The Important Line Between Working Hard and Trying Hard

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Photo credit: From team MSRC in a bit of pain…., by Flickr user Kai Chan Vong, used under a Creative Commons license.

There is little doubt that one of the attributes of a successful runner is a willingness and capacity to work hard.  While some runners may get by for a while on talent, there comes a point where a runner who works harder will eventually outgun the athlete who relies on natural abilities – where “nurture” will outgrow “nature”.  “Coasting by” is a recipe for coming up short in many endeavors, and especially in running.

However, what is a surer path to disaster is slipping over the line between “working hard” and “trying hard”.  The latter implies reaching beyond your current abilities to drive quick gains, as opposed to staying within one’s means to build up your ability and performance over time.  It means replacing patience and perseverance with aggression and urgency.

The consequences of not knowing where this line is, and straying across it on a regular basis – or even just once for an extended period – are pretty significant.

  • Injury – you can read all you want about the role of lack of strength, poor shoe selection, or genetics as a cause of injury, but the reality is that the number one condition driving injuries in runners is what I call “toomuchtoosoonitis”.
  • Burnout – trying to achieve a goal you aren’t ready for, and training to do so, is also the quickest way to burning out, as you push your body and mind beyond what they are ready to achieve, leading to a deep sense of fatigue.
  • Frustration – training harder than you should to achieve a goal you shouldn’t have had nearly always leads to a sense of failure, and this can make you question your willingness to do it all again.

So what are the warning signs that you have crossed this line?

  1. Overreaching in your goals – while setting appropriate stretch goals can drive your growth as a runner, trying to do too much too soon can derail such growth.  Watch out for setting aggressive goals with no benchmark performances (i.e., races or quality workouts) to support them, or for setting training targets based on what you hope to achieve versus what you have actually done.
  2. Proceeding with desperation instead of confidencethe confident runner is one who knows that an occasional missed workout, or one short of expectations, is to be expected, and who quickly moves on.  The desperate runner tries to hit or, even more often, exceed all their goals on a daily basis, and gets depressed or panicked when something goes wrong.  Watch carefully how you react to setbacks, as it indicates on which side of the line you reside.
  3. Mistaking passion for commitment – passion is a great driver, when it is allowed to simmer and grow into commitment to a pursuit over a longer time horizon.  When passion trips over into obsession, you have the formula for trying too hard.
  4. Becoming overly focused on the short-term – when it seems all that matters is to meet the goal for this season or race, and you’ve lost site of the long-term horizon for your running “career”, you have crossed the line.
  5. Your motivation starts to lag on a regular basis – everyone has lulls in their desire to train; it’s a natural cycle. But when it starts to happen on a monthly basis, or after any minor setback in your training, it’s time to step back and stop trying so hard.
  6. You are always seeking new stimulation – training plans get repetitive, it’s just the nature of the beast.  When you start to get restless with this, and constantly seek to overstep the plan, you’ve lost sight of your mission due to impatience.

If any of the symptoms above are occurring, it’s time to step back and reassess your goals, to refocus on your long-term interests, and perhaps even take some time off to force yourself to break the cycle.  If you can’t do this, then it’s likely that you’ll find trouble sooner rather than later – far more than a few days off will cost you.

And this advice goes well beyond running.  Think of your career, or hopefully instead of others whose careers you have witnessed.  Those impatient to grow or advance too quickly soon get beyond their capabilities and run into issues that ultimately limit their performance (and career), or impact their family life.  Those who seek quick fixes in their relationships, instead of investing the time to build a true understanding of those that matter, often find such fixes make things worse.  And those who seek to get rich quick by blogging without building a site of value and a community with mutual interests usually end up giving up, because it just doesn’t work.

Note the action words above – building, developing, investing, nurturing.  These concepts take time and attention.  If you are thinking instead of pushing, surging, rushing, or reaching, then you may just be trying too hard.

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  • Salty

    This is a great post, Greg! I often find myself over-thinking and too consciously trying when it comes to running. It’s something I have to really work hard at to not do. But this is true for me for all things I care about. I’m very type-A and when I have a goal I immerse myself in it. This reminds me of my metaphysics class in college. We were talking about Sartre, I believe. He discusses self-actualization a lot. But one thing my professor brought up was that sometimes when we do things automatically, rather than consciously, we perform better. He used the example of when you’re driving and lost in thought and suddenly, you’re 20 miles from the last place you remember and somehow managed to be totally spaced out but drove perfectly fine, perhaps even better than you would have if you were completely focused on driving. With regard to running, I suppose that would be flow. Flow on one particular run is hard enough to achieve, but trying to maintain that level of automation/detachment in the big picture while training is even harder, at least for me.

  • Greg Strosaker

    Thanks for your comment Laura (and eagerly awaiting news on the new baby – I see you are still waiting!). I’m not sure if Sartre discusses this as honestly the first time I saw the name was in your comment, but the ability to achieve flow must come from years of more mindful practice. I think the same is true from running – it takes a lot of running with a fully engaged mine to be able to successfully run well while “zoned out” and not focusing on the run. The best runners have the ability to do both, shifting from day to day as the needs change. For medium-long to long runs with no specific pace, being zoned out is good. For tempo or pace work, I think a heightened awareness of how the effort feels is critical to possess or develop. But the point is to make sure that the effort is what it’s supposed to be, and not any more.