Monday, October 6, 2008

Long Distance Motivation

One of our runners came up to us after practice yesterday and asked "Runner X does not run as many miles as I do and yet he beats me in races. Why?"

I buy into the logic that runners are good because of three things:
1. Natural ability to deliver and burn oxygen and fuel in their bodies to produce the energy to move them forward (Jack Daniels VDOT). In other words, some people are built with better engines.
2. Mental and nerve system ability. This is a combination of being able to deal with pain as well as being able to run a race well (even pacing, competitiveness with other runners, etc.).
3. Conditioning. How have they conditioned their bodies to best tune their engines. Lots of debates on how this is done - miles, speedwork, thresholds, cross training, etc. But it is clear that people can run faster if they train, and up to a point get better as they train more.

On the logical level, the answer to his question is that some people have better cardiovascular systems, more efficient bodies and strides for distance running and have better abilities to deal with the pain and logistics of a race. Tough luck that someone has a better #1 and #2 even though you feel you work harder.

This seems like such a stark answer. But if you think about it, every runner faces this. Ringwood is the best runner on the Moorestown team right now, and the other 60-70 guys think he is amazing. However there were 35 guys that were faster than him at Holmdel on Saturday. Should he feel frustrated that he only ran 16:44 and Brett Johnson ran a minute faster? In essence, Ringwood could ask the same question this runner asked.

I would propose that the answer comes back to something I call "long term motivation". It kind of fits with "long distance running". Just like distance races last a long time - 15 minutes for a 5K compared to 10 seconds for a 100 meters, or 2-3 hours for a marathon vs. 45-60 seconds for a 400 meter race - long distance runners need to think of their training in a similar way. And I don't mean a single 10 mile run - but years of running to improve the complex systems in their bodies. And even with years of training, it is more likely than not that there will be lots of people better than you.

Therefore to be in this sport, you need long term motivation. The first thing is to find joy in the simple act of running. Some people talk about a "runners high". I'm not sure I have ever experienced that, but I do enjoy the simple act of going out for a run. It feels good, it helps you get away from the rest of the world, it makes you feel like you accomplished something.

The second key to long term motivation is having a set of short term goals and milestones that are realistic and achieving them. These are goals for a particular race or a season. Near term things that measure whether the work is producing some positive results. On our team we focus on Personal Records. It is something that every runner can celebrate from the front of the pack to the back of the pack.

The third key to long term motivation is having a long term plan and set of goals. A freshman coming in to the team should realize they have a tremendous advantage of saying they will work hard over the course of 4 years and get a whole lot better over that time. Ben Friedman is a great example of this. There may in fact be other people on the team that have more talent (#1 And #2 above) than him, but there is no one on the team who has ever worked harder than Ben. He has put in more miles and has worked harder in each individual workout. He took a long term approach and that is paying off for him – last week he went sub-17 at Holmdel with the 8th fastest time ever recorded at Holmdel by a Moorestown runner.

The final, important piece to long term motivation is being part of a team. A group of people you can share your experiences with, the good races and the bad, the training miles, the tossing of frisbies, the jokes during stretching. High school and college teams offer the best environment since there are team-related goals to point toward. Being a part of the team competing for those goals can make a huge difference. From a personal perspective, this was the key aspect that motivated me at Bucknell. Coach really had us focused on running together and helping each other, making team oriented goals that would motivate all of us to work hard and work together.

Dave Simpson (the guy in the middle without his shirt holding the mascot Elk Head) was the best example in my mind of a runner who was motivated by the team. In 2005 we had a very good team that won Group 3 Sectionals and finished 2nd in State Group 3. He was a Captain on the team and had worked very hard all summer and fall to make the top 7, but was edged out by other runners who had a bit more of #1 and #2 above. If you ask any member of that team, they will say Dave was a key part of that team. From my perspective, he was one of the best Captains we ever had. He was a natural leader. He made practice and races fun. He reached out to everyone on the team to make them feel good and to encourage them. And I know he had a heck of a lot of fun running cross country. He had long term motivation for the sport – he enjoyed the training, being with the team, and his role as a leader on the team. Certainly he was disappointed that he was not on that final Top 7 who ran, but he was proud of the role he had in leading that team.

Which gets me back to the question the runner asked us yesterday. We tried to explain this concept that he had to have a long term motivation for the sport. I hope he reads this and it helps put things into perspective some. I hope he internalizes our guiding principles of Team, Work, Learning, and having Fun. I know he can be an important part of this team. Maybe in the way Ringwood is, maybe in the way Friedman is, the way Dave Simpson was, or his own new way that helps himself and the team.

No comments: