Why the Ultimate Form of Self-Care is Social Connection—and How Run Clubs Help

Community supports our mental well-being.

run clubs for social connection, self care
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I moved to Denver in September of 2019 and was absolutely terrified of the idea of having to make new friends. I worked from home, knew about two people in town, and had no idea where to start. But in October, after a college acquaintance invited me out to a bar, I met a new friend who took me to my first Saturday group run led by Citius Run Club.

I had immediately found my people—serious runners who didn’t take the sport too seriously—and I can count on my fingers how few Saturdays I’ve missed since then. That club was a social lifeline through the pandemic, helped me PR in my three most recent marathons, and stoked a newfound love for running.

In the wake of pandemic-induced isolation, run clubs are booming. In 2021, the percentage of athletes joining clubs on Strava grew by 37 percent (on top of huge growth in 2020) and more than 189,000 new Clubs were created on the platform last year, according to Strava’s year-end report.

So much about running is about showing up for yourself. But when you also show up for others, you create the kind of relationships that can boost your physical and mental health—and everyone in that kind of community can thrive.

Why Humans Need Social Connection as a Form of Self-Care

People aren’t meant to go at it alone. In fact, there’s a significant link between loneliness and depression, according to a meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry in 2018. Loneliness is also associated with a 26 percent increase in the risk of premature mortality, according to a meta-analysis published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science in 2015.

“The opposite of loneliness is belonging,” says Kjersti Nelson, a licensed therapist and running coach. “It’s that feeling of belonging that really counteracts all the negative things associated with loneliness.”

A sense of belonging (or security, support, acceptance, and inclusion) can come from any number of sources, whether that’s family, work, or any other kind of group. A run club is no exception and running with others can actually fast-track that feeling of being part of a community. Just think about the last time you spotted someone wearing a shirt from a race you also ran—that shared experience provides an instant icebreaker.

On a deeper level, “when we experience shared ‘pain’—i.e. you’re working hard alongside another person—we trust the people that we’re doing that with more, and we feel like they care more,” explains Nelson. “We get this burst of all these positive neurochemicals that make us feel happy and connected and more bonded.”

It also helps that, in running next to someone, you’re not making direct eye contact, which removes the fear of being judged, she adds. (Maybe that’s why runners have no qualms about discussing bathroom emergencies within 10 minutes of running with someone new.)

When you feel safe and secure in those ways, you’re more invested in the experience and more likely to enjoy it. “There’s comfort in knowing that you’re suffering with others,” says Iman Wilkerson, founder of The Run Down, a newly created app that connects runners with local run clubs. “Some of my favorite runs to look back on are the ones in the worst conditions or that I didn’t want to do, but I was able to get through with other runners. That’s the kind of camaraderie that binds people together.”

How a Run Club Can Help You Find Social Connections

The best workout is one you do consistently—and joining a group is an easy way to hold yourself accountable and find joy in something that can feel like a slog on your own.

Kevin Chan, a 41-year-old runner from Pocatello, Idaho, had a painful first marathon experience in 2008 after training alone and inconsistently. In 2010, when he was gearing up to train for a 50K, a friend introduced him to a trail running group called the SoCal Coyotes. “Training with the Coyotes gave me the consistency and structure I needed,” says Chan. “And the social aspect that came along with the performance progression I was seeing really made me feel passionate about running for the first time in my life.”

There’s no arguing that fitness is better with friends: People who worked out with friends said they enjoyed the exercise more than those who worked out alone in a study out of the University of Southern California, published in 2013. And those who exercised with someone they thought was better than them worked out up to 200 percent harder and longer than others, according to a study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine in 2012.

That’s part of the vibe that fuels Baltimore’s Faster Bastards run club, which Believe in the Run founder Thomas Neuberger launched a decade ago. “It started out as a Ragnar team, and we have so much fun together that we just kept doing different runs and signing up for different events together and it grew from there,” he says. Now, there are spinoff trail running, cycling, and triathlon meetups, and the group makes social plans via Slack.

The original 10-mile Saturday group run now attracts 20 to 30 runners per week who commit to the 7:00 average pace. “It’s kind of like survival of the fittest,” says Neuberger. “The vibe is that I’m not out here to just run for fitness, I want to get better and faster and surround myself with people who are doing that, too,” he explains.

Speed may be a deterrent for some, but the challenge is what keeps some runners coming back—and improving every time. Others might want to find a group that’s all about keeping it casual. That’s the beauty of diverse run groups, though: You surround yourself with people who have a similar relationship to running.

Finding connections on the run isn’t just about improving your social life, your love of the sport, or your performance. A run club can affect your overall well-being. Research shows that working out in a group lowered stress by 26 percent and significantly improved physical fitness, mental well-being, and emotional stability in a 2017 study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association.

Finding a run club helped Jacqueline de Berry, a 33-year-old runner from New York, dig herself out of a dark place after getting furloughed from her dream job during the pandemic. “I wasn’t sure who I was anymore without that job, and people who I considered ‘friends and family’ were dropping off as I was no longer part of that work environment. It hurt—a lot,” she says. “I used running as a way to cope and help my mental and overall well-being, but I was missing that sense of community that I had previously found in my work and was so essential to me.”

A friend encouraged de Berry to join NYC’s Bridge Runners in March 2021, as run clubs were meeting up in person again; the next month, she joined Old Man Run Club with several of her new running friends. Since then, “not only is my physical fitness the best it has ever been, but my mental well-being is also the strongest it has been in a while. My Bridge Runners and Old Man Run Club family have been there for me in a way I was missing. They show up when it matters and when things are difficult, and because of them I know that I’m capable of doing and getting through hard things.”

How to Find Your Running Community

If you’re looking for a run club, a good place to start your search is the Road Runners Club of America, where you can spot groups in your area. You can also ask your local running store about running clubs or groups in your area; they may even sponsor or offer their own.

But think about what you really want from a run club, says Nelson—are you looking for a social experience, or a more competitive environment? Are you okay with running the same route every week, or are you hoping to explore new trails? Narrowing down your must-haves will make it easier to find the right fit.

That’s part of why Wilkerson started the app, The Run Down. “I wanted to create a hyper-local app that runners can trust and rely on,” she explains. (Recommendations are currently available for San Diego, and she’s expanding to San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and New York soon.) “I field a lot of recommendations from local run influencers and leaders and make that info really easy and accessible for runners to find. My goal for The Run Down is to make running accessible for everybody—for every ability, every size, every level of runner.”

Running can be an intensely vulnerable experience—one that’s magnified when you’re running with others. No one wants to be the slowest runner in a group! But there are two important things to remember: 1) So what if you are the slowest one? No one is judging you! 2) Just showing up is enough.

“All of these wonderful benefits that we get from a running community are difficult to access the first time,” says Nelson. “But all you have to do is keep showing up, and the rest will fall into place.”

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