You will ultimately find the kind and amount of training you wish to undertake, or it will find you.
Written by: Kevin Beck
Are you motivated?
Before reading further, understand exactly what is meant by that one loaded word. Motivation doesn’t just refer to psychological drive or a willingness to expend a given amount of time or energy; it also takes into account reason, as in, “I could run for an hour and a half a day, but do I need to in order to reach my goals?” A lack of “motivation,” therefore, does not imply laziness or a selling short of one’s own potential. It may mean a pragmatic approach to training and intelligent compromises in the face of various day-to-day responsibilities and obligations.
Regardless, motivation is a huge issue in distance running. The sport is rife with people who are enamored enough of success to daydream fondly about very specific goals, yet not quite able to muster the willingness to do the training required to achieve them. Some runners are able to set aside a specific block of time in which they commit to a heretofore unexplored level of dedication, with this boost contingent, somewhat curiously, on their knowing they can ease back into relative slackerhood once the goal race is out of the way. Some people fare much better when they join clubs, which bestows them with a preset array of training partners for long runs, track sessions, and other workouts requiring extra oomph that they might not be able to summon on their own.
It should be noted that there are some very talented runners out there—some of them national-class, in fact—who experience this phenomenon. Success often breeds motivation, but is no guarantee of a buffer against the creeping inertia that infects everyone’s running on occasion.
Then there are the exemplars of relentlessness each of us has met—people who may say little about what they do, but never miss days because of weather or outside commitments, often if not always train alone, have no problem executing speed sessions on their own in the dark, and have an apparently limitless supply of inherent motivation to draw upon. These people enjoy both training and racing, and the durable ones can go for years without even considering the idea of purposeful time off for any reason.
Interestingly, it is possible to experience both ends of the spectrum at different times. Between my mid-twenties and mid-thirties, I rarely let anything get in the way of my training (and when this happened I uniformly resented it). If I had a 20-miler scheduled and there was a December rainstorm underway, I’d grumble a little and venture outside to do the job. I often tried to picture a day when I would need a kick in the rear to get out the door, since I had seen others who had once trained at my level ease slowly into recreational running (I once heard a German athlete refer to this as “hobbyjogging,” and I’ve been in love with the term ever since). Sure enough, after I passed 35 and no longer had my long-term marathon goal in my sights, I kept running quite a bit by normative standards, but with increasing aimlessness. Within a couple of years, I couldn’t get through a set of 400s unless I had someone to tow me through them. I’d become the same “dependent” sort of runner I’d watched without judgment, but with a hint of curiosity, for years.
There is no shame in this, of course. The notion of the solitary, tight-lipped, inwardly driven distance runner makes for nice pathos, but in reality the social aspects of running can be as motivating—and hence as beneficial to competitive aspirations—as any Steve Prefontaine film.
Most runners do not come anywhere close to their ultimate physiological potential. Of course, few people “max out” in any aspect of their lives. We are not androids. Life may be termed a balancing act, but it’s really more of a juggling act—put a lot of effort into one thing for a spell (hours, days, weeks), then switch to another, then move on to a different endeavor. In truth, few people have plausible reasons for sinking as much effort as their bodies would allow to into running. Someone who’s perfectly content to run 21:45 for 5K on 25 miles a week might be able to run 18:00 after a few years of 70-mile weeks, but to what end? That isn’t to say that people should be discouraged from such pursuits, should they wish to undertake them. But most people operate under a fairly well-defined set of constraints revolving around work, family, other forms of recreation besides running, and the frank realization that putting in exorbitant amounts of effort just to reach the upper echelon of local age-group competition most likely represents an unjustifiable shift in priorities. To risk injury and train in such a way that is as likely to produce staleness and a decrease in enjoyment of running itself in order to chase performances that are objectively ordinary is simply not in the cards for most people. And even those who have been identified by the peers as being unusually talented should not be browbeaten into pursuing training loads they simply may not enjoy.
You will ultimately find the kind and amount of training you wish to undertake, or it will find you. Enlisting the help of a coach (perhaps your club has one) or other trusted source can help you fine-tune things, but in the end it is up to you to determine how much of yourself you will pour into this sport, and no apologies are ever necessary.
In the next article about training volume, Kevin Beck discusses two considerations that unfortunately are often at odds: 1. How much time you have? and 2. What you hope to accomplish as a runner?