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We all have those moments. Careening down a twisty singletrack trail, simultaneously in your body and outside of it, euphorically buzzed with a trail high that’s probably only legal for recreational use in eight states and the District of Columbia.
Or maybe it was on top of a mountain, with the world spread out beneath you, arms out like Rose on the bow of the Titanic.
Or just maybe … and this is the important one … it happened today. It was a mundane weekday run through a drab office park. All the brain chemicals mixed just right to deliver the perfect memory. It’s your little secret—no one will understand. Well, no one will understand but fellow runners.
Training consistently, with long-term focus on self-improvement, is not just about getting faster or improving in races. In fact, it doesn’t have to be about that at all. For some runners, the best way to conceptualize the process of running training is as a pursuit of the unpredictable daily moments that let you make memories and find joy along the way.
Here are three reasons that it might help some runners to train consistently for experiences, not events.
Every day is a chance to make memories
In life, there is only one finish line. The process of a life is what matters, and that process is stored in countless memories, big and small, that integrate it all together.
Adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin may improve memory storage (depending on the nature of the stimulus). Running can produce all three—that’s why you get nervous excitement before a workout or race and a Colorado-approved high after some runs. So good days can make lasting memories.
Even bad days are a chance to make memories that form your complete identity. Evolutionarily, we are programmed to remember negative events more clearly to avoid repeating them in the future. A lion attack when you go to that watering hole? Stay away. A 12-bathroom-break run after eating an extra-large burrito? Again, stay away. Because bad memories from running are usually low-stakes in the big scheme of things, those learning experiences can be cherished too.
Add up all those little memories and you construct your individual perception of reality. As a runner, races are a part of that, but unless you’re racing every weekend a la “superman” Mike Wardian, they’re probably a small part. By embracing all the little, good memories and laughing at the negative ones, over time you can support an identity that is positively augmented by running.
Neuroscientists have a saying: neurons that fire together, wire together (you know it’s true because it rhymes). The daily run is a chance to ingrain memories that add meaning to your life and it can even influence how your brain works. Every brain works differently, though, so be open to approaches that work for your unique psychology (including those involving therapy and other types of professional/medical assistance).
You never know when you’ll have the perfect day
Flow state is the Holy Grail of athletic endeavors. Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the foremost positive psychologist and author of Finding Flow, defines it as an “optimal state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best.” It goes deeper than that. Flow is “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” Find flow, and you find running nirvana.
Flow is a lot like buried treasure guarded by ancient spirits. You can try to find it, but you have to do a lot of work to get there.
There are 10 main factors Csíkszentmihályi discusses, with the most important being a deep sense of meaning, loss of self-consciousness and doubt, and a high level of skill developed over time. That last one is the element to focus on. How do you develop a high level of skill over time?
The answer, of course: you work your butt off. Consistent, purposeful practice is a pre-requisite to finding flow. What does that mean for runners? It’s all about the daily run.
In running, the aerobic, neuromuscular and biomechanical adaptations it takes to reduce exertion over time all require lots of consistency and smart training. It’s not an overnight thing, or even an over-month thing. It usually takes years to gain the proficiency to find flow on the run, just like it does at the piano or the pitcher’s mound.
On top of that, you can never fully predict when you will find flow. Ideally a race is when flow grabs you by the haunches and launches you up the trail, but the deep meaning and peace can come any day. Consistency and an openness to daily beauty can help create magic in the mundane.
Putting races up on a psychological pedestal can lead to a let down
All of this isn’t to say you shouldn’t race. You should (probably). Races provide opportunities to immerse yourself in the community, put yourself out there and magnify all the good (and bad) that running can bring. But over-emphasizing races risks imposing a narrative that your value as a runner is defined by finish lines. And it’s not (or at least it doesn’t have to be). Races can just be checkpoints in the process, providing structure and opportunities for reflection; they can be celebrations rather than evaluations.
It’s all about finding a framework that supports unconditional self-acceptance. Many runners can deeply care about race results and still check that box. For some, though, there’s a risk of self-judgment (and even self-loathing) if races are the be-all, end-all of the running journey.
So, if that describes you, try to view races as just another experience, no more or less valuable than all the others along the way. It takes practice and it’s not for everyone. But when your worth as a runner is fully independent from results (or any external evaluation), it may make you more open to all the beautiful little moments along the way.
David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.