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Recently I started coaching a professional ultrarunner who was on top of the world a few years ago but has struggled lately. Recognizing that her mind was the main source of her struggles, she reached out to me because of the emphasis I place on mental fitness. Once I had a good handle on where this runner was in her athletic journey and what was holding her back, I proposed that she make it her number-one goal in 2021 to have as much fun as possible.
“Pretend there’s a huge cash prize that will be handed out at the end of the year to the runner who has the most fun,” I said, “and go after it with a laser focus.”
In proposing this mindset, I was not suggesting that she give up on trying to win races. She’s a full-time, sponsored professional runner, after all — it’s literally her job to win races. Rather, I wanted her to focus on having fun because I believed that doing so would give her the best chance of returning to the competitive mountaintop.
Having Fun Working Hard
There’s a popular tendency to think of enjoyment and hard work as mutually antithetical. Fun is easy and hard work is unfun. Thus, you can either have fun as a runner or you can work hard, but you can’t do both. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Enjoyment motivates hard work, and we never work harder than when we’re having the time of our lives. This isn’t just me talking — there’s a large and growing body of scientific research proving that what I day is true.
One example is a study conducted by Darko Jekauc of the Humboldt University of Berlin and published in the journal Psychology in 2015. Forty-five subjects were separated into two groups, both of which participated in group exercise classes for eight-weeks. One group was led by trainers who applied American College of Sports Medicine guidelines for physical activity, the other group by trainers who applied the same guidelines while also implementing specific measures, such as greater workout variety, aimed at increasing exercise enjoyment. According to Jekauc, members of this second group reported higher levels of exercise enjoyment compared to members of the first group and also had a 9.7 percent better attendance rate.
It is possible, of course, to prioritize enjoyment in running in ways that do not aid performance. For example, if you enjoy racing frequently and you choose for this reason to compete on two to three weekends every month, you will never perform as well in any single race as you would if you exercised some restraint and raced sparingly. But if performance is solidly established as a top priority in your running, then pretty much anything you do to make running more fun will help you perform better.
Indeed, simply embracing enjoyment as a priority is half the battle. It’s just a different mindset. If enjoying running is a conscious objective for you, you will enjoy running more even if you don’t change anything about your training. But there are also some concrete changes you can make to enhance your enjoyment of running and thereby boost your performance. Here are three of them.
1) Put Process Over Outcomes
All runners care about their goals, but the happiest runners tend to focus on the process of goal pursuit, whereas runners who fixate on their goals tend to enjoy their training less. For these outcome-focused runners, the process has value only if it culminates in successful goal attainment. But for process-focused runners, the training experience is intrinsically rewarding regardless of whether it leads to a successful final outcome. The irony is that a process focus increases the likelihood of a successful outcome while also making the day-to-day pursuit of one’s goals more enjoyable.
This was shown in a 2009 study led by Kylie Wilson of the University of Wales and Darren Brookfield of EdgeHill University and published in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology. Sixty volunteers were divided into two groups and given either process goals (e.g., “Maintain your heart rate above 140 beats per minute for 30 minutes of your 40-minute session”) or outcome goals (e.g., “Lose four kilograms in six weeks”) to focus on during an eight-week exercise program. In addition to reporting higher levels of enjoyment, members of the process-goals group skipped fewer workouts than those in the outcome-goals group.
You can cultivate a process focus by setting your own process-focused goals. Examples include maintaining a pace that enables you to talk comfortably during easy runs, adding strides to at least one run a week, trying one new strength exercise every week, or fitting in at last one trail run every week.
2) Do It Your Way
Recently, champion ultrarunner Jim Walmsley shared the following tweet: “If you train like a psychopath, it’s a must to LOVE that specific type of training you’re doing. Not everyone is motivated equally for the marathon. It is part of why different people succeed in the mile or marathon or Western States or [24 hours] on the track. The drive is mandatory.”
Walmsley’s point was that it’s important to give yourself the freedom to train your way. If you do, you will invest more of yourself in the process and thereby get more out of it. Obviously, there are some ways of training that aren’t very effective, but there is more than one effective way to train for any type of race. Within the spectrum of effective training methods, you should give yourself full permission to adopt a style that suits you.
For example, if you love to log big miles but you don’t love speed work, go ahead and log big miles — which are beneficial for any race distance — and do the bare minimum amount of speed work required to succeed. And if you love speed work and merely tolerate the easy stuff, do the bare minimum amount of total running necessary to achieve your goals and spend up to 20 percent of your weekly running time at high intensity.
3) Keep It Diverse
Injecting variety into the training process is a proven way to make the process more enjoyable. You can do this by mixing up your routes, your running partners, your gear, and of course your run formats. There are limitless ways to construct a run, even if you rule out crazy workouts that you should never do, like running 20 miles downhill with a 50-pound pack on your back. I’ve been running for more than 30 years, coaching for 20 years, and I’m still discovering workouts I’ve never heard of before — and coming up with my own.
In the early weeks of working with the professional ultrarunner I mentioned at the top of this article I made a point of treating her to lots of run formats that were new to her. Here’s an example that I like to call Kitchen Sink Speed:
1-3 miles easy
4 x 0:15 strides
100m @ 90% effort
200m @ 90% effort
300m @ 90% effort
400m @ 90% effort
500m @ 90% effort
600m @ 90% effort
In this six-step progression, each 90% effort is relative to the distance of the present step, which means you’ll run each a bit slower than the one before. Rest just long enough after each step to feel fully ready to do the next one.
1-3 miles easy
There are lots of resources you can go to discover new workouts to try. You can find hundreds here searching for workouts on PodiumRunner. Another of my favorites is Mario Fraioli’s Morning Shakeout e-newsletter, which features a “Workout of the Week” in each installment.
And don’t be afraid to make up your own workouts. Easy ways to get started as a workout inventor include tailoring workouts to specific terrain (for example, hill repetitions that go from the bottom to the top of a particular hill, regardless of length) and making small tweaks to workouts you’re already doing. Just don’t try running 20 miles downhill with a 50-pound pack on your back!