2020 has been a challenging year for everyone. Goals that seemed attainable in January may have looked impossible by May. Wins have been few and far between for most of the world. So, I set out to get a small victory for myself.
I wanted to run a 5k in under 28 minutes, a task made more challenging by a recent surgery and a summertime smoking habit. My career wasn’t going how I wanted. My relationships were struggling. But there was still one thing I could control — my health and fitness.
So, I set a goal and worked hard to accomplish it. In the process, I discovered what so many before me have seen — running is a perfect analog for life. Thankfully, the lessons I learned from race day are available to all, even those with no desire to lace up and hit the pavement.
1. Recover While Running
Intervals are essential for building speed and endurance as a runner. For the uninitiated, an interval workout includes periods of faster-than-usual running with periods of slow jogging to recover for the next fast interval.
My target pace was 9 minutes per mile, so I ran slightly faster than that for my intervals, no longer than 4 minutes and as short as 1 minute. But, when I reached the slow portion, I was choking on air and fighting a sharp stitch in my side. I tried to jog, but then I couldn’t return to my fast pace for more than sixty seconds.
If I wanted to recover in time, I had to walk. My pride could barely handle it, but my body gave me no choice.
Fast-forward through two weeks of consistent training, and my slow intervals are speeding up. Where I was once walking, I was now maintaining a slow but steady jog and feeling well enough to return to my race speed by the end of the interval.
On race day, my adrenaline was pumping. I had more energy than I could hold in. As the starting buzzer sounded, the mob of people around me took off sprinting, and I followed. I knew my pace was too fast, but it was as if running slower took more mental effort than this blistering speed.
Within a few minutes, my heart and lungs begged me to stop. So I slowed down to a pace thirty seconds slower than my target, and, within minutes, I recovered. I returned to my target pace, maintained it for the next two miles, and had enough in the tank to push hard through the finish line.
Where I had once needed minutes of slow walking to recover my cardiovascular strength, my training allowed me to recover while running at a speed just below my goal pace.
As important as it is to run fast, it’s just as important to learn how to run slow.
Whether applied across a single day or an entire lifetime, the same rule applies to life. Find your fast pace, and work hard to improve it, but work just as hard to improve your slow pace. Learn to recover at a jog instead of a walk.
Spend less time relaxing at the end of a long project or a particularly grueling day. Instead of mindlessly watching YouTube scrolling Instagram, train your mind to recover while reading an intriguing book. At the end of a long work week, dedicate part of your weekend to learning a new skill.
Give yourself time to recuperate, but do it better and do it faster.
2. Know Your Route
In the weeks leading up to my race, I read article after article on how to prepare to crush my first 5k. Most of the advice was easy to understand and apply to my own preparation. But I kept seeing one thing that I just didn’t understand.
Run the race route before race day.
I thought nothing of it. Surely, that was advice for serious runners, not first-timers like me. Then came race day.
The route began with a slight uphill that quickly leveled out. But then, around the first mile-marker, we started going uphill again. And we continued going uphill. Then, when the course finally seemed to flatten, we climbed another hill. I was not prepared for this.
My average elevation gain throughout my training was 4 feet. After all, I live in the middle of a massive valley and trained on a track twice a week. For this race, the elevation gain was 400 feet.
If I had known that the route would include these intense hills, I would’ve adjusted my training as such. But I hadn’t. And I was struggling because of it.
Did the hill ruin my race? No, because I trained hard regardless. However, I know I could’ve done better if I tailored part of my training to the race day route.
Life is full of surprises, but if you can prepare, then you should prepare.
There’s a time and place for spontaneity, but spontaneity should come from the unexpected, not due to intentional ignorance. Learn from others before you learn from failure. You will still learn from failure, but you’ll be better prepared for when you do.
3. What Goes Up Must Come Down
While I had no knowledge of the actual route I was running, I did receive one tip from a fellow racer before we took off. He told me that the finish line was right by the starting line.
Why did that matter? Because the hills were killing me, and I couldn’t take the intensity much longer. But I knew that, eventually, a glorious stretch of downhill pavement would lay in front of me.
So, I continued to run up the hill, even while all those around me were walking. They used the slope as a recovery time, but why would I recover during the most challenging part of the race?
So, I speed up. I push to the top of the hill, and I see a flat stretch of land leading to a second uphill stretch.
It seems like these hills will never end, but just when my legs were about to give out, the route flattened out for a mile. With half a mile left, I see the downhill in front of me. My legs are tired, but my lungs are as healthy as ever, so I push down the stretch ahead, maintaining well above my goal pace and finishing faster than I started.
Life has uphill stretches, downhill stretches, and flat stretches.
Running downhill is easy, and running on flat ground isn’t much of a challenge, so push hard on the uphill because you won’t need that energy when life flattens out. There’s no reason to save your power for the downhill portion. Push through the challenging periods, and coast through the easy ones.
4. You’re only racing yourself
Perhaps the most common mistake that new runners make in their first race is running too fast. I had no problem running a steady pace when training, but race day was a different beast.
I had convinced a friend to run the race with me, a friend who’s a much better athlete than me. But this friend was a strong, bulky ex-rugby player, not a runner. I thought I could outrun him and show my superiority in just one physical category.
But I couldn’t, and it wasn’t even close. As I sprinted through the finish line, I saw the friend there, cheering me on with a smile on his face and a suspicious control of his breathing. He had finished minutes earlier.
My friend finished second in our age group, and I finished seventh. I was disappointed, but when I checked the times, I saw that I came in thirty seconds faster than my goal.
Despite our tendency to compare ourselves to others, life isn’t about comparison. It’s about progress. Compare yourself to your earlier self all you want, but not to those around you.
Running is a pure form of competition because success is not dependent on anyone else. It’s determined by your preparation and dedication to accomplishing goals. In the absence of goals, comparison to others becomes the thief of joy. In the presence of goals, comparison with others becomes a secondary feeling. Allow yourself to compete, but remember that the only competition that matters is the one with your former self.
I started running because I needed to find measurable success in something that didn’t come easy. I expected a small self-esteem boost for accomplishing this goal, but I didn’t expect to learn so many tactics that translate directly to other portions of life.
The overarching lesson here, though, has nothing to do with running. It has to do with setting goals, pushing yourself, and learning from the experience whether you succeed or fail. It doesn’t have to neatly tie into the bigger picture. The strategies that bring you success in one field can apply across any domain.
Find one that works for you and get running.