I’M A LUCKY COACH. Through my online coaching, I get to work with beginning runners just coming off the couch as well as competitive runners aiming for age-group victories. And through my work with the US Olympic training team, I get to help Olympians and world championship-level athletes.
What’s most interesting is not the differences between the various groups of athletes but rather the similarities. Over my 20 years of coaching, I’ve noticed five key traits of successful distance runners. These traits apply to everyone – beginners just joining the sport; competitive folks who balance work, family and other commitments with their running goals; and Olympic-level athletes.
1) Don’t dwell
Every long-time runner has experienced this phenomenon: week after week of great runs suddenly interrupted by one of the worst workouts in years, for no logical reason. I’ve found that the most successful athletes don’t dwell on the bad days; instead, they’re eager to move on to the next day’s training or upcoming race. Successful runners know that bad days don’t last and aren’t a true indication of their fitness. Bad days are just a freak occurrence that must be tolerated on the path to your goals. Running is hard but fun, and that short statement should tell us that there will be good days and there will be bad days. Live through both. Neither lasts forever.
A personal example: I work with two outstanding athletes who took their fitness to new levels in 2009. One went on to win a national championship. The other never raced to his potential. The difference was in their outlook. The national champion endured a few bad workouts and races but let them slide. The underperformer also endured a few bad workouts and races but couldn’t get past them. He was training with other athletes who were having great success. He was accomplishing workouts that he never dreamed he could do. He was recovering quickly and was not overtrained. But when we talked, his attitude was, “Yeah, but …” We’d talk about the hundred great workouts he’d done but he’d follow that with, “Yeah, but that tempo run last month really went poorly. I don’t know if I’m in great shape.” Clearly, this “dweller” will never achieve what the national champion did, and it has nothing to do with training. It has to do with mindset.
2) Find your sweet spot in training
Successful training is about finding the balance in your stress/rest cycle. Training (and much of life) is stressful. It depletes your body’s energy stores. It stresses your muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones. In short, training tears down your body. With rest, however, your body builds back stronger than before. The trick is to find the training rhythm where your stress/rest cycle is in balance – where you’re having positive workout followed by positive workout, successful week followed by successful week. In fact, if we’re smart (and this is what I do as a coach), we set up the training from the outset to be positive.
This can be tricky due to the unpredictability of our other life stresses (work, family, etc.), but if you find a training routine where nearly every one of your workouts and races is positive then you’re in balance. If you find that you frequently have poor/unpredictable workouts or races, or are often injured, then your training (or life) stress is too great. You are under-recovering and should add a bit more recovery to your plan. Progress things as your body adapts but think constantly about balance so that you can have successful training. Successful workouts lead to greater and greater motivation, which leads to better and better racing.
3) Focus on consistency
Once you find your sweet spot, you can train consistently week after week, month after month and year after year. This “stacking” of successful training week on top of successful training week will lead you to your full potential. Injuries and illness from overtraining cut short your improvement so structure your training with the long-term in mind.
We have a saying in our Olympic training team that you must train consistently for two straight years – no unscheduled interruptions due to injury or illness – to even begin to see how good you can be. This reality applies to all of us. A year of consistent running is more beneficial than a few stellar weeks of training.
4) Be tenacious
Successful runners are tenacious (some of our loved ones would even say stubborn). Success is about keeping on keeping on. Put one foot in front of the other for long enough and the finish line will come. You have the ability to go to greater heights than you ever dreamed of – just by sticking with it. A little stubbornness can be a great attribute when you’re in the middle kilometres of a marathon. Foster tenaciousness in small ways every day.
5) Build your confidence constantly
The most important key to success is confidence. You know the workouts and training rhythm that give you confidence. It’s a good idea to include these types of training throughout your year to keep you motivated. It’s also a good idea to put confidence-building workouts close to your key races. The last six weeks before a key race like a marathon should include all your favorite, confidence-building workouts. Don’t just follow a training plan because that’s what’s “accepted wisdom.” Instead, tinker with your training and add as well as omit workouts that just don’t work for you.Greg McMillan is an exercise physiologist and coach who helps runners via his website mcmillanrunning.com.