The days when running clubs were the sole preserve of ultra-competitive elite racers hell-bent on crushing the opposition at all costs and putting in more hours than Geb or Paula are thankfully long-gone.
With hundreds of clubs catering for the multifarious runners up and down the country, there's literally something for everyone, from beginner fun-runners to serious pace-setters.
Indeed, it's possible to join a running club without ever racing, without being able to make it round the athletics track in under
90 seconds and without finding it fascinating to discuss the relative merits of control versus stability shoes.
Not everyone feels the need to be coached as part of a group – after all, getting away from the crowds has always been one of the main pulls of our pastime.
But with the help of the country's finest club coaches and input from regular runners, we've come up with the ultimate guide to help you decide whether joining a club could help you reach your goals, or realise that you're better off flying solo.
If you're simply keen to get out there and meet other recreational runners, you need to know you're not joining a club packed with elite racers. "While everyone will change their goals over time as a runner, you need to make sure there's a group, at least at the start, that's on the same wavelength as you," says Fraser Smart from Kirkintilloch Olympians (kirkintillocholympians.co.uk).
All clubs will claim to be 'friendly', but that depends on your outlook. "Prioritise what it is you're aiming to get from your club, and email or call one of their coaches to see if it tallies with their approach – it's much better to be upfront from the start than leave after a couple of months with a bitter taste in your mouth."
If the club's not convenient, you'll find your reasons not to go. "There'll be times when the last thing you want to do is go for a run, so it has to be easy to get to and from," says Clare Naden from Clapham Chasers (claphamchasers.co.uk). "If it takes you an hour to get home, it'll impinge too much on your stress levels, which defeats the point – it's supposed to be enjoyable, not a strain."
Add in the problem of commuting time and you're also less likely to make any post-run socials that are an integral part of any club's cohesion. "Mine's on my way home from work, so it's virtually impossible for me to justify not going – and I can enjoy a relaxing drink afterwards knowing I've got an easy 10-minute jog home." Find clubs by postcode and proximity at goodrunguide.co.uk.
As well as potentially reduced race costs, there are other extras you might want to ask about. "The £20 a year I pay is more than offset with discounts at local running shops, not to mention the contacts you make in terms of physios when you get injured, and massage therapists," says Lucy Colquhoun from City of Edinburgh AC (edinburghac.org.uk).
"Any good club should at least be aware of local physios and other running-specific professionals who can help you out, either with discounts or just priority treatment." And once you enter the circle of trust, you won't be simply relying on the first ad you see on yell.com to iron out any issues.
Sharing cars to get to races is part of the fun - and it saves you petrol
Make The Right Friends
While being sociable is no doubt top of every runner's list, that probably stops short of drinking yards of warm lager out of dirty training shoes as part of Frat-party-worthy initiation rites. "The post-run environment is absolutely essential for you to make friends, determine running partners and discuss issues with coaches," says Rory McDonnell from Clapham Chasers.
"I've known clubs that have really frowned on any post-run drinking, which I find as off-putting as compulsory drinking – you just have to know what you want first," he says. "You'll also be sharing cars to races, and helping each other through problems, so you have to know you're vaguely on the same song sheet as your club mates." See if you can meet up for a couple of post-run sessions to get to know the runners.
While running is probably the oldest sport known to man, most clubs have moved with the times, with websites that provide information and contact details. "If there are lots of pictures of runners at a recent race or meet, you've got an idea that the club is run efficiently and for the runners," says Guy Regis from Serpentine Running Club (serpentine.org.uk).
"Too many clubs stagnate under bureaucratic committees who've lost touch with what they're trying to achieve." But don't always judge a book by its cover. "There should at least be an email address for someone on the site – if they don't get back to you in a couple of days, I'd give it a wide berth, as you could be left similarly stranded once you join."
Read The Small Print
While yearly subs of up to £20 might seem reasonable, once
you're in the club you might well get stung for some extra hidden costs. "Often you have to buy
their club-branded running bibs and shorts, at prices that seem
far from reasonable," explains Lesley Foster from Sunderland Strollers (sunderlandstrollers.co.uk).
"Also ask if there are any monthly admin charges, or what you have to pay for each session throughout the year. If money's an issue, say it is and see what reaction the club chairperson or coach gives. If they don't suggest they'll waive or cut costs if you're hard-up or unemployed, it gives a pretty good indication of the people running it."
Give It A Try
As well as asking questions of the coaches, see if you can trial a few sessions before signing up. "It often takes more than one session to get to really know a club, so don't base all your judgements on one evening," says Michael Morris from Morpeth Harriers (morpethharriers.co.uk). And don't try three Monday evenings in a row. "Different sessions and evenings often have different focuses and people, so dip your toe in several spots before making up your mind."
Social gatherings are a good way to get advice and relax away from races
Think The Worst
While no runner goes out looking for injuries, they're an inevitable element that hits us all from time to time. "Ask the coaches their views on over-training and limiting sessions to see if they're generally aware of your long-term safety," says Rob Pullen from the Owls running club in Leicester (owlsac.org.uk).
Ask what contingencies they have for injuries during runs, whether they have insurance, and ask if they have a group for runners who are coming back to fitness from injury. "It's all well and good catering for the flag-waving front runners, but you need even more attention if you're coming back to fitness, and one day that will be you."
Clubs aren't just about running. "There's a whole load of other activities, from organising socials to marshalling races to helping out at water stations, which some clubs expect you to take part in," says Ken Rushton from Trentham Club in Stoke-on-Trent (trenthamrunningclub.co.uk). "With our club it's voluntary – I seem to have a right arm that shoots into the air every time someone mentions cross-country – but a lot of clubs have a strict rota that you might not want to get involved in, so always check first." Likewise, if you don't want to be part of a club where runners don't want to get involved in the dirty work, the same applies.