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In a society driven by instant gratification, running can provide a wonderful illustration of how being patient and playing the long game can pay dividends.
As Arthur Lydiard, the great New Zealand running coach said, it takes five years to become good and 10 years to become world-class.
Whether your goal is to become the best runner you can be (given your lifestyle, work and family commitments) or to become the best in the world, the road map is similar.
For athletes, it can be really difficult to balance the desire to get the most out of yourself now, while trusting that the best version of yourself may only be five or 10 years down the line.
Complexity of the process
Perhaps too often we hear the adage that instead of short-term goals, we should embrace the process of training and take joy and gratitude from the discipline, patience and intention of what this entails.
Without a decent understanding of physiology, it can be challenging to see the importance of layering different training stimuli over years to get the most out of your body on any single day on your racing calendar.
For many, the thought of this may be either too daunting or boring to even comprehend. Instead we do as much workload as we can when we’re motivated, and try to limit the fitness losses when we’re not.
While for some this may provide some level of success, for most it just leaves us despondent, plateauing – or worse – injured.
What makes our job as coaches even more challenging is that for any endurance sport, but particularly running, the majority of our training will be at an easy to moderate intensity. The nature of this exercise is aerobic.
This doesn’t mean that we don’t run fast, but it does mean that we need to manage the volume, frequency, and intensity of the fast running that we do.
Unfortunately, that may mean that a high percentage of our training volume may not be Strava kudos inducing. We like to focus on achieving those in races.
Embracing the individual
By saying ‘focus on the process’, we also don’t mean stopping setting yourself goals. Every individual will sit somewhere on a spectrum between needing some form of short-term race goal to being patient with a focus on longer-term objectives. Instead of trying to fit every person into a box, we need to take a step back and assess how to balance these two at times opposing but also often closely aligned attributes.
Simplicity in motion
So often we hear that what attracts people to running is its simplicity. Behind this relative simplicity however, is an incredibly complex human body.
While the best in the world often make running look easy, the rest of us are all too acutely aware of just how difficult that relative simplicity is to achieve in practice. What has all of this got to do with process? Isn’t running success just about running as far as you can, as fast as you can and as often as you can?
We would argue definitively no! While this might make improving more challenging, it also makes a process orientated approach significantly more tangible and rewarding. Getting better doesn’t solely involve putting on your shoes and heading out the door, knocking your head consistently against that proverbial brick wall in the hope that you will improve.
We may never run with the fluidity and rhythm of Eliud Kipchoge, the power and panache of Kenenisa Bekele, or the strength and grit of Paula Radcliffe. But we can undoubtedly transition our bodies to a point where its capacity to move has improved, and its resilience to load and stress has increased.
Patience and letting go
We typically spend so much time running and so little time on the building blocks of running, it’s no wonder injuries are rife.
Focusing on what Ironman legend Mark Allen referred to as body learning will allow you to focus on just how incredible your body is, as well as just how resilient and efficient you can make it with mindfulness and a basic movement practice.
Our bodies crave a variety of movement and yet we typically get stuck in one plane of motion throughout our adult lives.
Over time you will see what improved co-ordination, rhythm, and timing will do for your running. When you see these improvements, it is easy to begin to embrace the process.
At this stage, your 21km personal best may not have come down. But because you are becoming more efficient during your runs, you’re likely less sore afterwards, which means you can begin to string together more consistent training.
If we had to drive home two key tenets for improving as a runner, it would be conservatively increasing capacity so as to achieve long-term consistency of training and racing.
A focus on patience can also provide the space to let go of the outcomes of races and even workouts.
Just giving your mind and body this breathing room can lead to a more regular state of contentment and flow. With a state of flow we give ourselves the opportunity to achieve things we often didn’t think possible.
We frequently get so stuck on results and instant gratification that we end up forcing things, whether it’s your mileage or the pace you start your next race at. Instead try to take a step back, focus on the small improvements you have made, be patient, and stay present.
Let your body guide you as to where you’re at and what magnificent things it can achieve given the space and love it deserves.
This article was originally published in TRAIL issue 37.
Megan Mackenzie and James Montgomery are running coaches at The Run Project. They coach runners of all abilities. Meg is an elite trail runner while James is passionate about endurance sport and movement.