved from struggling to keep up on morning rides to leading the group rides and being able to keep up with the more proficient runners in the lead pack of the group runs.
My improvement overall was starting to slow. My wife had been suggesting that I join another triathlon club in the area for a workout or two. I'd been invited to join them for a group ride, but never acted on it. I was training with a club that was more local to me and I was comfortable. But I was honored, actually, to have been invited to join this other group. They were all great athletes. The previous year they had five individuals qualify for Kona. Truth be told, I was intimidated.
Finally, after a month or so had gone by, my wife gave me a good talking to. "You've gotten all you're going to get out of this club. You need to train with people that are better then you." This wasn't a dig on the group with which I was running, riding, and swimming. They were great people. I learned a lot, and improved significantly from when I first began competing in triathlons. But, I'd reached a point where I needed more. The writing was on the wall: it was time to exit my comfort zone.
I reached out to our mutual friend who had extended the invitation (and ran the club at the time) and arranged to meet up with him and his club the following Saturday for their regular group ride. Upon arrival, and during introductions, I remember thinking that everyone was really nice. They were joking around and there was a casual atmosphere. We started our ride easy to get loose and I was feeling pretty good. This seemed relaxed. "Maybe this won't be so bad,"I thought.
That feeling of confidence soon departed.
Ten miles into the ride the pace had picked up to what I would have normally, up until a week previous, considered a hard ride. They were all still talking and joking with each other. I was barely able to get a drink of water without falling off the back of the pack. Five miles later I was trying to figure out how I was going to eat the Hammer Gel in my jersey pocket without being dropped. My friend Rich, who invited me along, would come back to the tail end of the pack to check on me. Between gasps I said I was good. I remember him telling me: "Stay in the draft - you're doing great!" Really? This is "doing great"?
This went on for another 15 miles. At one point I knew we were headed back and the suffering was going to end soon (well, in another 10-15 miles). But then we hit the really hilly section of the ride. I prayed for death. My heart rate was pushing my theoretical max. My water bottles were empty. How can these maniacs keep talking and joking around on a climb like this? How do I ask these people if I can have some of their water? I finished the ride, went home, and slept for 3 hours. How was I going to run with them the next morning? How was I going to convince myself to ride with them the following weekend? Somehow, I did.
I kept going back. I refused to let myself be dropped from the pack. As much as it hurt, I wasn't going to let them leave me behind. I worked my ass off that first day - and again over the next handful of weekends. I don't know exactly when it happened but suddenly, on a typical Saturday group ride, I took my first turn at the front of the pack for a pull at the front of the pack before dropping back to rotate forward again. My average speeds for the 40-50 mile rides were now faster than my previous average speeds for 15-20 mile rides. To that point, I had more 50-mile rides in my first month of training with this group than in my entire cycling career. I had exited my old comfort zone and challenged myself. Improvements came.
Running with this group was the same. Long Sunday runs were done with more intensity than I was used to. I had to shorten my first few runs with this new group, but soon I was able to stay with the pack for the full mileage - with some extra hills thrown in for good measure.
In past races I would normally finish in the middle of the pack of my age group. In my first race after training with my new club I finished 3rd in my age group. Wait, a trophy? This was a game changer. Suddenly all the races I'd done in the two years past took on new meaning. Revisiting these races and finishing in a place I'd never envisioned myself in was surreal. A first place age group finish was not only a possibility, but was actually happening. Top 10 overall finishes were suddenly a possibility. How and when did this happen?
I'll tell you how it happened. I got out of my comfort zone. Training with a group is a great way to get motivated and improve your training. You push yourself, as in any sport, by training with people who are better than you. This isn't to say that you can't push yourself when training solo. You can - and you actually need to learn how to do so. There will be plenty of early mornings at the pool or the track when you need to keep the intensity at a painful level. But being challenged by others - being forced to work harder than you thought you previously could - is what's going to help facilitate physical, mental, and strategic improvements that you previously didn't think were possible.
It felt great to always be in the lead on group rides and the strongest swimmer at open water swims with my old club But improvement stopped. By joining a more advanced group I had to challenge myself and struggle at the back of the pack again.
My advice? Find that advanced club and leave your ego at the door. Leading a group ride feels good. But improving feels better.