Skip to content (Press Enter)

How I Learned to Foster Community While Training Alone

Though running is considered an individual sport, I prefer to share my miles with others.

From my first season of high school cross country through my professional career as a distance runner for New Balance, what sustains me in this sport is the people.

I grew up a competitive swimmer, and joined the cross country team as a freshman thinking it would provide base training for the swim season. Little did I know, within a few months that team would feel like family. My teammates became the reason I stuck with running in high school and continued at Dartmouth College.

Training with others has been essential to my development as an athlete. But even more importantly, it’s provided me a purpose that transcends self. Sharing hard work -- on a physical, psychological, and emotional level -- grows deep relationships. My gratitude for those relationships fuels me to keep bringing my best, no matter the circumstances.

At the beginning of the pandemic last year, the uncertainty of COVID required my training partners and I to spend a period of time running separately. Needless to say, it challenged me. Without the physical presence of others as motivation, I had to get creative. For me, that meant cultivating a sense of community in alternative ways. Here are some of the tools I found helpful:

Photo by Olivia Norman Photography

Abbey Cooper (D'Agostino) races in a New Balance kit

1. Align your performance goals with training partners (even from a distance)

Once the pandemic hit and all races disappeared from the calendar, my coach had everyone in our training group (Mountain South Elite) adjust their short-term goals to running fast in a series of time trials.

Whereas normally, we each have different racing schedules, Coach intentionally synced us up to foster unity even while training remotely. That way we could feel together in spirit throughout the process -- on any given workout day, we could visualize a teammate doing the same work, at the same time, with the same end goal in mind. Then when we were finally able to showcase our fitness in the time trials, it was a mutual celebration of both the journey and the outcome.

Anyone who has ever participated in a team sport knows: there’s nothing quite as energizing as pursuing a goal alongside a teammate. Set up a Zoom call or group chat with your training partners and discuss a collective performance goal that excites you all -- a virtual 5k run, virtual time trial, or even a safe in-person event. Then create a training plan that you each can follow. As you train remotely, imagine one another’s presence. Check in and encourage one another along the way.

2. Channel teammates’ strengths on hard days

Along the same lines, on the particularly challenging days, mentally channel your training partners’ strengths. As you workout, imagine a specific person and what help they would provide if they were with you in that moment.

One day last fall I was alone for a 7-mile tempo, and needed a psychological technique to help me manage such a long period of focus. Every few miles, I imagined a teammate alongside me.

Photo by Joe Hale

For the first two miles I thought about Katrina, master of smooth pacing, keeping me controlled and steady at the start. Miles 3 and 4, my former marathoning teammate, Liz, was with me, known for holding one pace, effortlessly, forever. In the final three miles, my college teammate, Alexi, carried me through the hardest stretch, as I repeated her mantra, “stay.”

Afterward, I let each person know how meaningful their perceived presence meant to me that day.

3. Dedicate reps to loved ones

While returning from an injury and cross-training a few years ago, I was desperate to stop feeling sorry for myself. As a way of priming gratitude instead of self-pity, I made a mental list of important relationships in my life. The list included people who offer me unconditional love, and people I love who were suffering more gravely than I was.

Every rep on the spin bike, elliptigo, or in the pool, I would “dedicate” to one of those people. I’d think about them, pray for them, or even just repeat their name. The exercise helped bring perspective to my own pain, seeing my ability to move as a gift and product of the loving, supportive community around me.

While you’re logging miles or cross-training minutes, who can you acknowledge in your mind? What meaningful relationships can help you surrender your discomfort or loneliness?

Abbey Cooper laces up her new balance shoes

4. Be a friend to yourself

Perhaps even more important than mentally summoning your relationships with others while training alone, summon your relationship with yourself. My husband Jacob, a Clinical Sport Psychologist, has found that athletes are much more familiar with their inner critic than their “inner advocate.” The inner advocate is the voice of self-compassion, operating from what he calls the “reverse golden rule” -- the courage to say to yourself what you wish someone would say to you. In short, it’s self-friendship.

One strategy I’ve used to manifest my inner advocate is speaking to myself audibly between workout reps. I’ll say something like “you’re okay,” “two more left,” or “that was a good one.” Not only does it curb loneliness, but also keeps me accountable to my words -- negativity is easier to catch. I’ve also found that being kinder to myself, in turn, increases my kindness toward others.

5. Refill your willpower tank with relationships

Even as an introvert, training alone for an extended period of time requires more of my mental energy than training with teammates. As referenced in the book Willpower, by psychologist Roy Beaumeister and science writer John Tierney, “willpower” operates like a muscle -- it fatigues with use. The more self-control I expend keeping my mind positive during a solo workout, the less I’ll have to dedicate to other aspects of my training. Later that day, when faced with the decision to do my tedious prehab exercises, or to concoct an excuse to skip them -- unless I replenish my willpower tank -- I’ll be more likely to choose the latter.

One of the ways I replenish my willpower tank -- and thus my energy to devote to hard tasks -- is through relationships. During the height of quarantine, a few of my college teammates and I started a virtual book club.

We met bi-monthly to catch up, discuss a book, and encourage each other through such a trying season. When I feel known and loved in friendships like this, I regain the will to dig deep in other areas of life.

6. Acknowledge the limitations

When training alone, be honest with yourself -- it’s just not the same as it is with others. In my experience, my perceived effort is typically higher without conversation and companionship on the run.

“Radical Acceptance” is a strategy developed by Psychologist Marsha M. Linehan as a part of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). The idea is to acknowledge and accept the emotions that come with a particular situation, instead of trying to resist them, in order to move forward and make the necessary adaptations in life.

During quarantine, virtual training community offered me accountability, camaraderie, and motivation, but I had to admit it couldn’t replace the intimacy of an in-person connection.

When it comes to COVID life, or any type of struggle, I find it hard to make progress without first acknowledging the difficulty. Now that I have begun to train with others again, it’s deepened my appreciation of the joy in running miles shoulder-to-shoulder. The best things in life are shared, aren’t they?

By Abbey Cooper (D’Agostino). Cooper is a professional runner sponsored by New Balance. As a student at Dartmouth College, Cooper won seven NCAA D1 national titles. As a pro, she qualified to represent the U.S. at the 2015 World Track and Field Championships (%,000m) and the 2016 Rio Olympics (5,000m). Cooper now lives and trains in Boone, NC with Mountain South Elite.

Keep Reading