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When people entered the same race as a “rival,” they ran about eight seconds faster per mile.

Rozalynn S. Frazier
October 03, 2014

I’ve been running for eight years now, and the fastest times I ever posted were when I was consistently running with Nike Run Club. I think running with a group inherently makes you speedier because you are constantly jockeying for position within the pack. That, and you never want be the last one to finish. But, to be honest, I really attribute my success to one person in particular. (OK, her, plus my hard work logging all those miles.)

She's a really good friend of mine, but when we used to lace up our sneakers together, I saw her strictly as my competition. Every time we ran, I made it my mission to stay on her hip. It didn’t matter how hard I thought the pace was, how exhausted I was, or how much I wanted to quit—I refused to give up. Turns out, I was onto something.

A recent Social Psychological and Personality Science study surveyed runners about rivalries and more than half said they felt competition with someone in their region (the number was 75% among people who ran 5 races in the previous year). Then they analyzed the results of 184 races—the majority of which were 5Ks, but included distances as long as a half-marathon—held by a U.S. running club over a six-year period.

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Researchers identified pairs of rivals in the first three years of data (based on age, gender, repeat competition, and close finishes) and compared their performances during the following three years. They found that when people entered the same race as a “rival,” they ran about eight seconds faster per mile. So during a 3.1-mile race, that could add up to a 25-second improvement. The reason: Researchers believe that the presence of a running rival boosts your motivation and, in turn, your performance.

So what type of frenemy can help you make the most of your miles? Look for someone like yourself—same gender, roughly your age, and one who pounds the pavement just a little bit faster than you do. It could be someone you know, or someone you see ahead of you in a race. Lock in your target, then run your heart out!

(Oh and in case you are wondering, yes, I did finally outpace my friend in a race. Aside from completing several marathons, that is definitely one of my greatest running moments.)

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