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No matter who you are and what you do, you can feel inadequate if you put your mind to it.
Teddy Roosevelt is often quoted as saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This is appropriate, since he was also famous for being a trail runner back before trail running existed (he would often romp through what is now Rock Creek Park outside Washington, D.C.). What Teddy understood is that if you look hard enough, you can always find someone better than the current version of you, and get discouraged as a result.
Running falls victim to the comparison trap more than almost any other endeavor because of the cold, hard calculus of the watch. I coach middle-of-the-pack athletes who are in the 95th percentile for fitness among the general population, but feel inadequate because they aren’t at the front of the pack. Even some of the elite athletes I coach—athletes who are among the best in the world—lament that they aren’t the very best.
Unless you’re a self-obsessed narcissist, comparison is a game you will virtually always lose if you zoom out far enough. When you compare yourself to other people, cracks start to form in self-esteem. These little leaks can eventually spring into massive existential crises. Comparison doesn’t just make running less fun—it can ruin running careers. So here are four tips to drop comparison and find self-acceptance on the trails.
1. Accept your limitations in the present and your decline in the future
The rarely talked-about reality of running is that the very best trail runners usually start with fortunate genetics. All champions work hard, but the reason that certain athletes’ hard work translates to world-beating race results is, simply, that they chose the right parents.
The goal of running training should always be to get what you can from trail running, constrained by the genetic hand you were dealt, along with your life circumstances and goals. As tweeted by Bradley Stulberg, author of Peak Performance, “Those with the longest, healthiest careers do care about results, but are not defined by them.” If you start defining yourself through comparison to others, you may be disappointed—often by factors outside of your control.
The comparison trap also applies to self-comparison. Trail-running fitness does not follow a linear progression. Instead, it follows something more like the flight path of a drunken duck that swerves and then crashes into a lake. You’ll progress, you’ll get a bit worse, you’ll progress some more and then you’ll decline gradually with age, before eventually dying. At some point in that trajectory, you’ll peak without really realizing it, only to have an epiphany one day that your best is behind you. In the face of a chaotic trail-running journey, embrace the present, no matter where it is. Entropy will win eventually, like it always does, so resolve to enjoy the game while it lasts.
2. Train by effort, not pace
During that drunken duck flight, your pace will change. Eight minutes per mile might be a sprint one year, and then a jog a few years later and then a sprint again a decade or two down the line, due to changes in training, stress, age and countless other factors. It’s extremely difficult to remove self-judgment from pace splits, both over the long-term and even over the course of a single training cycle.
Last week, an athlete I coach was crushing her workout. She was on interval eight of 10 and loving life. Feeling good, she lapped out her watch to check her pace. Her heart sunk when the number wasn’t what she wanted. On interval nine, a great run turned into a terrible slog.
The point I tried to make to her is that for trail runners, pace within a workout barely matters. Our races involve hills, rocks and streams, with hundreds of variables impacting pace. Besides, “fast” workouts don’t necessarily translate to fulfilling races. My worst races often come after my fastest workouts, because in my fastest workouts, I am running too hard.
Training by effort (easy, moderate and hard) removes the option to judge your pace during runs, making sure you stay in the moment and focus on the correct stimulus. You might not be able to run eight minutes per mile every day—or every decade—but you can always put in a good effort.
It’s okay to check out your pace afterward (or during) if you are able to not take it too seriously. But for some Type-A personalities, even checking after-the-fact may be too much feedback. I encourage many of the runners I coach (including many pros) to not use a GPS watch at all. GPS feedback is like fire—it can be fuel, or it can burn you alive.
3. Take pride in keeping your easy runs slow
Eventually, almost all runners with longevity in the sport learn that easy runs are sacred. Getting caught up in what others are doing (or in what you do on days you feel perfect) often leads to running faster than you should on relaxed training days. Too much intensity causes injuries, burnout and fatigue. It also causes your workouts to suffer. Running fast at the wrong time can make you slow all the time.
4. Only race when motivated by the process, not the results
If you make a living from running, disregard this point. Results might help a pro (or an aspiring pro) put food on the table.
For most of us, though, race results are not what let us afford pizza and beer. For us, racing can be motivated by lots of things—self-exploration, adventure, the joy of inconsequential vulnerability. But if motivated primarily by results, racing can be a slippery slope to inadequacy.
So step back and ask yourself a simple question: “Why am I running this race?” There are two main kinds of answers: those that are results-based and those that are process-based. If your “why” requires you to finish in a certain time or place, your motivation to race is results-based. Almost any other kind of motivation, from wanting a goal to train towards in the first place, wanting the most out of the months of training you’ve put in or experiencing fun trails, is process-based.
If there’s anything coaching has taught me, it’s that results-based justifications for trail running can be dangerous and often result in existential crises. If your goals have a finish line, what happens when you get there? For some, the results-based approach is sustainable. For others, it results in post-race blues with both bad and good races.
Reframe races as a step along a journey as opposed to a destination, and the pressure lifts. Little by little, removing comparison as a means to define success in training and racing can help some runners find unconditional self-acceptance.
In the process, the goal is never to use training and racing to answer the question “Am I enough?” Instead, the goal is to trail run joyfully knowing “I am enough, no matter what.”
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.