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The Power of Showing Up – Defeating an 'All-Or-Nothing' Mentality

One of the most transformative changes I've experienced with clients is when they break out of an 'all-or-nothing' mentality. In many cases, it completely changes their training and relationship with running.

At the extreme end, this kind of thinking could even be called obsessive, but from what I have seen, many, perhaps even most runners, are predisposed to this kind of thinking creeping in at times.

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar, perhaps deep down underneath your rational brain?

If the training plan says 10mi, and you run 9.2, then you didn't finish the training.

If you don't have time for the full workout, you might as well just rest and try to get it in tomorrow.

If your time goal was sub-3 and you ran 3:00:12, you failed.

If your legs are a little heavy, you should do the workout tomorrow instead.

Black & white and all-or-nothing mentality is really common in our culture, so this is something that will take work.

Whether politics, fitness, diet culture, or even abstract feelings about success and accomplishment, our collective instinct is to label things as right or wrong, good or bad, effective or ineffective, success or failure.

The truth is, all aspects of life – including running – they're all shades of grey. I think we all know this, but compartmentalizing is easier for our brains.

Having this 'all-or-nothing' thinking can be extremely counterproductive as an athlete. I also believe this common mental trap is strongly linked to the use of pace, counting daily/weekly/monthly miles, and other seemingly 'objective' variables as metrics for success/failure or effectiveness/ineffectiveness of training. This is another extremely transformative change, and you can read more here. Combining the two has led to so many breakthroughs!

How can you defeat this ingrained mentality? Focus on just showing up!

Show up for consistency, show up for hard things, show up for races, and show up for life!

Showing Up for Consistency

The number one, bottom-line, most important factor in any fitness regimen is consistency. Running is no different. If you run 50 weeks out of the year, regardless of volume, you'll make far more progress than running 30 weeks. If you run 5-6 days a week, you'll make far more progress than only running 2-3 days a week. (You also will generally have a lower injury risk, all other things being equal, but that's a topic for a different article!)

But we're all human, and sometimes life gets in the way! From work stress to parenting, sometimes it's just not reasonable to stick to the plan. Not only that, sometimes sticking to the plan would be the objectively incorrect decision.

All Stress is Stress

This is a really important point to realize about training.

All your body knows about is stress. Your training is (or should be) calibrated for your normal stress level. If you have an increase in work or life stress, your training must adapt. That doesn't mean you get less out of training, it's so that you get the same out of training.

You're not suddenly doing less training when you adapt that way, you're doing the same training, at least according to your body and the likely adaptations you'll see. (At least for shorter-term fluctuations).

It's easy to say "well if I can't do xx miles, it's not even worth getting dressed," or "I'll count today as a rest day and just move things around the rest of the week."

But remember – consistency is the most important part. You get significant benefits from a short ten-minute run. In fact, if you think about 'benefits per minute of running,' these runs are perhaps the most beneficial!

That doesn't mean you shouldn't do a bit more when there's room in your schedule, stress level and physical fitness/recovery, but it does mean you should try to get out and maintain consistency, even when you can't stick to your 'normal' running plan.

Maintain your Routine

Routine is vital to running success, for a variety of reasons. After all, training is much more complex than simply adding up a certain number and type of runs throughout the week!

Running on a consistent schedule, even if just ten-minutes, keeps your body adapting, and maintains its internal sense of rhythm and flow. (Very scientific, I know, but I've seen it hundreds, if not thousands of times!)

Further, on a given day, aiming to get those ten minutes gives you two potential results:

  • It gives your mind and body a chance. It could be that this run is the best part of your day. Your legs might start out heavy but wake up and start feeling amazing. You could experience a transformative sunrise/sunset or other epic experience. Maybe it's just your 10min to detach from your other stresses. If you are starting to feel that, you can start to extend a bit, if it feels like your schedule and stress level will allow it. Maybe you end up getting 20 or 30 minutes instead of 10. Great!

  • If you only get 10min... GREAT! Keeping the body in it's routine is extremely helpful in maintaining progress, but also feeling your best physically. We all know that heavy feeling if we accidentally take two rest days in a row!

Routine is also psychologically extremely important. Routine beats motivation. Motivation isn't really what gets you out the door each day. Motivation is the larger more abstract thought/feeling that made you start the process, approach each week of training, go for that little bit extra, accept when you're feeling heavy from lots of training, etc. But routine is what gets you out the door on a daily basis.

Eliminate Guilt

One absolutely vital thing to remember is that you must remove guilt from your thinking about training.

When these adjustments happen, it's not a failing. It's a necessary component of training.

The vital part is not falling into that all-or-nothing trap. Get in your 10-minutes if at all possible. If not possible, it's not possible. That's not a failing either.


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Showing Up for Hard Things

For many athletes, this also affects their mentality about getting in workouts and long runs as scheduled. They view these runs as being so important that they should be done perfectly, when they have fresh legs, and the sun is shining, it's 51.5ºF with 20% humidity, the surface is a slightly-soft rolling dirt road with no wind... you get the idea. This means they are often adjusting what days they do those long runs or workouts solely to try to achieve perfection.

All Runs Matter

To be clear, there's some misinformation in popular athletic culture. The popular thinking is that long runs are the most important thing when preparing for a race, or building fitness, and that workouts are secondary but also much more important than other runs.

Some people still even call all other miles 'junk miles.' That's totally ignoring science! A lot of people will focus almost all their energy on those two runs, and fill in the gaps with whatever energy they have leftover.

There are many problems with that approach. The fact is, easy runs have benefits you cannot get with other runs. Additionally, it ignores how workouts and long runs work.

At the simplest level, long runs and workouts are only effective when stacked on top of other effective training.

I think we can all recognize that following a training plan but doing only the long runs doesn't mean you're prepared for the race. Right? Of course not.

Accumulated fatigue is one of the simplest, yet most important concepts of training. If you're focusing all your energy on one or two runs, and not how they interact with runs before and after, you're shortchanging yourself.

Of particular note, I've found that running the day after your long run is particularly beneficial in a whole host of ways. It comes back to the long run not being this huge highlight of the week, but rather just another run that happens to be a bit longer and have a different intent than the others. Think about it – if you have an 18 mile long run, but 12 miles scheduled the following day, your long run starts to feel a bit more normal. Switching those days around just to try to achieve "perfection" on that long run means you miss some of those benefits, and you'll probably feel worse on the long run too.

When to Switch

There are certainly circumstances where switching your days around may be the correct decision:

  • When conditions outside are unsafe. (Not just slow conditions, but actually unsafe).

  • When you legitimately don't have enough time for the long run on the normal day, but can get it done by switching the schedule around.

  • When you have an illness/injury concern, it's probably best to adjust/shorten multiple days, not just do a simple swap, but you should consult with your coach. Regardless, there can and should be an adjustment in this case.

When to Show Up

Most of the time, I recommend sticking to the schedule and reminding yourself that it doesn't need to be perfect. That might include adjusting your effort down if you have excess stress, running slower and by time rather than distance when conditions are tough, or shortening the run a bit if you don't quite have time.

This might include circumstances like:

  • When conditions are muddy/snowy (but not dangerous)

  • When your legs are heavy/tired from prior running

  • When you might not be feeling mentally or physically 100% (but not sick or concerned about injury)

  • When fitting it in will be a tight squeeze and you might have to adjust slightly (make the 20mi run 18mi, for example)

Assuming you're not sick or injured, or risking getting sick or injured... Just Show Up! It doesn't have to be perfect. No single run will make or break your training, but breaking your routine may have a larger negative effect.

Showing Up for Races

Your training hasn't been perfect lately. Or the weather is awful. It's forecast to be hot and humid and you're not heat acclimated. Should you still race?

In general, I would say YES. A lot of these factors are psychological, but as a coach, I take just as much time with psychological factors as physiological. Sometimes much more!

More Opportunities = More Successes

First and most importantly, a great deal of performance on a given day comes down to factors that could be called luck. I wrote about this here, but in short, there are a multitude of non-training factors, both internal and external, that cannot be controlled. That means you don't know when you'll have an amazing breakthrough race. Another significant portion of success comes down to practice racing at a certain effort level/certain distance. Combine these factors, and what do you get? More opportunities = more successes.

Second, assuming you or your coach has crafted your schedule around the race to best utilize it, whether as a goal race, B race, or for training, you can best serve yourself by showing up.

With stellar training and preparation you might boost your 'amazing days' percentage a few points, but simply giving yourself more opportunities (within reason) gives you far more chances of those days happening. 70% of six is far more than 80% of four!

It Doesn't Have to be Perfect

You don't always need a race-specific block, all the 'correct' long runs, a taper, etc. Some of the coolest breakthroughs I've seen have happened without any of them. Keep giving yourself those opportunities by showing up.

There is certainly such a thing as racing too much, and this section is mostly about shorter-distance races (or at least shorter than your current training). If you're training for a marathon, there is plenty of room for 5k's and 10k's, especially early on in the training block. In fact, I usually suggest it! For most people, they'll hit their limit for the logistics of scheduling/traveling/paying for races before I'll suggest doing fewer races. They certainly won't be training specifically, tapering or recovering for each race, but they can be beneficial for healthy athletes!

That said, try to break out of any sort of thinking that your training is for a specific race that you don't want to jeopardize by racing. It's simply not true! You're training to become a fitter athlete. If the race doesn't happen, or goes poorly, does that mean your fitness disappears? Of course not. The likelihood of you having an amazing day isn't high enough to put all your eggs in one basket. Don't make any silly decisions, but use the fitness you're creating multiple times throughout your training cycle.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In addition, having more practice racing, even if not the same distance as your ultimate goal, helps you in many ways. First, it makes you run on someone else's schedule. How often have you intended to start your long run at 7am, but put it off until 7:15 to finish coffee, or whatever it might be? You can't do that at a race! You have to rehearse all your pre-race routine on a specific schedule: nutrition, clothes, shoes, warmup, etc. Second, each race, regardless of distance, is another data point to help you gauge effort and practice the mental/pacing side of racing. Being able to feel when the effort is too high is just as important as feeling when the effort is just right.

Of course, it's vital to structure your training well around these events, so consult with a coach, or learn how to effectively self-coach.

Showing Up in Life

We can use this practice at 'showing up' in life too. I'm sure many of us have had days where we 'just show up' to work and go through the motions. Chances are, it wasn't the end of the world. (If you're an air traffic controller or surgeon... maybe not.)

But we can do this in life too. You may be intending to clean your whole house, but don't have the energy. Clean one room. If your friend asks for help moving but you can only help part of the day, or aren't very strong - show up. It doesn't have to be perfect. You need to run three errands but don't have the time for all three. Do two. Or one! A partner, child or friend needs support, but you don't know what to say or how to help. Doesn't matter. Show up. Simply be 'there.'

You get the idea. Don't focus on perfection, black & white, good & bad. Just. Show. Up.

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