Many of us runners struggle with type-A tendencies and perfectionism. We overanalyze every single split, meticulously count our mileage, and try to extrapolate our race results from every single run. A perfectionistic mindset can be paralyzing and hinder our progress toward reaching our full potential in running.
Unfortunately, the running world can reinforce a perfectionist mindset. Running is often portrayed as a simple input-output equation: we input x number of miles per week for an output of y finish times. The faster you want to run in a distance such as a marathon, the more miles you must run. Many runners treat this as an absolute rule.
There is truth to this; mileage does improve endurance, strengthen the musculoskeletal system, and prepare the body for the unique demands of the marathon. However, marathon training does not exist inside a vacuum; it exists in the real world with real people. More mileage does not always mean a better marathon performance.
Jess was an example of this. She approached me to train for the 2018 Chicago Marathon. We worked together from May to October in preparation of this race and I am so proud of Jess for her hard work, positive mindset, and the balance she achieved when life became very busy in training.
Jess was upfront about her need to work on mindset in our initial consultation and disclosed (with permission to share here) that she was recovering from a depressive episode. She was going through therapy, which was having a positive impact on her mindset. She wanted training to reinforce the progress she was making in therapy, including focusing on positive self-talk and removing pressure from workouts.
When I write a training plan, I prioritize the individual runner above the principles of training. That’s not to say I disregard the fundamentals – that mileage improves endurance, that marathoners need long runs, etc. – but I don’t just slap a certain mileage into their plan or write the exact same workouts.
With Jess, I focused on reframing marathon training. We approached her mileage, her workouts, and even her race day differently than she had in the past. She ran less mileage than in past cycles. We restructured her quality run days and focused on recovery as much as training.
From the start, we began with less mileage than she had done in previous cycles. Strength training and cross training supplemented her running, with the goal of preventing injury. Jess had struggled with injuries in the past, which is why I took a more balanced and moderate approach. Consistent training at a slightly lower mileage is far more effective than a few weeks at higher mileage shortly followed by a few weeks of injury.
For her hard workout days, I eschewed the traditional structure of time-and-distance based intervals from the start. I scheduled structured fartleks instead, having Jess run by time and effort. I wanted Jess to have the freedom to run hard without the pressure – or constraints – of prescribed splits. (She was also training through an Atlanta summer.)
Reframing her mindset around training and flexibility in training itself became even more important as the Chicago Marathon approached. Jess started a new position at work and found out she was moving from Atlanta to Tennessee. With moving comes higher stress levels, busy weeks, and less energy and time to focus on running.
Upon news of the move, we readjusted her plan and her mileage. I scaled down her peak weeks from the originally planned 38-40 miles for peak weeks and emphasized the freedom to miss even a long run if need be. One week, we removed the long run so she could house-hunt. She averaged about 30-33 miles during the peak months of marathon training. Sure, we could have squeezed in the mileage, but the priority isn’t mileage – the priority is the well-being of the runner.
The adjustments allowed her to stay consistent in her training and stay mentally and physically healthy for race day. She put in the hard work, even during busy weeks, yet she also exercised the prudence to scale back when necessary. Jess dedicated herself to her mental well-being as much as she was to her training. As a result, she felt prepared and excited for race day – even with her big move just one week before the Chicago Marathon.
In our final pre-race call, Jess and I talked about reframing the discomfort of racing. In a training cycle focused on the mental aspect of the sport, this was a final piece in the puzzle. I encouraged her to embrace the discomfort of the final miles, to smile and engage with spectators (such is shown to decrease the perception of effort and give a performance boost), and to be kind to herself. The race wasn’t about a finish time – it was about doing the best she could for that day.
That was exactly what Jess did. She ran her best for the day and finished in 4:31, her second fastest marathon time. Jess chose the mantra “I am enough” for race day and relied on it through the tough miles. She felt elated with her finish time and her mental strength throughout the marathon. Her dad also finished his first marathon that day as well!
“This is the lowest mileage I’ve ever run in a training cycle, but the best I felt mentally, ” Jess told me after the race. Jess’s training showed how a focus on mindset and well-being, along with customized training, can help a runner achieve goals even during hectic seasons of life.
You can follow Jess on Instagram under the handle @jessrunsforpie.
You can read other athlete highlights:
How Periodization Helped Aimee Run PRs in the 10K to Marathon
How Polarized Training Helped Laura Set PRs in Multiple Distances
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When have you changed your training and see positive results?
How do you practice self-kindness in your running?