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Stop Comparing and Start Thinking Long-Term

Stop Comparing and Start Thinking Long-Term

Ani Freedman

Why, so often, does our self-worth depend on numbers? How much we make, how much we weigh, how many calories we burn, how many followers we have, how many likes we get. For runners, it’s all of that and more: how many miles per week we run, how fast our paces are, how many hours we dedicate to training, how low or high our heart rate gets, how much time we knock off a previous race record. 


Have you ever returned to running after a break and felt discouraged from not hitting paces or goals that used to come easy to you? It’s easy to get trapped in a self-flagellating thought cycle calling yourself out of shape, slow, or simply not good enough anymore because of those numbers circling around in our brains, on our phones, on our watches. It’s so easy to compare our current selves to our past selves, or even to others, and think, If I could do that then, why can’t I do it now? How come I work just as hard as them and I’m not as fast or as fit? What’s wrong with me? 


In previous articles, I’ve mentioned how it’s important to approach running, and life, in different seasons. Some seasons we are at our strongest and fastest, some we barely have time to get in two miles every few days. Just as life and the weather change with every season, so do our training and fitness—and that’s okay. Instead of putting ourselves down for what we can’t do, we should try and celebrate what we can do in the present, because no matter how hard we try, we are never going to be our past selves, and maybe we shouldn’t. Maybe we should take the present we are living in as an opportunity to keep moving forward, towards being better runners and people who are so much more than numbers and goals.


Comparison is your worst enemy

With social media, infinite access to running metrics, and the white whales of personal bests and Boston Marathon qualifying times, comparison is inescapable in the running community. Whether we’re comparing to past versions of ourselves or other runners, it is never a good rabbit hole to venture down. 


I am certainly guilty of it. I remember looking at my easy pace during long runs last summer, then scrolling back in my Garmin app to my last training cycle and seeing a pace over a minute faster with a lower average heart rate. I’ve also fallen victim to feeling like garbage during a workout, then remembering how easily I once coasted through those paces less than a year prior and feeling like a complete failure.


Every time I do it, I’m giving into the part of my brain that isn’t going to make me a better runner, just a more critical one.


That’s just within myself, not even to mention the endless posts on Instagram and Strava where I see someone similar in age to me, seemingly effortless in holding paces I only dream of hitting in my races and workouts. 


It can become obsessive, this game of comparison. It transcends beyond running and into self-perception. We can start to convince ourselves that when we were skinnier we were faster. We think that we are less worthy the slower we run, even when achieving things most people outside of running would find inspiring—things as amazing as running three days a week (or more), casually running five miles (or more), or completing a marathon, something less than 1% of the U.S. population has done. I guarantee anyone outside of my brain or your brain would never think less of me or you for our pace, how we look, or our current running fitness compared to our past. To most people, those numbers are meaningless.


With thoughts like that, a runner can fall into a pattern of overtraining, undereating, and working themselves straight into burnout or injury. The cycle has a danger of repeating itself, as with injury and burnout comes time off running, more self-scrutiny, and more unnecessary shame for the runner we wish we were, instead of appreciation for the whole person we are.


Reality is, immediate gratification in running, or life, is impossible, especially when hyper-fixating on what we perceive as failures. It takes time, a lot of struggling and learning, and kindness towards ourselves. We may have been stronger and faster a year or five years ago. We may be the fastest we will ever be five years from now. But that’s not the present, that’s not who we are right now. It can be easy to forget how many other factors impact our running: huge life changes like a newborn child, moving someplace new, starting (or leaving) a job, grief and loss, injury, sickness, anxiety, burnout, sleep deprivation—the list is endless. We go through seasons where one or more of those things takes a toll on us and our running, and it’s important to consider the incredible fact of just continuing to run at all through all of that.


Running is not as simple as going out the door to “relieve stress,” when that stress follows you. But running is as simple as putting one foot in front of the other in a forward motion. So, the best thing we can do for our running is to stop looking everywhere else but forward. 


The Long Game

I’ve had to make some serious mental shifts since getting injured after my first marathon in October. An injury that I thought would last a few weeks lasted months, and I’m still very slowly returning to running (although, I learned I probably took more time off from running than I should have, which is only very infuriating). Once it became clear I wouldn’t be able to run my spring half marathon, or even run more than a few miles at a time for a while, I had to find a way to be optimistic. That became focusing on the long game.


I had numerous conversations with my run coach and physical therapists, almost as a way to talk through everything I was feeling. I decided to shift focus away from my March half marathon, whose pressure was bearing down on me as weeks came and went where I knew I needed to be training for the race, but I was still stuck on the bike or in the pool. I told them that I no longer cared about racing, I just cared about being able to run consistently and injury-free for as long as I can. I told them I want to be that 80-year-old woman on the starting line of a marathon, giving advice to new runners and smiling through every mile.


I think long-term about my racing goals too, not just about my dreams of running forever. Admittedly, I jumped on signing up for a fall marathon and even talked to my coach about some shorter races for fun over the summer. But I know I need to tame my expectations for racing now. I have ambitious goals for fast times in the future, goals I likely won’t reach for quite some time. Somehow, I find having those lofty goals to be comforting; they’re not insanely far from what I have achieved already, but not too close to what I’m currently capable of so I know I have to think long-term.


I think any runner, athlete, or person who exercises should always think long-term. Do I want to run a super fast half marathon like I initially planned this year? Yes, but that’s not in the cards for me right now, and I’m excited that it will be one day. I’m not happy I got injured, yet I’m grateful that I can work through and learn from these obstacles to prevent an injury like that from happening again so I can go after those big goals healthier and more self-aware than I was last year.


I see the setbacks I face now as necessary obstacles to becoming better each day. If training was always flawless, the goals we achieve would just feel less satisfying. Runners pride themselves on the hard work they put into every run to get to a finish line, but it’s so much more than putting in the time. It’s the mental grit to intelligently work through periods of injury and burnout, to check your ego and slow down because you know running slower on easy runs is so important, to put in the time for strength workouts and physical therapy exercises, to force yourself into bed early, to fuel and hydrate yourself effectively, and to always remember why you’re running. Each of those moments of struggle, those little decisions we make to better ourselves instead of running ourselves into the ground, those are what keep us in the sport for the long haul.


I would hope that every runner wants to run for as long as possible, keeping our sport alive and welcoming to all. That should be at the top of everyone’s goal list, in my opinion. Knowing that more is yet to come, regardless of age, ability, or what we’ve achieved in the past is comforting. It relinquishes pressure from the now, remembering that every run, workout, rest day, physical therapy appointment, and race is progress towards those big goals.


Patience is frustrating, but necessary

Once you define those long-term goals, it becomes a little easier to be patient (maybe). I’ve found that it takes some of the pressure off for the time being, and I’m freer to just enjoy running. I think sometimes it’s easy to brush off the fact that we love running once you get more serious about it. It’s great to be goal-oriented, just not goal-obsessed. While I do have goals, I do want to run fast this year, I also just want to have as much fun as possible. 


We shouldn’t be running to be someone we aren’t right now, we are running because it brings us joy. Sometimes we tell ourselves we should be able to run a certain pace, that we should be able to hit a certain time or mileage goal, and our bodies tell us otherwise. The less I think about the times, the metrics, the paces I think I need to hit, the more I can just let my body go at the speeds it can and wants to. The more we listen to our bodies, I think, the better off we are. 


I love putting in the work and digging deep to push myself, of course, but I love being able to run more than that. I know I’ll find another season in my life where I’ll be able to astound myself at what I’m capable of, but I can be patient until then. I’m reassured that as long as I’m running, and running happy, then I’m doing it right. 



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