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How Improv Can Make You A Better Athlete

Two improvising trail runners on making it up as you go

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Improv has been around for as long as there have been theaters and people who didn’t want to memorize lines on stage. 

Improv is a form of theater where everything is unplanned and unscripted –  totally spontaneous. Characters and scenes are created in the moment from scratch, or based on audience suggestions. It’s fun, it’s wacky, and many skills honed in improv can aid us as trail runners, too. 

When Austin Meyer teaches improv workshops for small businesses and Fortune 500 companies alike, he starts by grounding the group in a common definition of what improv is. Often people think of improv as a theatrical art form, a comedy act, or a justifiable reason to skip out on the second date. While improv can certainly be all of those things, that doesn’t quite get to its core. 

For us, here’s the core definition of improv: to make the best out of what is available to you

As theatrical improvisers, we use rehearsal as a space to practice that skill. When an unskilled improviser walks onto a blank stage without a script, all they see is emptiness. They focus on everything they don’t have. 

A skilled improviser sees endless opportunities: a crack on the stage is the crack of a sidewalk in downtown Chicago; the sound of an audience member coughing is a 1920s patron in a hazy speakeasy. Skilled improvisers are awake to the gifts all around them.

This skill of making the best out of what is available to you, to the everyday gifts, is not only a foundation for improv performers, but also for resilient trail runners. As much as we train, plan, and visualize the script for a perfect training run, adventure, or race, it’s inevitable that things will go wrong. Something will force you off-script. Your legs feel heavy. You forget your nutrition. Your crew doesn’t show up to the aid station on time. You go out too hot. Your stomach turns. You don’t have as much time to dedicate to training as you expected. Something that should be on your inside is now on your outside and it just splattered on a volunteer.

In those moments, how do you react? Do you focus on what you don’t have, what’s not going well? Do your expectations turn to emptiness? 

RELATED: “Funny Runner” Brittany Charboneau Overcomes Fears to Find Fun and Success in Trail Running

What Improv Can Teach Trail Runners

What improv teaches us is that we must wake up to the gifts around us and make the best out of what is available, reframing problems as opportunities. A story that goes off-script can be more fulfilling and meaningful than anything we could have planned. Improv teaches us to trust that uncertainty. So, how do we learn to transform a problem into a gift? Here’s how to apply tools and tactics borrowed from improv to your trail running. 

Yes and…

“Yes and-ing” means accepting and building on the reality your scene partner creates. You react positively to what they’re saying and build on the circumstances they’re creating. Negative responses cut off avenues for adventure and exploration, and they take yourself and the audience out of the scene. 

In trail running, yes and-ing looks like recognizing–not fighting–the hand you’ve been dealt. Maybe race day brings hotter temperatures than expected. Yes and-ing that day might look like adjusting expectations, and leaning on cooling protocols to keep you in the game. 

In running, yes and-ing provides a simple, positive framework to build on, and acts both as a method of problem-solving and provides positive, forward inertia. When you’re yes and-ing, sports-drink-induced vomiting becomes cool, surprise tie-dye!

There Are No Such Things as Mistakes. So Fail! 

In the words of Del Close, one of improv’s founding fathers, “Fall, and figure out what to do on the way down.” In improv, mistakes are not something to be avoided. Making mistakes is how we function. It’s our default operating system. When we embrace making mistakes, it frees us up to take the risks necessary to put on a great show. 

The same lesson applies to trail running. By reprogramming our responses to failure, we can turn fear into excitement and step boldly out of our comfort zone. We can sign up for that new race distance, go on a group run if we’re used to going solo, or set our sights on a new PR — not because we know we’ll be able to do it, but because breakthroughs happen through resilience and perseverance in the face of failure.

Improv group
Teacher with drama students in improv class (Photo: Getty Images)

Be bold. No one remembers athletes or comedians who played it safe. Really going for it and reaching for your potential is going to require trusting yourself. In this framework, every bad race is a learning opportunity. Did you DNF, or did you just learn one more way not to run a race? Every nutrition mistake becomes a nutrition lesson, an opportunity. 

Trail running, like improv, is temporary. It exists for a moment, then it’s gone. And that frees us up to dream big and make mistakes that will haunt our UltraSignup score for years. For better or worse, it’ll be over in a flash. 

Don’t think. 

Get out of your head. Trust yourself. Trust your impulses (unless of course, that impulse is to chase down a pierogi with a shot of whiskey at mile 43). 

This doesn’t mean be stupid. It means trusting your gut reactions and instincts. Sometimes our thinking brains are the enemies of our best performances. Improvising, like running, requires trusting your instincts and staying emotionally present in the moment. 

In improv, the goal is to listen and connect with your scene partners. In running, the goal should be to listen and respond to how your body is feeling on a given day. 

You’re Only As Good as The People You Lift Up Along the Way

A common mistake beginner improvisers make is to go for the big laugh right away. They might view improv as a competition to see who can shine the brightest on stage, and they try to stand out and be the funniest. 

But, good improv (and big, deep, real belly laughs) only happen when teammates work together. When you yes and your scene partner, you create the conditions for true comedy success over a superficial funny quip. 

On the surface, trail running may seem like an individual sport. But real success, the kind that turns into breakthrough races and fulfilling careers, comes from building authentic connections with folks along the way. Confident improvisers and athletes make every move about lifting others up. 

RELATED: Local Running Stores And The Power Of Community

Play is Performance Enhancing

To quote improv legend Amy Poehler, “No one looks stupid when they’re having fun.” Improv and trail running are great spaces to let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and spend some time getting to know who you really are. 

Don’t worry about looking cool or tough, and focus on chasing what feels fun to you. The best comedy, and the best runs, come from a place of relaxed fun. 

We live and run in a serious world. From day jobs to training logs, it’s easy to get caught up in a vortex of striving and intensity, of expectations and professionalism. Improv is the antidote to this stern-faced scourge. Improv is playful, goofy, and boisterous. It’s full of levity, laughter, and fun. And through our study of improv, we have learned how critical play is to our growth as performers and as athletes. 

Growth in anything comes from small steps taken regularly over a long period of time. The compounding effect of consistency is enormous. As runners, our goals are to stay consistent, to prioritize the long game. The best way to do that is to have fun — to not take ourselves too seriously, to shout at the top of mountain summits, to swim in streams, and spread our arms wide as we fly downhill. Play, have fun, and enjoy the ride. It’s the performing-enhancing drug that is WADA approved, and can’t be found in a food truck burrito.

Austin Meyer is a National Geographic Explorer, documentary filmmaker, SWAP athlete, and cofounder of Collective Capital, a creative consultancy that leads applied improv workshops for organizations around the world.

Zoë Rom is Editor in Chief at Trail Runner and a member of Consensual Improv.