Six Lessons Running Taught Me About Work and Careers
Despite the dark, fog, and cold of the British winter, the trails and pavements of my hometown are newly busy with runners. Some are the determined New Year resolutioners, who’ve stuck with their promises into February; others are the charity runners and bucket-listers who are planning ahead for the London Marathon in April. As for myself, I’ve been out there all winter – I returned to running a few years ago, and like so many others, found that it’s a real addiction once you get those early, wheezing, walk-run miles out of the way.
Running is a great hobby in itself, but it’s also a great complement to a busy career – reducing stress, keeping the mind sharp, and for those who travel for business, offering a great way to fit in some high-speed sightseeing alongside full working days. As I’ve spent more time running and reflecting on running though, more subtle lessons for work and career have also become apparent:
1. The Right Type of Goals
Although sometimes it can be great to simply run as and when I feel like it, there’s no doubt that signing up for a race provides an important focus, giving purpose to an individual training run, and a narrative arc to whole months of them. In just the same way, it’s important to set yourself clear career goals if you want to deliver your best performance – knowing what achievements you’ll want to look back on with satisfaction in a month or year’s time and seizing those opportunities when they arise.
Two important details about goals though – firstly, each year 30 percent of entrants for the London Marathon fail to make it to the starting line, reminding us that our goals need to be realistic as well as stretching. Secondly, when I enter too many races in a year, the importance of each becomes less, and I’ve even found myself skipping one race in favour of another a fortnight later. In the same way, setting too many disparate career goals will weaken them all.
2. Importance of Variety
One of the great 20th Century innovations in training for competitive distance runners was a move away from focusing on amassing mileage solely through long runs at a steady pace. In the words of Sebastian Coe “I’ve always felt that long, slow distance produces long, slow runners” and modern runners over all distances will include speedwork like fartlek, hills and intervals alongside more steady running. Variety is just as important for work and careers.
On the micro-level, it is important to know when to push through a longer, less exciting task, and when it might be better to switch to something different for a time, before returning to the original task re-energised. On a broader level, a variety of experience is critical for professional development, so never be afraid to get involved in new activities in your current role, or look for a new opportunity if you find you’re doing the same thing over and over.
3. The Value and Distraction of Data
Although at a basic level, running might look simple – right foot, left foot, repeat – most keen runners track a huge range of numbers for their training and races; distances, pace per mile, lap splits, height climbed and more. I’ve followed suit, going from just running, to using a mobile phone to record routes, to wearing a GPS watch and paying attention to my pace from one mile to another. That data let me know I was getting faster, but it made me faster too, showing me which days I should take it easy, where my strengths and weaknesses were, and what I needed to focus on in training.
Hungry for more, I looked beyond the GPS watch to more esoteric sources of data – DNA profiling to test my aerobic potential, sensors which clipped to my laces and tracked the precise movement of my feet as they hit the ground. Surely, I reasoned, if some data had helped so much, more data would help even more? Those pods and reports are now gathering dust in a drawer, reminding us that while data is the fuel of good training as well as good business decisions, what matters is to have the most important data and use it well, rather than try to know everything!
4. Transparency and Visibility
Although pursuing even more running data might have delivered diminishing returns, one thing that did have a beneficial impact was when I started to share that data online with friends and neighbours. Strava is a global community for runners and cyclists, where people can log their training, compete for fastest times over “segments” and provide feedback and support to each other.
The knowledge that other people will have visibility of my running is often the difference on a dark and drizzly morning between hitting snooze and lacing up my trainers. In the same way, a sense of visibility to others of your targets and performance at work also encourages us all to perform better. A good manager will help by taking an interest in your goals and the work you do, but the most effective transparency comes from a two-way conversation – never be afraid to proactively share a project or aspect of your role which your manager might have less visibility of, or to ask them about their own plans and targets.
5. Pacing Yourself Properly
As a dedicated mid-pack runner, pleased enough on the days I finish with more people behind me than ahead, the optimal pacing strategy is simple – hold my pace as steady as possible over the 10km, 26.2 miles or whatever distance. In my work and career though, I aspire to something more than a middle of the road performance, as I imagine do most of you, so the lesson here comes not from my own experience of running, but from watching champions competing in the Olympics or world marathon majors.
For these races, the winning strategy is rarely to run at a steady pace from gun to tape. Instead, the contenders must play a strategic game, knowing when to keep pace with the leading pack, and when to break, sprinting ahead to build a defensive gap for the final straight, or trying to exhaust a rival. In the same way, pacing is important at work – it is better to distinguish between the times you should deliver a good performance and those times to deliver an exceptional performance, than to try to deliver an exceptional performance all the time.
At worst, this can lead to burn out, but even if you were physically capable of endless 70-hour-plus weeks, you would end up putting energy into less important projects and duties which should have been saved for those which are truly critical or transformational. How to tell the difference depends a lot on context, but the answer is often found by asking “What’s the purpose of doing this, and what’s the potential impact of doing it brilliantly?”
6. Competition vs. Community
In dictionary meaning, competition and cooperation are opposites, but in running and racing, the two are surprisingly blurred. A spectator might think, seeing serious-faced runners lined up at the start line and empty podium places at the end, that the racers will see each other purely as rivals, but the truth is more complex. For most runners, the greatest competition is with themselves and their expectations – will they finish, will they run the time they’re capable of, a personal best even?
In this light, the people you find around you in a race, running at your pace, suffering through the same challenge, blocking a headwind, or sharing a joke quickly become friends, and allies in the competition to run as well as each of you can. Mind you, it doesn’t necessarily stop you trying your best to outsprint them over the final 200m of a race, but at the finish, the faster will turn, smile and congratulate the slower.
It’s not just at the amateur end of the sport that we see this fusion of competition and collaboration either, there are dozens of examples in elite sport, from Alistair Brownlee helping his brother Jonny over the line in the heat of Mexico last year, to double Olympic champion Abebe Bikila’s encouragement of his friend and countryman Mamo Wolde to take over as he dropped out injured from the 1968 Olympic marathon.
This is the essence of friendly competition which we should aspire to at work – to try to out-sell or out-deliver your peers, but in the spirit of lifting everyone’s game, and knowing how to come together afterwards in celebrating the resulting success of your business or organisation. I hope that most of you already know this feeling from your work and career, but if you want to experience it in its purest form, I have no better recommendation than to get those trainers out of the wardrobe and put your name down for a race!
I hope you found this blog useful. Here are some articles which you may also find interesting:
- Isn’t it time you had a strategy for your career?
- Six signs your boss cares about your career progression
- 2017 – The year of your future career
- The do’s and don’ts of networking to find a job
- Not job searched in a long time? 4 ways to overcome your fears
- Three steps to perfecting your personal brand
- The hidden ingredient to look for in your next employer
- How transparent should you be during your job search?