Could social identity and belonging be part of the puzzle for improving your athletic performance? It might explain groups making breakthroughs together.

All Kenyans and Ethiopians run fast for the marathon, every club runner in the ‘80s ran all their training below sub six minute mile pace and if you have a dodgy moustache like Steve Prefontaine then you must be quick. If you belong to a certain group, do you adopt the characteristics of the pack?

How we see ourselves in society may well have an impact on how we run. Identify as an elite runner because you run twice a day and only wear short shorts, then this actually might make you a quicker runner. A sense of belonging to a certain group and what we feel this entails can affect performance. Let me try and explain.

Some science that’s kind of related

Okay so this is a study about planking by Carly Priebe and Kevin Spink, but bare with me here. The researchers undertook a study with 68 regular pilates enthusiasts (only nine of whom were male to have a nice bit of female focused research for a change) and asked them to perform two planks to exhaustion.

The plank is a core exercise that just involves holding your body parallel to the ground in almost a press up position and can get a little tiring, especially if you’re not used to it. The study group was told they would do two planks, with a three minute break in between, and they would be given an average time for the two.

As expected the control group were unable to hold the plank for the same amount of time the second time around and dropped performance by 18%.

The other group were told that the majority of people like them (same age, gender, experience) are actually able to hold the second plank for longer and they were expected to have a better second performance than the control group. They actually outdid their first effort by an average of five per cent!

So what?

Just because they were told that their peer group should be able to outperform expectations, they actually came up with the goods. The subjects believed they were part of a social group that could hold the plank for longer in the second attempt, and so they did.

So what does this mean for runners? Could the Confucius saying “those who think they can and those who think they can’t are usually both right” be scientifically proven?

When a runner went down to the club back int he 1980’s they got there and likely saw a whole bunch of their peers, with similar age, build, jobs, hobbies etc. all running quick times. The fastest chap at each club was just like them, so they must be able to achieve the same things. The power of self belief.

If we were to tell a pack of runners that they should be able to run X because this is what their peers can do, then they should be able to perform better because of this. Your social identity can be used to push your own boundaries further.

The same could be said of Kenyan and Ethiopian athletes, although there are certain biological aspects that are highlighted in David Epstein’s The Sporting Gene that make a large difference too, but the self belief is there. It’s there for Jamaican sprinters, New Zealand rugby players and Scouse footballers (just kidding, I meant Brazilian). The stereotype oft born from great role models in the past creates a deep inner belief that they too can achieve in a certain discipline. 

How can this help?

On a personal level it might just be about finding a group to belong to that has positive habits. What can you do to be a little bit more like them? It might be training twice a day, rocking the club vest every weekend or always getting your stretching done before and after each session. If you’re in a social group that takes the things seriously, then you do too and then your subconscious will start to believe you can run as quick as everyone else in the group too.

Look at Sean Tobin’s comments about the Melbourne Track Club or Jake Shelley’s focus on the group he used to run with in the US at University. It’s not just having company on your run, but belonging to a high performance group that makes you expect more out of yourself. Feidhlim Kelly’s Dublin Track Club pictured above show is another fine example.

If you are part of a club then look for a role model, but also be a role model for those around you too. Help others feel like they belong in the group, something runners are great at, and that sense of belonging will bring with it a boost.

If you’re new to ultra running then even just doing things that make you “feel like an ultra runner” or like me training for Valencia marathon I donned my club vest as that is what fast club runners do. They represent their club and when I put on the blue and yellow North Norfolk Beach Runners vest I felt like I belonged more to a system that had produced so many great British marathoners in the past.

Find a way to identify with where you want to be. Help others do the same. Being in a great training group let’s you see first hand that those running quicker are just like you, therefore you can run quicker too.

Team NB Manchester can be as much about how it makes the athletes feel more professional than just a sponsor

Get to know those you train and race with

If you’re not part of a club then find other quicker runner to train with or race in your local area and try to get to know them. Those you might have previously put on a pedestal will become even more human. You can run as quick as them.

Look online for role models you can relate to. Seeing Mo Farah or Jakob Ingerbritsen run quickly might give a glimmer of inspiration but will it help you believe? Role models need to be relatable. The likes of Dewi Griffiths, Sonia Samuels, Robbie Simpson and Sarah Tunstall are all excellent British runners who I look up to and know that I’m not that different from. 

Head down your local club and get know the people there. We’re all after similar goals but meeting someone who has already achieved what you’re after can show you that it’s possible. Instead of focusing on the fantastic Instagram lifestyles of the super elite, look at the role models in your own social groups.

Start to believe you can achieve brilliant goals is the first step after all. Look at Big Nige. You might say he only ran sub 14 at Armagh International because it was just what his social group around him was doing. It was his normality that day. 

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