I’ve had a few people ask me lately about marathon training programs. While they are typically looking for specific advice on workout schedules, I think it helps to first step back and take a look at the overall mental approach to preparing for a marathon or any other running goal. Here are seven elements you need to keep in mind before trying to fit a training program into your busy lifestyle. I also posted this on my Constant Cogitation blog as Seven Leadership Lessons from the Marathon if you are interested in a different twist.
Set Specific Goals
It may seem intuitive, but to reach a goal, you first have to set one. All too often, actions are taken without a specific goal in mind because they seem like “the right thing to do.” I spent much of 2009 just running with the general goal of losing weight, but not committing to a specific target. While exercise is certainly noble, without combining it with a better diet and monitoring calories, there may be little weight loss. When I got specific on my goal to qualify for Boston, I determined losing 20 pounds by May would be a key objective along the path, and it became easier to control my diet in addition to increasing my calorie burn.
Commit Yourself Publicly
If you don’t make your goal clear and visible, you lose a valuable source of incentive to reach it – your pride and the encouragement of friends, colleagues, or employees. How can anyone offer you support if they don’t know what you are working towards? In the case of qualifying for Boston, I first committed to my wife that I would get there (and she developed an enthusiasm about going to Boston next year), and then to my friends on Dailymile, who offered further support and encouragement for reaching the goal. The fear of failing to reach a publicly-committed goal can be a powerful motivator.
Get Buy-in from Other Stakeholders
If you need the support of others to reach your goal, they must not only be “informed” of it, but actively understand and agree with it. If your goal doesn’t inspire others, support will be lacking. If my wife viewed my goal of reaching Boston as purely selfish or perhaps even unachievable, then she would resent my early morning or late evening runs that interrupt her sleep or take away our time together. Of course, the fact that I also recognized the other commitments I have as a father and professional makes it easier to gain support for my goals, by making it clear that the family and work roles come first.
Plan the Work, but Know When to Be Flexible
Training for a marathon requires establishing and following a plan. You can’t simply go out and run a random distance at a random pace and expect to achieve your goal. Each day has a purpose, be it working on your pace, improving your stamina, or resting and recovering. However, circumstances like weather, work conflicts, injury, or family commitments will interfere with the plan, in which case you need to have an open mind to making adjustments within the context of still achieving the training you need (such as running at a different time, shifting days in the schedule around, or lengthening or shortening a workout). It’s even better if you can have coping mechanisms identified in advance, so you can react quickly, with minimal stress, to these disturbances.
Establish Appropriate Metrics and Use the Right Technology
In running, there are two or three metrics that matter – time, distance, and (if you follow this method) heart rate. If you cannot accurately measure these, then you will be unable to track your progress. Investing in the right technology, such as a GPS-enabled watch, is important, if not essential. In addition, it is helpful to test your progress towards your goal occasionally; in running this is done through specific workouts designed to test your ability to hold a desired pace over a specified distance.
Stay Focused on the Goal and Ignore Distractions
Working towards a goal means that you have to forego other opportunities. In running, it might be a very tempting race, or it might be a night out with friends before a big run. While you may occasionally have the capacity to take advantage of such an opportunity, this must be weighed against the risk of losing progress towards your ultimate goal.
Proceed with Confidence
If you doubt your ability to reach a goal, your probability of doing so drops dramatically. You can find countless references to the benefits if “acting as if” you have already achieved your goal. While this can certainly bleed over into overconfidence, there is a lot of value in pursuing your training aggressively, with the belief that you are already at the level you need to be to succeed. In my case, I certainly didn’t go so far as to book a trip to Boston, but I did explore the timing of the race next year and the process for registering. And, I confess, I drafted this blog post two weeks before the race.
The above steps are essential in maintaining your commitment to your training and achieving your goals. If you don’t set and communicate goals, energize others towards achieving them, set a plan with appropriate metrics, stay focused, and act with confidence, the probabilities of success in your pursuit suffer grievously.
Did I miss anything that you have found to be an essential “non-running” part of preparing for the marathon (or other significant goal)?