(First published in the Birmingham Track Club Newsletter, April 2012)

As runners, we tend to check our state from the neck down. Heart rate? Monitored. Quads and hammies? Feeling good. Pace? On target. Gait? As close to Ryan Hall’s as it can be. However, improving our performances requires action further north, in our heads—in what psychologists call “mindset.” The message from researchers seems simple: We learn, grow, or improve when we focus on effort—results rather than on “natural” ability.

I’m not suggesting that genetics does not play any role in how we run, but reality is much more complicated than “natural ability,” and that works to our advantage. We may not be chasing world records, but we do chase PR’s, or age group awards, or the completion of new distances, or…. For these pursuits your mind is as important as your training. In fact, your mindset influences your training.

Research suggests that we learn optimally when we 1) are willing to attend to our mistakes, 2) believe that effort results in learning and improvement, and 3) focus on giving that effort.

I recently ran a new marathon. Because I had run the host city’s streets many times in the last few years, I thought all the hype about hills was overblown. Yes, some streets had slight inclines, but hills? The warnings seemed unwarranted. I had big goals going into the race. I was chasing a new PR, and felt confident that I could cross the finish line faster than I had before. I prepared thoroughly. My coach and I reviewed the course elevation information, plotted a strategy, and I toed the start line more ready than I’d felt for any other race. My mantra for this race was, “Give the effort.”

It would be so convincing for this to end on a victorious note—for me to say that I focused on the effort and crossed the line in a blaze of glory. Alas, that is not how the race played out. The course ran through parts of the city I had not run—much hillier parts—and the hills killed me. I began to see the PR slip away, despite my effort. As I scanned my state from the neck down (Heart rate? Who knows. Quads and hammies? All screaming. Pace? Turtle. Gait? Ugly, no doubt), I realized finishing would probably be my only accomplishment.

How can I learn from this experience and improve my running? How can we apply a beneficial mindset to our setbacks?

  1. Examine the setback, searching for causes, not blame. That does not mean fixating on failure and repeating, “Woe am I. I failed.” It means looking at the result and searching for causes. I could whine about the hills, curse the race director, and find excuses for my less-than-expected performance. None of those actions will make me better the next time I toe the start line. The true cause was my preparation. I erred by running all my long runs on relatively flat routes. I was not accustomed to hitting hills late in a run, nor to the number of hills I had to climb in the race. Those two runners who passed me, still running between miles 23 and 25, probably weren’t born with special hill-conquering DNA. They had prob- ably trained differently and prepared for hills late in the distance. That is a change I, too, can make, and focus- ing my efforts on those changes will improve my performance. Excuses do nothing to make us better.
  2. Trust your effort. I’m not suggesting we lose touch with reality. I will not outpace Meb Keflezighi no matter how hard I work at getting faster. But I can, by applying myself, discover and achieve my potential at this stage in life. I can run hills (the infamous “Y-hill” in Mountain Brook knows my name), and I can focus on training for hills late in a long run. Individuals who believe strongly in “natural ability” tend to avoid challenge and give up faster than less capable individuals who work hard and persevere. Those who redirect their efforts and apply themselves achieve more even when they possess less “natural ability.”
  3. Give the effort. Plan for success and faithfully work that plan. The best athletes are those who train consistently. Training wisely to minimize injury risk will enable you to give the consistent effort you need to succeed.

Seeing my recent marathon “failure” this way enables me to learn, to make changes that will ultimately make me a better, stronger runner.

Next time you go through your neck-down scan, give your head a thought. What are you thinking, right now, about effort and success? If the answer is anything other than effort enables success, adjust your thinking.

And for those who need a victorious ending to make these points credible, I did set a new PR in that hilly marathon. I PR-ed by one second.