The Pros Aren’t Always Perfect: Lessons Learned From Elite Runners

Tyler McCandless (left), Jeffrey Eggleston (center) and Deena Kastor (right) have all made their share of mistakes over the course of their careers—but they've learned from them too. Photos:

Watching world-class runners compete is often an exercise in observing perfection. But elite runners are human, too, and every now and then they too make mistakes.

Not surprisingly, a common regret elites own up to is taking their sport too seriously and getting sucked into the hunt for podium spots and prize money. Tyler McCandless, a 2:15:26 marathoner, has worked hard over the past few years to maintain a better balance in his life. “For me, I found it’s important to have something other than running,” admits the 28-year-old Boulder, Colo., resident, who just finished up his PhD in Meteorology. “[A job] helps me keep the joy and purity in running by having a career to focus on as well. When I tried to focus on running too much, I over-thought and over-complicated the process. Now, running is the best part of my day and something I look forward to, rather than the only part of my day.”

That singular drive McCandless references can also lead elites to over-analyze and pick apart every aspect of a race—both good and bad. Jeffrey Eggleston, a 2:10:52 marathoner and three-time U.S. national team representative, says it’s important not to lose sight of what went right in a race, rather than only focusing on the areas where you feel improvement is necessary.

“I tend to be a perfectionist, and I can recall running many PBs where afterwards, instead of taking pride in the accomplishment, I would fret about what went wrong in the race or a setback in training that held me back from the run being even more of a breakthrough,” he says. Eggleston admits that his competitiveness would eat at him, causing him to question why he couldn’t have finished better or faster than he did.

The 30-year-old Boulderite combats this issue by trying to change his attitude and adjusting how he views his performances. “It can be hard to override the urge to be self-critical, but in order to preserve my sanity and longevity in the sport, I’ve tried to make a conscious effort to be an optimist,” Eggleston says. “Whether it’s running a PB by one second, one minute or even finishing higher than my race seed, I try to view the positive side of my running, and even take time to reflect and enjoy when these happen. This also requires me to accept the fact that there will never be a perfect race or perfect cycle of training, and I can only do the best with whatever hand I’m dealt.”

In addition to striving for balance and trying to keep things in perspective, Olympic medalist and American record holder Deena Kastor says doubting herself right before a big race is a major mistake she’s worked hard to combat, in addition to making sure she stays on top of her nutrition, regardless of the conditions.

“I combat self-doubt prior to races by writing down three reasons why I should succeed,” explains Kastor. “Also, not drinking all my fluids in a race when it was cold out has caused me to run out of energy, so I’ve also learned that I need to focus on calorie intake, no matter the weather.”

One final lesson, concedes the self-coached Eggleston, is listening to your body when it comes to recovery and rest and knowing when to hold back. “When planning out my training and racing schedule, the adage, ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ comes to mind,” he says. “I’ve found that I’ve been able to make significant improvements and keep healthy by emphasizing recovery more.”

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