Six years ago I signed up to run my first half marathon. At the time, my goals were to raise money for charity and to try something I had never done before. I didn’t really enjoy running. In fact, I don’t think I had ever run more than a mile continuously, but I was motivated by the challenge involved.
After several months of training, I completed my first race, and I was hooked. Several years and three half marathons later, I have experienced many of the ups and downs that endurance racing has to offer. Through these experiences, I have come to understand that much of the challenge of endurance sports is mental rather than physical.
It is challenging and exhausting to put in the time and energy required to build up the physical endurance to complete a long race. Your mind can be your worst enemy as you plod your way through a long workout, always focusing your attention on the wrong things, distracting you from the steps you need to take to achieve your goal. You constantly have to fight to stay focused, motivated, and moving in the right direction.
It is not all that different from working towards any challenging, long-term goal in life.
During the many hours I have spent running alone, I have identified a number of lessons that I have learned from running about achieving long-term success. These lessons can be applied to individual goals or to goals that you are leading your team towards. Hopefully they will help you keep your momentum when the going gets rough.
Pacing Is Critical
The one factor that has made the most difference in my racing success is how well I pace myself, especially early in the race. The first race I ran, I let the adrenaline rush get to me and started off way too fast. After six miles of weaving in and out of traffic, pushing myself too hard, I was exhausted. I was able to keep going, but I had to slow down significantly from my target pace. The effort I expended early hurt me in the end.
Whether you are talking about individuals or teams, we only have so much energy available at any given moment. It can be tempting to push hard towards our goals, especially in the early stages of an effort, when your excitement and motivation levels are high. Unfortunately, this can burn through our energy too fast, leaving us exhausted and unable to move forward at a reasonable pace.
We must keep the long-term nature of our goals in mind, so that we can reserve some of that energy and excitement for when we need it later on. It’s the classic tortoise and hare situation. Don’t sacrifice your overall success to feel like you are making progress in short bursts.
One other note about pacing: you don’t have to maintain a perfectly steady pace. There is a certain ebb and flow to our energy, both as individuals and organizations. It’s ok to push it some when you are feeling good, or to slow down when you aren’t. Sometimes, pausing to rest and re-engergize can be the best strategy for reaching our goals.
We should always keep tabs on our energy levels as well as the challenges that are coming. If I am about to run up a large hill, I should probably hold back a little in preparation. If I am feeling good and have a long gradual downhill run ahead of me, it’s probably a good time to push. If your team is energetic and ready to go, feel free to attack your goal with gusto. But if they are worn down by the challenges they are facing, maybe a little rest is in order.
Hitting the Wall
No matter how well you pace yourself, if your goal is challenging enough, you will reach a point where you “hit the wall”. In running, this is a point in the race where your body starts to feel like it is made of concrete. Your motions become sluggish, and everything you do feels like it takes twice as much energy as normal.
While much of this feeling is a physical issue (your body is out of glycogen, so your metabolism changes), there is also a significant mental aspect to it. It can be demoralizing to experience this type of fatigue. You can’t help but wonder when it will end. Or start obsessing about how your pace is falling off. The pain and the worry can cause you to lose focus on your goal and start focusing on the discomfort instead.
So how can you beat the wall? There are hundreds of articles online for how to beat the running wall. Here are a few ideas that can apply to any goal.
- Know it will happen and prepare ahead of time. In any long-term effort, there will be periods of time when you or your team are not at your best. Be on the look out for those moments and have a plan for how to navigate it. If you are prepared, it will be easier to maintain your focus.
- Don’t try to force it. You can’t force your way through the wall. Adjust your plan and your pace to something you can handle. Sometimes you might have to walk or rest a little before you can get back on track. Maybe your team needs a moment to reset their effort and re-energize. Don’t kill yourself trying to maintain a pace that you are not capable of. It will hurt you in the end.
- Stay positive. It sounds kind of cheesy, but you shouldn’t underestimate the power of positive thinking. Sometimes we just need a cheerleader. Focus on what is going well. Tell yourself and your team that you will get through this. Remind yourself of the final outcome that you are pursuing and the positive emotions you will feel when you achieve it. It will help you get through the rough times without losing heart or focus.
- Break the effort into small chunks. Sometimes focusing on the final goal can be overwhelming, so it’s better to break it up into manageable chunks. When running, I would focus on making it through the next mile, the next hill, or maybe just to the nearest lamp post. When things were really tough, like climbing a steep hill, I would just focus on the next step. If I kept my head down and my feet moving, I could make it to the top without getting overwhelmed. Find ways to break your goal into smaller chunks. It will help you to see the progress you are making and give you something to focus on that is not as daunting as the final goal.
Celebrate Success Along the Way
Completing a long-term goal like running a half-marathon can be very tiring. It’s important to keep your morale up by celebrating small wins along the way.
For me, I liked to celebrate training runs that were high water marks. Every time I ran longer or faster than I had ever run before, I had a little mental celebration. It was easier to finish a ten mile run if I could focus on the fact that every step I took was farther than I had ever run before.
I also liked to finish my training runs by treating the last mile as a victory lap. I told myself that the worst of the run was over and that I could coast in the rest of the way. It made that last mile much easier and more enjoyable.
Try to be creative and find ways to celebrate successes as you pursue your goals. Treat yourself with a reward when you finish a task. Celebrate with others when you hit a milestone. Take a break after a period of hard work. Surprise your team with a party or other reward when they accomplish a portion of your goal.
You and your team will be better able to stay motivated if you feel like you are making progress and have positive feelings associated with your efforts.
I don’t want to turn this into a marathon article, so I will take a break here for this week. Check back next week for three more lessons in part 2 of this post.