“I just want to be faster each race.”
“I want to progress every race.”
“I want to get my PR each race this season.”
Outcome thought: “…and if I don’t I’m a failure…”
I hear comments similar to these weekly from runners all around. Some are athletes I coach and others are from responses to my blog articles or mental game inquiries. On the surface these comments appear to reveal a motivated, dedicated driven athlete willing to work at doing their best and having continuous improvement.
However, these comments are actually a slippery slope to disappointment, feelings of failure and a “what am I doing wrong” or “what’s wrong with me” attitude.
Though there may be some seasons an athlete may improve fairly consistently most races it is simply uncommon [Notice I didn’t say EVERY race I said “consistently” because it is rarer yet that EVERY race is faster]. If you ARE one of those athletes – congratulations. You have experienced what most runners never will. Oh ya, and if you think you will continue that pattern indefinitely – think again. (Sorry – the voice of reason and reality has to be stated here.)
The unfortunate thing about experiencing a season with continuously faster races is that you come to expect it. Then the next season of course we expect to start off where we ended and continue to progress from there. It also leads us into some complacency with our training. After all, what I was doing got me to where I am so why change right?
The reality is that at every level clear on up to world record holders athletes do not improve every race. In fact, at every level runners do not improve every season. Though the trend for improvement (actual PRs) year-to-year is often seen it is more common to see jumps in various seasons. Elite runners tend to think in four-year blocks (Olympiads) or at least two-year blocks if you include the World Championships.
One of the things I enjoy reviewing each year is the progression of “leading” times (high school, collegiate, elite, Olympic level) throughout the season. It is also interesting to see the patterns of performances for individuals each season. I also read articles and interviews with these athletes or their coaches. The best tend to have a much bigger picture in mind. Yes, each race they want to do their “best” but that best is their best for that day, best for that race, best for that stage of training, best for that stage of recovery, best for an early season, etc.
This lesson is lost on most age group and high school runners who mistakenly believe that the elite runners just keep improving, never have bad days, never race while tired, never test different strategies, never run slightly injured, never race in other than their specialty race distance or under par physically or mentally.
A Point of Logic
If a world record holder had the attitude that he/she must improve every race then we would have a new world record every time he/she stepped on the track – right from the beginning of the season. If they held that belief about racing and this didn’t happen – he/she would view themselves as failures.
To begin to fix this mentality runners and coaches need to keep longer term goals in mind with the full understanding that it is NOT a straight-line progression to that ultimate goal. Some races are “off” and some seasons are “off”. It also means that getting to a goal is circuitous and you need to have a variety of ways to get there including just backing off. Sometimes doing less is doing more.
If you continue to do the same things – speed, duration, intensity – that got you your success you will hit a wall eventually. Your training must progress on all of those fronts if you expect improvement (of course combined with some rest to let the training effect take place in your body). So, one of the first things to do is analyze your training, how it is put together, and evaluate if it really is setting you up to run faster this season. Evaluate your rest and recovery status.
Next, if you only focus on one distance the odds of continuous improvement is less likely after awhile. Though you do need to “specialize” in order to truly get to your best performance at any single distance you also have to drop down in distance to gain speed and step up in distance to gain strength and endurance. If you’re hitting plateaus and not improving, this is something to look at.
Left behind most often in this never ending quest for improvement is the mental game – on a couple levels.
One – goal setting to “improve every race” is a very poorly stated goal. One exception (i.e. one bad race) means you have already failed at this season’s goal. It also is not specific enough. Are you only measuring time/place? Define “improve”.
Two – integrating mental game goals into your season allows for you to pursue multiple goals that will serve you long term. Even if your time is off in a given race; perhaps you were mentally tough by running in the pack, taking a lead, finishing fast, clicking off perfectly paced splits, beating someone you don’t usually beat, handling race day pressure, perfecting your pre-race routine.
If you integrate mental goals into your physical (time/pace/place) goals you increase your chances of having success in a race. You learn and grow – and that is never lost on an intelligent athlete. The lessons you learn about mental toughness, handling bad days or yes… bad seasons will serve you for life.
If you have that propensity for looking at your running as “always” needing to improve – broaden your scope, check your training program, integrate reality, stop beating yourself up, learn how to learn and grow, and enjoy the process along the way.