Those who know me, know I am a huge advocate of running clubs. If anyone asks, “Should I join a running club?” my answer is always an emphatic YES! I truly believe that being part of a club brings you not only the benefit of running coaching, and forces consistency into your training schedule if you need motivation to get out and do the hard sessions, but you can also draw upon advice of other runners, find buddies to run with and enter races, and make lifelong friends.

For me, community is the greatest benefit of running clubs; a sense of belonging when you’re running a race with teammates all wearing your club kit; when you’re planning your next big running adventure; when you’re knee deep in mud, laughing so hard because your clubmate’s trainer sole has fallen off during a cross country race.

My running club is my passion, but therein lies my bias in this debate.

5 years ago, I started a running club because I was too scared to join an established running club for all the reasons cited by those people who tell me running clubs aren’t for them: I too was scared of being left behind as an inexperienced runner. So I’ve never been part of another club; I’ve never had experience of what other running clubs do. Our club forges its own way in the word, based on the belief that nobody ever gets left behind, and that we are friends first, runners second. So when I advocate running clubs to others, I have to try to remember to always qualify my passion for my own running club with an advisory that there are many different types of clubs out there. However, I’m living proof that if you can’t find one that’s right for you, there is no reason why you can’t start your own up, like we did.

My running club was borne out of an idle chat amongst 3 friends on a walk across fields to our local fish & chip van in the next village. My husband wasn’t even in the country at the time, but found himself volunteered, upon his return, as one of the primary founding members leading the inaugural run (to which one other person turned up). We never dreamed at the time what the club would become, but we had a lot of fun. That first year, we paid for ourselves to become Leaders in Running Fitness, and quickly realised we were naturally doing things the ‘right’ way, despite never having been members of another running club. We always promised ourselves the club would be free and fun, and from there we’ve just kind of found our own way. We don’t necessarily do things the same way as others, but who’s to say our way isn’t better?

The problem is, when something is free, people tend not to value it as much. Runners floated in and out, we had some regulars but most people did a few runs with us and we never saw them again. 7 months in, we advertised a beginners programme to get some new members, and 45 people turned up on the first night. We must have looked like rabbits in headlights, giving our initial brief in the market square, but eventually numbers dwindled down to about ten ladies who finished the six week programme. I put this down to two things; our own inexperience at keeping our member records organised and following up those who didn’t come back, and that people didn’t value a free group. Now we have our Learn to Run courses perfected; we charge a nominal amount for them which we subsequently use to give each person who completes the course a club T-shirt. The club just had 30 graduates on its last course, most of who subsequently joined the club and are now fully fledged club runners setting new PBs.

This brings me to another point: runners who regularly attend a running club will, in my experience, reap greater gains in their running. A quick look at our register list over the past few months explains why certain members have been setting PB after PB at weekly parkruns – they attend our weekly interval/speed sessions so quickly see improvement in their running. This isn’t a coincidence. I’m not saying those runners who aren’t club runners can’t improve themselves, but many people – myself included – find it difficult to do interval training alone, and many lack the knowledge of how to plan a training schedule for an upcoming race. This is where clubs come in.

Managing a club isn’t always rosy. Volunteers need lots of nurturing otherwise they grow resentful if you’re asking too much of them, or drift away, some to other clubs. Our club went through a very difficult time when I had just given birth to our daughter and my priorities got caught up in the tornado that is new motherhood, and came crashing down around my head. At that time the club was relying on two or three people who were running all the sessions and not getting any reward or thanks, and runner numbers were dwindling as a result because without the passion of a run leader, where is the inspiration? We’ve learned our lesson now thankfully and we share the workload out a lot better; we try not to rely on one person too much; and we are constantly encouraging people to help out at the club and train as run leaders or coaches so we can continue to grow. We also do a lot of social runs and club outings. We know our members as people, not just runners.

Ironically, despite our early and naive adamance that we would always remain free, it is only since the club affiliated to England Athletics that we have become a real, exciting, growing club. We don’t make a profit from membership or kit, and our volunteers are just that – people who give their time for free – but we can now afford to buy equipment (such as head torches for the winter) and pay for hire of the village hall for meetings. We’ve reached that important critical mass – finally – where members bring friends to join, and people generally know who we are and when we meet. Years of tirelessly promoting Witham Runners in every sentence has finally paid off. I even got an (absolutely unexpected!) award at a glitzy business awards ceremony in the springtime. I still can’t believe how far we’ve come; 100 + members and so much goodwill.

So what does the future hold? I can certainly say with confidence now that the club’s future is stable; with a dedicated committee who care about what we do, and a self-sustaining income from membership and races. We have exciting plans for next year, with some fell races; organising a new club-organised trail race; team events; the list is endless. I’d like to stay as chairman for as long as the club wants me, but I also need to start delegating more of the workload to my committee. I have lived and breathed Witham Runners for a long time and feel very personally attached to it, but I know that sometimes when you love something so much, you have to set it free to enable it to really fly. I won’t pretend this isn’t difficult for me though.

So are you thinking of setting up a running club? What are my Top Tips?

  1.    Know what your club stands for. Find a niche. Live it. Witham Runners has always been about never leaving anybody behind and we have always put the emphasis on having fun and making friends. 5 years later, we can ask any one of our members why they run with us and they’ll say it’s because we’re the friendliest club around and we don’t take ourselves too seriously.
  2.    Don’t take volunteers for granted. Not-for-profit clubs rely on goodwill but there is only so far this will stretch. Our club has several generous benefactors who have donated cash, equipment and most importantly TIME, and we always try our hardest to say thank you.
  3.    Be organised. Set up a committee, keep accounts, write a constitution. These are all requirements if you ever decide to affiliate to England Athletics or another body.
  4.    Get some qualifications and insurance. The Leadership in Running Fitness course that UK Athletics offers is a great course that also insures you to lead a running group. Be careful with coaching though; you shouldn’t be offering advice to athletes unless you have relevant qualifications. Affiliation to England Athletics brings an added level of public liability insurance to your club.
  5.    Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I sought advice from the founder of another club very similar in ethos to ours. Everybody needs a mentor; and I’ve had my own doubts and dark days when I wasn’t sure things were going to work out, but your peers can be really helpful and supportive. Now we get approached by others for help and advice, and we’re always happy to provide it because we’ve been in their shoes.
  6.    Look for funding. Our local sports partnership has been really helpful, as have local businesses, and we’ve had both training and kit paid for through grants in the past.
  7.    Keep your sessions interesting and varied. We do two weekly sessions; one is interval training/speed work/technique, and the other is our run night. We often do pub runs, headtorch runs, we drive to new places and explore. We also devolve power to members to run their own unofficial runs on other nights – there’s a fortnightly hill session, and weekly long runs on a weekend that work in this manner.
  8. Embrace diversity. By this I mean welcome and learn from all types of runners who come to your club. We have runners at the top end, and  beginners, and every type of runner inbetween. We cater for all abilities at our sessions.
  9. Keep going. Keep promoting. Don’t give up when things get difficult. It took us 5 years until we could finally sit back and say, look how far we’ve come. It’s takes a while to build a reputation, along with momentum.
  10. Have fun, and keep the emphasis on running. That is, after all, what we’re best at.

If anyone has any questions or wants more advice, tweet me @shellmoby or get in touch with the club