[Author’s Note: This is part three of a series on longevity concepts in endurance running. In this series, we discuss factors that play into our capability and enjoyment of the sport as we progress in both experience and age. Be sure to check out part one and part two as well.]
Success in and enjoyment of running stems from multiple factors. Physical factors, including our strength, mobility, and efficiency, play a huge role, as discussed in the first article of this series. How we move largely dictates how we feel and perform.
Non-running lifestyle factors, which we talked about in part two of this article series, such as daily nutrition, hydration, and stress management, are more subtle factors that affect our running.
The third element is between the ears. Our thoughts and beliefs about our running play a major role in performance, enjoyment, and the desire to continue putting one foot in front of the other. They not only generate decisions about training, but they also have deeper, more internal physiological effects that can modulate stress up or down, and impact performance and recovery.
Like physical and lifestyle factors, while these thought patterns and training decisions may have created great joy and success in our younger years, they may now be obstacles and impediments to our current and future running.
A dynamic life demands a dynamic mental approach, and so addressing these psychological factors has helped me and others return to more healthful running.
Compare Yourself to Others
Problem: Comparing your performance to others often adds pressure to run faster and farther, and robs us of the joy of running.
For those of us who grew up in a competitive sports culture, comparing ourselves to others begins at a young age. Scoreboards and stopwatches determine winners and losers. And in running, the almighty watch creates a neat and unflinching performance hierarchy.
Early in our careers, climbing the ladder of performance in both time and distance becomes not only an easy way to assess improvement, but also a metric for self-worth. And in those early years of running, the climbing is easy: physical and mental fitness development and adaptation is swift, and the seconds and minutes melt off our performances like snow from the mountains on a spring afternoon.
Early in our career, fellow competitors become relative performance metrics. Running with a person last year means that you should continue to run with — or even faster than them — today.
But as our careers progress and we approach our physical and mental performance limits, a couple of things happen. First, the gains are tougher to come by. Ultramarathon personal bests are gained by seconds or minutes, instead of hours.
Second, as we touch on those performance limits, we often encounter our physical limits. In doing so, we experience aches, pains, and injury. And each individual runner contacts these barriers at different times and places in their career.
Thus, keeping up with a specific person — who might have more natural talent, more training capacity, less life stress, and less injury sensitivity — no longer becomes a viable or productive strategy. Worse, continuing to do so creates unrealistic and painful expectations.
Early in my ultramarathon career, I ran against some of the best and most talented competitors in the country. I was able to do so largely because I came into the sport in peak marathon fitness, having recently run my two fastest-ever marathons — both near two hours and 30 minutes. In many ways, my fitness potential was fully developed.
At that time I was running against competitors both younger than me and newer to running. Guys like Dylan Bowman and Mario Mendoza were nearly a decade younger and had been training for less time. Thus, even though I competed alongside these men for a few years, when my own limitations began to surface, continuing to use them and other men like them as metrics became a frustrating folly.
Solution: Mind the “Whole Envy Rule,” and optimize your own life.
Other competitors offer simple and easy ways to pace our own training and racing, literally during in-person runs and races, or more broadly through online training logs and other media. But it’s important to remember the following:
- Every runner is different, with different strengths, weaknesses, and potential; and
- Every runner, at any given time, is in a different place in life, with various life responsibilities and stressors.
Thus, it is lucky at best and foolhardy at worst to believe that our own training and performance progress should align perfectly with any other person.
Just like in a race, allow yourself to run alongside others without hitching your hopes and expectations to them for the entire journey. Sometimes they speed up, sometimes they slow down, as do you. Utilize your friends and competitors for inspiration, motivation, and daily strength, but avoid allowing their journey to dictate yours.
That leads me to what I refer to as the “Whole Envy Rule.” This is adapted from great contemporary thinkers, including Naval Ravikant.
The rule goes that, if you covet any aspect of another person, you must be willing to adopt their whole life.
Envious of the top runners in the sport? Do you wish to be as successful as they are? If so, you may have to be willing to quit your job, give up your family, sell most of your possessions, and live out of your car. Indeed, that is often the journey of many young, up-and-coming professional runners. Or it might include giving up other hobbies, going to sleep at 8 p.m., and leaving behind other valued aspects of your life in order to achieve that standard.
We often want the best of both worlds: we want our highest possible running potential baked into our existing lives. That is a nearly impossible ask. Thus, give up the rote comparison and instead focus on how you can best optimize your own life for fast running while maintaining the things in it you value most.
Compare Yourself to Your Former, Younger Self
Problem: Using lifetime personal bests as the standard for acceptable performance is often unrealistic and leads to physical and mental frustration.
Fellow running friends and competitors may help pace us along our daily runs and focus races. But, as we gain experience, our own personal bests become the truest metrics of performance and improvement.
But again, as we reach the upper limits of improvement, encounter injury obstacles, or simply begin to get older, meeting or besting our personal bests can get increasingly difficult.
Besides, often those personal bests were the result of a rare intersection of peak fitness, ideal conditions, perfect execution, and a dash or two of luck. As such, even with the same or superior fitness, equaling our best performances remains elusive.
So much of both performance and enjoyment is attitude. Being stuck in a comparison mindset — with others, or with our very best — pins our joy of running to peak performance. Not your fastest? Not good enough.
Besides robbing you of joy, negative pressures create physiological stress that can impair the very fitness you demand in order to be happy. This negative cycle can only be broken by a change in mindset.
For me, entering ultrarunning in peak road running fitness set the bar high. As general health and injury problems compounded and running performance degraded, it was increasingly disheartening to compare myself to the standards of my very best. And it seemed, the slower I became, the tougher the internal criticism, which further degraded both performance and enjoyment.
Solution: Focus on short-term steps that build toward long-term improvement. Establish yearly bests. Find enjoyment in the process. Practice gratitude.
If you have read part one and part two of this series, then you recognize that the physical and lifestyle factors that degrade our running take time to reverse. Simply a will to run faster as you dive into old runs, workouts, and paces won’t result in a return to personal bests. In fact, such a strategy likely only leads to more frustration, pain, and injury.
Reversing progressive stiffness, weakness, and internal stressors such as gut issues and sleep deficits takes time. And unfortunately, even when restored, the performance gains to be made from those improvements often lag even further behind.
Stop the comparison. Your best was likely the outcome of years of development. As such, it could take that long to return to that point. Set aside that image and instead, take it day by day.
First, simply get out the door. Put one foot in front of the other and do your best to find ease. Then, invest in optimizing your physical and lifestyle factors: invest in mobility, strength, and stride efficiency. Commit to small but potent changes in diet, removing known foods and drinks that degrade your health. Put the phone, computer, and work away and slip into bed 20 minutes earlier.
As it did at the beginning of our careers, small improvements compound over time. Even if that slow four miler feels trite and useless compared to the easy 10 milers of yesteryear, keep your head down and your eyes forward. Such an approach often requires letting go of those former days.
Instead, consider establishing yearly bests. Are you better today than you were yesterday? Or a year ago? In the long haul of self-improvement — and the upward rolling of a stubborn stone stuck in a gully of injury, illness, and burnout — small comparisons are much more generative and useful.
You don’t need to give up on achieving your best. But for now, find a milepost that is both visible and achievable in the short term.
For me, while I still have a firm grasp of my personal bests, as well as metrics for fitness, my focus has shifted to the present: what can I do today to improve my fitness from yesterday? Focusing on small, daily gains that — coupled with an attitude of gratitude — develop both physical and mental momentum that creates compounding gains. Over time, these consistent gains can build you back to both peak fitness and enjoyment.
Rigidly Stick to a Previous Recipe for Success
Problem: Previous routines that created success in the past may no longer work for your current body and lifestyle.
Many of the most successful runners in the world are meticulous, detail-oriented, and downright rigid in their approach to training and racing. Such discipline is crucial to peak performance, but that rigidity cuts both ways.
At its essence, training and racing is an “n of 1” pursuit where we apply X training stimulus to generate Y result. Whether it’s through a coach’s guidance, an established training plan, or a trial-and-error approach, we assemble these small number of data points to reach conclusions about the recipe for running success.
For me, through the bulk of my competitive racing career, I averaged 70 miles per week. Build-up periods often consisted of an average easy run of 10 miles, two hard sessions mid-week, and a long and fast weekend run. This became a recipe for success, and my training maintained this consistency.
However, how do I know that 50 miles per week would have been superior? Or one less hard workout, but with higher volume? These represent different inputs that often generate outputs that may surprise us. Not enough stimulus, and potential is unrealized. Too much and we experience pain, injury, or burnout.
Lastly, recall once more the “Whole Envy Rule.” In comparing to your all-time bests, ask yourself: To get back there, would you be willing to trade your current life for what it was back then? Many of us veteran runners now have families, children, successful careers, and businesses. Perhaps a part of you might enjoy returning to tiny apartments in low-responsibility jobs — for a day.
But often, it was that low responsibility of our younger days that allowed our aggressive training recipe to succeed. That was back when Sunday long runs could launch at 10 a.m. instead of 6 a.m., and were coupled with a luxurious afternoon nap. Anyone with multiple young kids ever get to nap, let alone train at heavy volume? Recognize that what worked many years ago to generate peak performance is unlikely to generate the same outcome with the same execution now.
This quote by Heraclitus is a relevant close to this idea: “No [person] ever steps in the same river twice. For it’s not the same river and [they are] not the same [person].”
Solution: Experiment with new approaches and novel training stimuli.
As we age, it may be both mentally difficult and downright scary to try a new training approach. But limitations in time, energy, or physical integrity may limit returning to that tried-and-true plan.
I’d suggest that every veteran runner fighting stagnation and slowdown should consider a training overhaul. The biggest reason is our nervous system. While this article largely deals with the psyche, our neurological system often becomes worn down in the specific patterns we have overused over many years of prolonged training.
As such, if your recipe for success was high volumes of long, slow distance punctuated by medium-hard long runs, neurological physiology dictates that you could get significant performance gains — even in the same long, trail running and ultrarunning distances — by doing alternative types of training that stress the nervous system in different ways.
Through the concept of neurological reserve, we seldom use more than a fraction — well under 50% — of our overall neurons to fire muscles while we run. This number decreases further if we engage in only specific types of running.
Thus, by adding or increasing speed — even short and maximum-intensity sprinting — we can develop new neurological patterns to help fuel our running. It’s a wild concept, but this radical change to training can result in a true running renaissance!
While a total overhaul may not be necessary, consider small changes to your training routine:
- Run faster before running more. This may seem backward but, once you have established a consistent running habit, before trying to add more mileage, consider adding speedwork. This may be as short and sweet as 10- to 15-second strides, fartleks, or interval training. Besides providing a fresh neurological stimulus, fast running demands and reinforces the strength, mobility, and efficiency necessary for both peak performance and enjoyable running.
- Join a training group or hire a coach. It’s hard to run fast, alone, or voluntarily. And for those runners with deeply ingrained training routines, handing the keys to your training to a coach or training group might instill panic. But if novel stimuli is the goal, then a new coach, or simply showing up to a weekly hard workout training group, is all you need.
- Diversify your training. Add other non-running training stimuli to your routine. Activities such as strength training and yoga — even if non-specific to running — again provide a novel neurological stimulus that may awake new neurons to power your running, as well as reinforce optimal strength and mobility.
My old training routine was often volume heavy, consisted of too many medium-fast runs, and was light on high-intensity effort as well as cross-training. My current comeback recipe consists of 40 to 50 miles per week, shorter and faster intervals, yoga one to two days a week, and short bouts of frequent weightlifting such as 20-minute sessions four to six days a week.
These changes, as well as key adjustments to diet and lifestyle, have me feeling and looking the best I have in years. I am very close to 100-mile racing weight, but with more muscle mass. I’m sleeping better and, after years of severe stiffness, I am feeling closer to my youthful running stride.
Take Yourself Too Seriously
Problem: Being too serious adds excessive pressure, slows recovery and fitness development, and robs joy from the running pursuit.
Running far and fast is immensely challenging. Performing at your best, let alone the top of the sport, requires a routine of sacrifice, toil, and tremendous pain endurance. Serious stuff, right?
It takes a stone-cold commitment to visiting the pain cave via fast runs, long runs, pre-dawn runs, nighttime runs, bonking, nausea, and all sorts of body pain to reach your utmost potential. But serious commitment creates a white-hot heat that, if unbalanced, can burn through our training and recovery, leaving us exhausted and in pain. Frustration leads to more pressure and negativity, and can create a destructive, downward spiral.
For me, running began as a way of fitting in: of finally finding something I was good at in a childhood of other athletic failures. That acceptance-through-achievement pathway is hardwired into my system.
As a result, it’s easy for me to take all aspects of running too seriously. And as I age and accumulate other life stressors, running itself can become a far greater life stressor than the fun, joyful stress reliever it could be.
When my running performance and overall health deteriorated several years ago, this too created a downward spiral where runs felt bad, I became frustrated and negative, and runs felt even worse.
I had to break the cycle.
Solution: Counterbalance commitment with positivity. Find joy amid the pain. Surround yourself with positive people and situations.
Even the most serious, elite-level training and competition require a counterbalance in levity.
Positivity may seem like a softening in the face of formidable challenge. However, positive attitudes and actions help regulate the nervous system both during and after running.
While we need to physiologically rev up to train and race at our best, the positivity system — beliefs and attitudes, and simple actions like smiling and laughing — regulate that physical arousal and, when it’s time to rest, helps us recover faster.
Why is it that the fastest and most successful runners run on seemingly endless joy? They are often the ones always smiling, goofing around at the starting line or aid stations, and interacting with others in a friendly way?
It may seem that it’s all fun for them. But perhaps it’s this outward joy and fun that is the perfect counterbalance to the tremendous commitment to training and competition?
Nearly all good begins with a mindset of gratitude. Even though you may be slower, stiffer, and in more pain than you were a few years ago, if you are out running, that alone is a time and place for gratitude.
Begin there. Find gratitude in the process. Those of us who have experienced illness and injury know full well that almost any run is better than no run. Find joy in even the slow, stiff runs, and over time both the consistency and that positive mindset will help melt away that stiffness, put more spring in your step, and gradually improve overall performance.
My decline from peak performance was painful and frustrating. But after my illness and slow recovery from giardiasis and adrenal fatigue, and now, finally overcoming low energy and stiffness? I am grateful for every pain-free step.
It doesn’t mean I am satisfied, but I am thankful to be running. Joy and gratitude make the miles fly by and the unforgiving speedwork not only survivable but enjoyable!
Cultivating joy and gratitude on the daily grind can be difficult to do alone. Run with others, meet new people. Run with successful veterans and new, young runners. The energy from both groups is infectious.
The young runners have that excitatory spring in their step, and their joy in the self-discovery is infectious. Similarly, the long-time veteran runners have a recipe for success that invariably contains a vibrant positivity system that keeps them running fast, far, and often in lockstep with their younger friends.
Be patient. Smile. Fill your heart with gratitude. Give what you can to others, young and old, faster and slower. Then get to work on honing the most quality running practice and lifestyle that you can.
That is the best roadmap toward recovery, as well as peak performance and longevity. It’s a road with a lot of tedious but necessary side trips, but if you stay patient, persistent, and positive, it will keep you on the lifelong journey that so many of us hope for with our running.
Long may you run.
Call for Comments
- For those of us who’ve been running for years, what strategies do you use to improve your current version of yourself that don’t rely on previous versions of you?
- Have you changed up your training recipe after many years of following a similar formula? What was the result for you?
- What role does a positive, gratitude-centric mindset play in your running?