The Steady Dedication of a Lifetime
Updated: Dec 30, 2019
An American diplomat, Adlai Stevenson, was once asked to define patriotism. His reply was simple, yet profound and extends beyond the realms of devotion to nation to our everyday lives. “Patriotism is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the steady dedication of a lifetime.”
As a runner and a coach I often find myself returning to this insight and encouraging others to do the same. Rather than increasing mileage or intensity all at once because I sign up for a new race or registering for a slew of races simply because I am feeling healthy, lazy, or motivated, I try to remind myself to make running a long-term, sustainable lifestyle rather than a short-term, unsustainable pastime.
Instead of killing the metaphorical goose that lays the daily golden eggs in hopes of improving running performance, I aim to do whatever is necessary to allow myself to experience the regular revitalizing power that running provides.
I’ve been running for most of my life. All it takes is one little niggle or unexpected work meeting that keeps me from getting in my daily run for me to remember how vital running is to my overall health and well-being. When I am tempted to outdo myself with my training or racing, I simply remember the few times I’ve been sidelined from running and remind myself that it is better to make gradual, incremental progress toward my goals than to try and make all the gains I want in one workout or week. Sometimes this process leads me to reevaluate my goals altogether and prioritize my ability to run regularly over the risk of injury, burn out, or imbalance in my daily life.
My number one goal for myself as a runner is to be a lifelong runner. Similarly, my primary objective for the athletes that I coach is for them to become lifelong runners. When I create a training plan for myself or others, I don’t merely think about the goal race at the end of the training block. I think about how the prescribed training will create a balanced, sustainable lifestyle in the present and the future. If I find that the training load is too great to achieve the primary goal of being a lifelong runner I dial it back.
When I speak with athletes who come to me with a long list of races they want to do and a long list of goals they want to achieve I typically try to help them sift through the lists and determine which goals will ultimately allow them to enjoy their running in the short and long terms. Once we’ve pared down the lists, we can begin to create a plan that enables them to make running a meaningful and fulfilling lifestyle.
At first, this process can be painful and at times appears to be diluting goals and experiences, but I have found that by making running a sustainable part of my everyday life rather than “short, frenzied outbursts of emotion” my short term and long term performances have improved along with my overall satisfaction with running and life. I have seen the same thing in the athletes that I coach.
One athlete in particular who has patiently made incremental progress is Eric Reyes. Eric and I have been working together since 2014. When we first began working together Eric had a lot of concerns about increasing his training volume after a lifetime of injuries and setbacks. He wanted to know how he could do the training necessary to improve as a runner without getting injured. He also worked long hours and wasn’t sure he’d be able to dedicate more than four days a week to training.
So that is where we started - four days a week of easy running. To that we added bike commuting to and from work a couple of days a week as well as some basic body weight strength training and core routines. Eventually we added yoga. Once he had a solid aerobic and musculoskeletal base, Eric began to increase the duration of his long runs. Then we gradually added some intensity with cut down runs, strides, speed sessions and eventually some additional easy runs.
Over the course of a year Eric improved all of his times over all distances. He went from competing for age group awards to overall awards and eventually began winning competitive races and getting on the podium at national championship events.
Eric didn’t make these gains by doing a lot of sophisticated workouts in one week or even one training block. He didn’t stay healthy enough to finish his first hundred mile race by racing every weekend either. Eric made these gains by doing the little things – the not so sexy things – day after day after day.
Even when Eric began seeing the improvements, he dedicated one day a week to recovery and kept it completely free of running. Sometimes he’d simply catch up on sleep, go for a leisurely bike ride, or perform a yoga routine, but he respected that rest day and knew that it was just as vital to his progress as any workout was.
Eric didn’t run as many miles as some of his competitors did as part of his build up to key races. He didn’t set Strava CRs in all of his easy runs or workouts either. But Eric did what he needed to do to get to the starting line physically fit and mentally prepared for the challenges before him. When it came time to race, Eric was better prepared and more often than not he beat those who on paper (or Strava) may have appeared to have done more preparation in terms of running volume or intensity.
Eric’s training was specific to Eric’s work schedule and injury history. Now that he is physically stronger he is capable of handling more mileage and more intensity than when we first began working together and so the training he does now is different from what he did then.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the overall goal of being a lifelong runner. Consequently, Eric continues to perform regular yoga, strength training and core routines, and he continues to bike commute so that the running he does remains sustainable.
As you evaluate your running goals, make being a lifelong runner a priority. If your training and racing ambitions conflict with this overarching goal, make the necessary changes to those goals so that running is something you enjoy for years to come. Remember that success as a runner is not about “short, frenzied outburst of emotion, but the steady dedication of a lifetime.”