Join The Club

Clubs regularly attend races as a team

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.

Suit Yourself

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."

Go Local

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.

Fringe Benefits

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.

Make Contact

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."

Pay Back

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.

10 Golden Training Rules of Top Club Coaches
  1. Plan ahead
    Always make sure you know in advance what your training schedule's going to be for that week (at least) and what each session is supposed to achieve. Write a list of your motives and goals and how it all works in the bigger picture, from fartleks to longer endurance runs. On a purely practical level, this means that you can get the right kit together at the start of the week, so when work and other things start interfering with life, it's all laid out and ready – if you're going off-road or travelling to get to a run, your training should be something that falls into place without impacting those around you. Neil Aitken, Clapham Chasers (claphamchasers.co.uk)

  2. Ask for advice
    Always look for early signs of overtraining, from a tighter running gait all the way through to nausea – and don't be afraid to talk things through with your coach, medical professionals or even other runners on online forums. Any uncertainty or fear will eat into your enthusiasm and hold you back. John Gannon, Striders of Croydon stridersofcroydon.co.uk)

  3. Set a routine
    Your running has to become a routine reflex action – like brushing your teeth – that you don't question. If you train hard for six or 12 weeks and then go on holiday and do no training, you'll lose all the benefits. If you're finding it too hard, you're on the wrong programme. Becoming the best runner you can be takes years, not weeks, of hard work. Jim McLoone, Kirkintilloch Olympians (kirkintillocholympians.co.uk)

  4. Don't force it
    Try not to blame yourself if you don't always get the results you want – particularly make sure you get checked by your GP if you suddenly have low energy, which could be a condition that you can't help. Understand that there are some things that are simply out of your control, and don't try to catch up on missed sessions by overdoing it – better to enjoy your running than to seriously injure yourself. Simon Nurse, Les Croupiers Club (lescroupiersrunningclub.org.uk)

  5. Mix and mismatch
    Don't pigeon-hole yourself by always running with the same people. Running with beginners can be as advantageous as running with elite runners – you pick up tips and cement your knowledge whoever you run with. The trick is communication, exposing your weaknesses and strengths, and supporting each other. Running with people who aren't as fit or as fast can really boost your motivation (but don't rub it in) at the same time as giving you an easier run when your body needs a break. And the process of giving advice and support actually makes you analyse your own running more too. Paula Coates, Clapham Runners (claphamrunners.com)

  6. Push yourself
    Focus on your weaknesses as much as your strengths – it sounds obvious, but ask yourself how often you choose to do the runs or gym sessions you find hardest. By facing your Achilles' heel head-on, you'll see your times improve twice as fast, and also feel a stronger runner mentally. And don't see your weaknesses as 'problems', but areas that can take you up a level. Rupert Pepper, Poole Runners (poolerunners.com)

  7. Be patient
    Increase frequency, duration and intensity gradually. One good week doesn't mean you're ready to move on immediately, so consolidate gains before pushing yourself too hard. The bravest thing a runner can do is make the choice not to run. Alex McEwen, City of Edinburgh AC (edinburghac.org.uk)

  8. Cross-train
    If you want to avoid injury, complement your running with other activities such as swimming, resistance work in the gym and cycling – if nothing else, it stops you going insane and gives you something to do to maintain fitness when injury does strike. Karen Hancock, Serpentine Running Club (serpentine.org.uk)

  9. Get together
    Socialise with other runners away from running – this provides invaluable time for you to communicate concerns away from the fear of judgement from your peers, and become a 'real' person. Don't be afraid to hand out your email address or mobile number so you can discuss concerns on non-training days – but make sure it's not a work email address! Instead, set up a different one with a webmail accessible address, like gmail.com, and explain you'll pick up messages in the evenings and reply when possible. John Wood, City of Sheffield AC (sheffieldathletics.co.uk)

  10. Eat right
    Understand the importance of nutrition and hydration to get the most from your sessions, and most importantly, to aid recovery after sessions – you'll enjoy your running more and your times will come on leaps and bounds. You could even suggest a peer-review of food diaries – the process in itself makes you more self-aware of your diet and provides the motivation you need to put the right fuel in the tank. James Hayden, Notts AC (nottsac.co.uk)

Images: Tom Miles