“You should join a running club". After the third person made the same suggestion I wondered if they knew something I didn't. 

I've always run alone, happy at my own pace, competing against myself. Joining a running club had crossed my mind, but the idea of running with lots of people made me nervous – my perception was that I simply wasn't good enough. 

A general impression of running clubs is that they are for 'serious' runners: gnarly men and whippet-like women who run marathons at weekends and compete in county leagues. Ruth thought the same: “I was always the last to be picked for PE teams at school," she says, “I'd never run more than a couple of miles when I joined, and I was worried a club would be really competitive".

A general impression of running clubs is that they are for 'serious' runners: gnarly men and whippet-like women who run marathons at weekends.

She wasn't the only one to have her preconceptions reversed by the reality of what a running club offers. Most running clubs have different types of event each night to appeal to as wide a range of members as possible. Some, such as Leamington-based Spa Striders offers a 0 to 10K training course to attract complete beginners as well as enabling training at the top end of the scale. Helen joined Spa Striders “to make myself run". Although “not particularly fit" then, she cites the incredible support and encouragement of other club members as the reason she will soon compete in her tenth race this year. She is “the slowest on the team", but says this doesn't matter – next year she plans to beat all her previous race times. 

Ellen “couldn't even run a mile" when she joined her club. Describing her first session as “hell", she amazed herself by returning the following week. After a year as a member she now has a half marathon under her belt and is training for next year's London Marathon. She has lost two stone, eats more healthily and finds that she is calmer and more focused during her pressured shift work. She now calls running a “necessity".

Everyone I spoke to commented on the social aspect of club membership.

At the more competitive end of the scale, Will and Tim are unapologetic about joining Spa Striders to get faster. Tim, already running “fastish" 10ks and half marathons when he joined, is inspired by the fast runners in the club and has knocked at least two minutes off his previous half marathon times. Will finds that his attitude to running has changed since joining the club four years ago – he's a lot faster, trains more and keeps track of his race times in a way he had never seen as important before. Keeping fit through running enables him to “live the life I want to live". 

As well as the benefits to their running, everyone I spoke to commented on the social aspect of club membership, and the real sense of community that it brings as an extra benefit. Laura, who started running after her second child was born, has loved getting to know so many people, and values the encouragement that they give her. Ellen has made some “amazing friends"; David, who had been a runner for 30 years before joining Spa Striders on retirement, appreciates the sense of security that club runs bring, and has “surprised myself" by enjoying being a marshal for events.

Running with others also helps with motivation and commitment.

As well as the obvious safety benefits at this time of year, running with others also helps with motivation and commitment, and gives free access to a wealth of personal training advice. You can discuss what Tim calls “the dull stuff" – PBs, Garmin types, negative splits – with enthusiasm. Even being injured is easier when you're in a club – says Ruth, “You see people come back from injury and that really helps when you're struggling with your own!" 

So I swallowed my preconceptions (and my anxiety) and joined the club. After the first speed session – training I usually dread – I jogged home with a huge grin on my face. And there was something else I hadn't expected: after a couple of club runs with at least 20 other people I found myself setting out for my weekend 10-miler alone, and found that the solitude felt wonderful, and no longer lonely.