Mental Training

Why Values-Based Decision-Making is Crucial for Thriving On and Off the Trail

Values. That’s a word that we hear often. If someone were to ask you if you have a core set of values, you’d probably respond with “Of course I do.” But, how many of us have actually taken the time to identify those values, and perhaps more importantly, how many of us are consistently checking in to evaluate whether or not our daily behaviors and decisions are in line with them? Probably not as many as you think.

Values should serve as guideposts for how to live the life you want. While living according to a set of standards might seem limiting at first glance, it’s actually the exact opposite – values-based living opens the door to more opportunities and ways of connecting to the things that are important to you. 

Values vs. Identity

So, what does this have to do with trail running? Sometimes investing too much in an identity comes at the expense of living a life that connects with our values. Let me explain…I remember a time in my own athletic career years ago when my identity as a runner was everything. I was “all in,” and believed that I had to be in order to accomplish my goals. Most of my decisions throughout the day were made with a commitment towards that identity and I would gladly sacrifice anything that conflicted with it. I would say “no” to meeting up with a group of friends who were celebrating a special occasion, willing to miss out on that memory for some extra sleep for the following day’s long run. I gladly gave up high-risk activities that I enjoyed, like snowboarding and mountain biking, because I didn’t want to get injured. I missed weddings and holidays to travel to races instead. All the while believing that this was how I needed to live my life to show my commitment. 

You can probably guess how the story ends. Eventually, I was racing worse than I ever had, running had lost most of its joy, and I was generally pretty miserable. It was then that I realized that my life in no way resembled what I wanted it to look like. Yes, hard work, commitment, and dedication is a major value of mine. And, I was nailing that in one context. But, that’s not my only value. I also value relationships and spending time with the people I love. I also value other activities that bring me joy. And, I also value giving back and being involved in initiatives bigger than myself. So, while I was investing heavily in ONE of my values, it was at the expense all of the others. When I changed how I was living to make more time for the other things that are important to me, not only did I start living a happier, more balanced life but I started performing better on the trails, too. Go figure. 

When you decide to live your life in pursuit of all of your values, you’re no longer presented with a decision that you perceive as having a right or wrong answer – but, one with different but equal options. By saying “no” to something related to one value, you’re saying “yes” to something related to a different value. Both are equally important. Now, while I might give up a weekend of training to go snowboarding with a group of close friends, I don’t see it as an abandonment of my commitment to working hard to be the best athlete I can be. I’m just investing in something else that’s equally as important to me. Your story may not be the same as mine. And, perhaps you’re over-identifying with a different identity that might be creating an imbalance in your values. Examine your own life and try to see how this may or may not be showing up. 

Identifying Your Values 

Sometimes sitting down to identify your values can feel a little daunting and even more challenging than you expected. Remember that it’s not a test or something that you can fail at. Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to get started on the process:

  • What things do I feel passionate about?
  • When looking back, what do I want to know I spent most of my time and energy on?
  • Which relationships in my life are most meaningful to me?
  • What brings me joy?

Values can shift and change over time. This is a process that you might need revisit particularly after big life changes. Once you’ve identified your core values, examine your lifestyle and actions to evaluate if you’re living a values-based life. If not, what needs to change? 

Goals vs. Values 

It’s also important to distinguish between values and goals. Values should serve as a guide for goal-setting. Goals are the ways in which you get to live out your values and, in some ways, can even serve as feedback on how well you’re doing that. But, keep in mind that goals should not be the primary focus. Sometimes what we determine as a conflict between values could really just be a conflict between goals. And, when you can recognize that goals are not values, you’ll realize that committing to one goal over another can still mean making an overall commitment to living the life you want. Again – you’re choosing between different but equal paths to take to the same destination. 

Committing to values-based living and decision-making brings you more balance and overall gratification. Since making changes in my own life, I’ve experienced increased levels of passion and lowered anxiety and fear about doing the “wrong” thing. I guarantee that placing more emphasis on living your life in this way will lead to more joy, fulfillment, AND increased performance out on the trails. 

Addie is a professional ultra trail runner, coach, and sport psychology consultant helping athletes of all ages and abilities to prepare for the mental demands of competing through her practice, Strive Mental Performance