Social organisms, including human beings, frequently create patterns with their bodies that improve their collective ability to survive and thrive. This tendency is so ingrained in us that it extends to all aspects of our lives, including running. In the same way that a school can protect the individual anchovy from being eviscerated by a barracuda, a group can protect the individual runner from trauma such as running into a stiff headwind or having no one to talk to. So, the next time you’re running with a group, see if you find yourself in one of these ten running formations.
The Classic V
Used by migratory birds to decrease drag and increase the total distance they can travel, the Classic V formation has been coopted in a number of sports. Packs as small as three can take advantage of this classic grouping, but the more members there are in the flock, the more energy can be conserved.
The Pace Line
Based on the Classic V with one wing chopped off, the Pace Line is commonly used by runners and cyclists traveling into an indirect headwind. By running off each other’s shoulders, a Pace Line allows each runner to see where they are going while still benefiting from the meat shield that is their companion. Only two runners are required to form a Pace Line, but larger groups dramatically improve efficiency and how coordinated you look.
The Inverted V
In the event that a group features two dominant personalities running on opposite sides of a line, this less common formation can develop. The decreases in drag are much lower than that of the Classic V, but it’s not like either of those two Alpha-personas are going to let the other take point. Like the Classic V, at least three runners are needed to create an Inverted V, but unlike the Classic V, the more people in an Inverted V, the sillier you look.
Most common with groups running on a track, the Zipper is made up of a series of two-person Pace Lines. The angled approach keeps all runners near the inside rail and means that everyone other than the leader benefits from wind protection at some point during a lap. At least four runners are needed for an effective Zipper, but like a long Pace Line, a long Zipper is a display of harmonious teamwork.
No one wants to be a one-stepper, so you might as well run next to each other for the entire run. This formation is great for holding conversations, but it also leads to inconveniencing anyone who happens to be using the same space while traveling in a different direction or at a different speed. A small Wall can be formed by two people, but a big Wall is much more effective at annoying your fellow runners.
This pattern is used for baton handoff drills, running into direct headwinds, and long distance races. In this grouping, each runner follows the individual directly ahead of him or herself, wherever they may lead. Two runners can make a Snake, but more runners make it increasingly entertaining for spectators.
The Morse Code
Sometimes runners will start a run together, separate themselves, and then run the same exact pace for the remainder of the run. In this formation, no individual runner benefits, but they still remain a “team.” At least that’s what they tell themselves. Two runners (••) make an “I,” three (•••) an “S,” four (••••) an “H,” and five (•••••) a “5.” So, you probably want “five-ish” runners for this formation.
All is chaos. The group moves as a continually shifting mass of limbs. Thoughts of efficiency and order are overwhelmed by the pulsing need to keep up. Theoretically two runners can form a Blob, but a truly disorganized mass requires more runners be present.
Another formation that is common in distance races, the balloon is created by the combination of a Blob that leads a Snake or Morse Code grouping. Four runners may form a Balloon, but they are generally only created by larger crowds.
Essentially an inverted Balloon, this grouping forms when a strong frontrunner and several followers pull away from the pack. Whether they are caught and reabsorbed like Pac-Dots depends on how fast they can run. Also possible with four runners but improved by increased numbers, the Pac-Man is a much more common with cyclists.
Will has been running competitively since high school, and is currently running with the HOKA Aggies, a post-collegiate club here on the central coast of California. With a preference for the humorous and the verbose, he enjoys playing the wordsmith almost as much as his daily runs.