What can we learn from runners about “getting better”?
A Column By David McNeill
Betterment. It’s a virtue that defines what a competitive runner strives for with every training endeavour: to be better. But it’s also a virtue that defines almost every aspect of our lives. Being a better parent. A better cook. A better writer. Better at your job. Being a better person. Oprah Winfrey so eloquently put it once that “running is a great metaphor for life: you get out of it what you put in.” And so it is, that betterment reflects the effort and devotion we put forward. It’s a fitting quote from Oprah, albeit, a little corny. But the reality is, there are many more people out there who despise running than those who love it. And so the virtues of betterment that a runner pursues have very little metaphorical application.
Or do they?
Many things runners do – particularly elite competitive runners – to be better on a daily basis can seem obscure, and seem not to be applicable to betterment in other aspects of life. I mean, can A-skips and hurdle drills really make me a better cook? Maybe not, but running does encourage attitudes and behaviours that are necessary in the pursuit of all forms of betterment. What can we learn from elite runners to be better at whatever it is we are pursuing in life?
Elite runners love feedback. And they seek it out daily. Did I push too hard, or was it just right? How is my form? I have often been complemented on giving sound, level-headed advice when asked. But whenever I have found myself in similar situations warranting similar advice, I am much worse at following it myself. Seeking feedback protects us from ourselves; from being passionate when we should be pragmatic, and vice versa. Feedback is like a good GPS navigator – it ensures we make the right turns at the right time, and get to where we want efficiently.
Elite runners engage in a lot of ancillary work. They do weights, they see physios, they get massage, they do neuromuscular form drills, they stretch. There are few endeavours in life that are made better in a single dimension. A cook doesn’t become a great chef by practising only how to scramble the perfect eggs everyday. Nor does a professional tennis player get better just playing tennis. Diversifying the targets of our effort can lead to improvements in aspects of our chosen endeavour that wouldn’t benefit nearly as much by focusing efforts in a single dimension.
Elite runners embrace routine. The challenge many athletes face (and its a total first-world problem!) is that they have so little to do, but so much time to do it (e.g. 2 hours spent running, 1 hour spent in the gym, and another hour or two spent on other miscellaneous tasks). It’s the perfect recipe for procrastination, and certainly not a problem limited to elite runners. Routine helps ensure the job gets done. And with the appropriate planning, routine provides the means for consistency in effort, and helps facilitate measured and progressive overload. If you want to get better at something, make it routine!
Elite runners prioritise sleep. Perhaps more than foam rollers, ice baths, and protein shakes, sleep is their most important recovery tool. Athletes view sleep not as something you do when the job is done, but something you do to ensure the job you do is a better one. It’s an important and striking distinction. When deadlines loom, or when papers need to be written, sleep is often something we do after the job is done. But when sleep comes second more often than not, eventually the quality of our work suffers. Shifting one’s attitude towards sleep as being a facilitator rather than a reward can lead to more consistent and adequate sleep, and more consistently high quality work.
Elite runners occasionally consult a psychologist or mental health professional. There are any number of clichés that allude to the importance of mental attitude for athletic performance – the old, “it’s 10% physical and 90% mental” assessment. But confidence, happiness, and feeling purpose in what you do are important ingredients for any endeavour we set our hearts and mind to. Seeking the help of a psychologist is not limited to when something is broken. A psychologist may help us be better even in the absence of a problem, or to better navigate a problem when it does arise. A strong and consistent mental attitude contributes to a happier, more purposeful, and more gracious approach to betterment.
Many elite runners love what they do more than they care to admit. If I had a penny for every time I heard a runner say they hated talking about running outside of training, and then listened to them talk about nothing but running, I might actually be a real professional athlete (i.e. have some real $). Perhaps the denial of what you love stems from a belief that having more diverse interests is a more desirable and admirable quality. Certainly, this is true, but being so invested in a single aspect of your life isn’t all bad. It’s what we commonly refer to as passion. Passion is an invaluable quality to have. And what’s wrong with having something in your life that you “nerd-out” over? Passion, wherever it may lie, breeds happiness, and happiness is a contagious quality, that makes us more valuable to other people in our lives. Finding something that you’re passionate about, and unapologetically investing in that endeavour need not always be a bad thing. Kept in control, it can breed happiness like nothing else.
And lastly, elite runners…well, they run! Sure, this is their craft. Running is what a runner does. But through it’s repetitive and cyclical pattern, running can be cathartic, and that’s a release any person can benefit from while navigating the stresses of life. Elite runners will call all running training, but the solo runs through breathtakingly beautiful scenery can be soul-quenching and infuse a sense of meaning in the often meaningless endeavour of trying to run faster and beat people. Personally, while running makes me a better runner, I’d like to think running also makes me a better person. Running can provide a period of clarity, a rush of endorphins, and a sense of accomplishment – a much needed validation that I’m doing ok at this whole “life” thing.