Lessons from the first three miles of a marathon

One of the most overused sports analogies used when discussing changing habits is the following:

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint”.

It has been used in everything from motivational posters and financial planning commercials to company culture documents. The implied principle is that it is wise to manage your effort over time opposed to trying to accomplish everything in a single day.

The reason this motto is so common is because it is true.

The problem that I have with this advice is due to my personal experience at every marathon I have completed. At each of these races, there have been many participants who forget this principle themselves. If there was ever someone that should understand this principle, it would be the marathon runner on race day. I remember doing a marathon with a bunch of first-time marathoners who had trained for several months and were prepared to have a great day. I taught the value of having self awareness and sensible pacing early in the race. I warned of the desire to try and do something you had not prepared for due to the crowd of participants. Yet despite that coaching, as we hit the half mile mark, one of the runners looked at her Garmin watch and saw that her average pace was slower than anticipated. She was already anxious about her finishing time and decided to run faster.

I yelled some words of wisdom as she ran ahead. The good news is that she crossed the finish line. However the second half of the race was more difficult than it needed to be.

Why does this happen so often? What lessons can we take away from these observations? And how can we apply them to our desire to change our behavior? I have a few key reasons that this mistake is so commonplace:

1. Lack of self awareness:

In an ideal situation, when you show up to the start of a marathon you will be in the best shape of your life. Your fitness is at its peak. When you combine peak fitness with the proper pre race recovery, you set yourself up for new and unusual feelings at the start of the race. What feels like an easy running effort might have been a moderately difficult run just a couple weeks before. You can be running at a tempo pace but convince yourself that you are really holding yourself back. I see runners make this mistake, thinking they are running easy, but discover 13, 15 or 20 miles later that they were just unaware of what to expect in those first few miles.

When you are trying to change your behavior it is critical that you maintain a high level of self awareness. The tendency to fall back into previous habits is easy. Where I see this most often is early on when you are having success with a new behavior. You have established a routine to follow that allows you be successful, then you enter an environment that breaks that routine. It may be a family vacation. It could be a Thursday night happy hour with co-workers or dinner out with friends. In these situations, extreme self-awareness is important. Understand what decisions you are making and why you are making them.

2. Have objective measures.

The discussion so far has been about the inability to maintain good judgement using subjective observations. This is why it is important to define some objective measurements that allow you to monitor progress and identify success. In the marathon this means knowing what pace is acceptable and what is just fantasy due to early race happiness. In your behavior change project it allows you to be accountable.

When you are trying to implement a new behavior, let’s say it is adding an exercise routine, our memory of what we did and what actually happened can be misaligned. People will commonly tell me that they were successful adding exercise to their week. Then when we review what they actually did they may have completed the routine 1 or 2 times. That may be fine if the goal was to include exercise 1 or 2 times, but more than likely thres is a misalignment resulting from effort it took to complete those sessions. The effort was high which causes the memory of what actually occurred to be exaggerated. Whatever the goal is make sure there is a way to measure and track your progress.

3. Take on one challenge at a time.

Early in the marathon it is tempting to start thinking about ‘finish times’. Most of us show up to the race with some expectation of how we want the day to finish. When you are running miles 2 or 3, your finish time should be the last thought in your mind. It is important to run the mile you are running. It takes discipline of thought, but successful marathoners are good at this.

As you begin a behavior change project it is easy to think about all the habits you need to change. You may need to eat differently, exercise more, manage your stress, along with many other lifestyle changes. The desire to change all of them at once can be tempting. But it is an approach that often leads to failure. If the goal is to create a happier and healthier lifestyle, then approach it with the knowledge that it can take a lifetime to create those behaviors. Understand that you will be most successful when you work on one habit at a time. Focus on something manageable and immediate then reassess and take on the next behavior.

The saying, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” is an overused analogy. It is used so often that I wonder if it has any value in our daily conversations. However, as I think about all the mistakes marathon runners make during those first few miles, I see the value in keeping the mantra alive. As you work through your behavior change program, maintaining the perspective that you have a lifetime to develop your ideal lifestyle will reward you will success, happiness and health.