One Dirty Magazine

Avoid Comparison to Get The Most Out of Your Training

4 training and racing tips to stop comparing yourself to other runners.

David Roche July 18th, 2017

Avoid Comparison to Get The Most Out of Your Training Megan Roche compares smiles during a race in China Camp, outside San Rafael, California. Photo by David Roche.

No matter who you are and what you do, you can feel inadequate if you put your mind to it.

Teddy Roosevelt is often quoted as saying “Comparison is the thief of joy.” This is appropriate, since he was also famous for being a trail runner back before trail running existed (he would often romp through what is now Rock Creek Park outside Washington, D.C.). What Teddy understood is that if you look hard enough, you can always find someone better than the current version of you, and get discouraged as a result.

Running falls victim to the comparison trap more than almost any other endeavor because of the cold, hard calculus of the watch. I coach middle-of-the-pack athletes who are in the 95th percentile for fitness among the general population, but feel inadequate because they aren’t at the front of the pack. Even some of the elite athletes I coach—athletes who are among the best in the world—lament that they aren’t the very best.

Unless you’re a self-obsessed narcissist, comparison is a game you will virtually always lose if you zoom out far enough. When you compare yourself to other people, cracks start to form in self-esteem. These little leaks can eventually spring into massive existential crises. Comparison doesn’t just make running less fun—it can ruin running careers. So here are four tips to drop comparison and find self-acceptance on the trails.

 

1. Accept your limitations in the present and your decline in the future

The rarely talked-about reality of running is that the very best trail runners usually start with fortunate genetics. All champions work hard, but the reason that certain athletes’ hard work translates to world-beating race results is, simply, that they chose the right parents.

The goal of running training should always be to get what you can from trail running, constrained by the genetic hand you were dealt, along with your life circumstances and goals. As tweeted by Bradley Stulberg, author of Peak Performance, “Those with the longest, healthiest careers do care about results, but are not defined by them.” If you start defining yourself through comparison to others, you may be disappointed—often by factors outside of your control.

The comparison trap also applies to self-comparison. Trail-running fitness does not follow a linear progression. Instead, it follows something more like the flight path of a drunken duck that swerves and then crashes into a lake. You’ll progress, you’ll get a bit worse, you’ll progress some more and then you’ll decline gradually with age, before eventually dying. At some point in that trajectory, you’ll peak without really realizing it, only to have an epiphany one day that your best is behind you. In the face of a chaotic trail-running journey, embrace the present, no matter where it is. Entropy will win eventually, like it always does, so resolve to enjoy the game while it lasts.

 

2. Train by effort, not pace

During that drunken duck flight, your pace will change. Eight minutes per mile might be a sprint one year, and then a jog a few years later and then a sprint again a decade or two down the line, due to changes in training, stress, age and countless other factors. It’s extremely difficult to remove self-judgment from pace splits, both over the long-term and even over the course of a single training cycle.

Last week, an athlete I coach was crushing her workout. She was on interval eight of 10 and loving life. Feeling good, she lapped out her watch to check her pace. Her heart sunk when the number wasn’t what she wanted. On interval nine, a great run turned into a terrible slog.

The point I tried to make to her is that for trail runners, pace within a workout barely matters. Our races involve hills, rocks and streams, with hundreds of variables impacting pace. Besides, “fast” workouts don’t necessarily translate to fulfilling races. My worst races often come after my fastest workouts, because in my fastest workouts, I am running too hard.

Training by effort (easy, moderate and hard) removes the option to judge your pace during runs, making sure you stay in the moment and focus on the correct stimulus. You might not be able to run eight minutes per mile every day—or every decade—but you can always put in a good effort.

It’s okay to check out your pace afterward (or during) if you are able to not take it too seriously. But for some Type-A personalities, even checking after-the-fact may be too much feedback. I encourage many of the runners I coach (including many pros) to not use a GPS watch at all. GPS feedback is like fire—it can be fuel, or it can burn you alive.

 

3. Take pride in keeping your easy runs slow

Eventually, almost all runners with longevity in the sport learn that easy runs are sacred. Getting caught up in what others are doing (or in what you do on days you feel perfect) often leads to running faster than you should on relaxed training days. Too much intensity causes injuries, burnout and fatigue. It also causes your workouts to suffer. Running fast at the wrong time can make you slow all the time.

 

4. Only race when motivated by the process, not the results

If you make a living from running, disregard this point. Results might help a pro (or an aspiring pro) put food on the table.

For most of us, though, race results are not what let us afford pizza and beer. For us, racing can be motivated by lots of things—self-exploration, adventure, the joy of inconsequential vulnerability. But if motivated primarily by results, racing can be a slippery slope to inadequacy.

So step back and ask yourself a simple question: “Why am I running this race?” There are two main kinds of answers: those that are results-based and those that are process-based. If your “why” requires you to finish in a certain time or place, your motivation to race is results-based. Almost any other kind of motivation, from wanting a goal to train towards in the first place, wanting the most out of the months of training you’ve put in or experiencing fun trails, is process-based.

If there’s anything coaching has taught me, it’s that results-based justifications for trail running can be dangerous and often result in existential crises. If your goals have a finish line, what happens when you get there? For some, the results-based approach is sustainable. For others, it results in post-race blues with both bad and good races.

Reframe races as a step along a journey as opposed to a destination, and the pressure lifts. Little by little, removing comparison as a means to define success in training and racing can help some runners find unconditional self-acceptance.

In the process, the goal is never to use training and racing to answer the question “Am I enough?” Instead, the goal is to trail run joyfully knowing “I am enough, no matter what.”

 

David Roche runs for HOKA One One and NATHAN, and works with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play.

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22 Comments on "Avoid Comparison to Get The Most Out of Your Training"

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Aaron
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Thanks David, good article. I needed that right now for my current training.

David Roche
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You are awesome Aaron, thank you!

Brady
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It’s been awhile since I’ve read a training related article that knocked me down then lifted me back up. Excellent topic and composition; this really hit home. Thanks David.

David Roche
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Thank you Brady, that means a lot! It’s like a somewhat crappy 3-act play 🙂

andy
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I think the proliferation of Strava has had detrimental effects on many runners I know, myself included. Perhaps it was easier when we were all “in the dark” about what tough workouts and fast paces are peers were keeping! That’s why I decided to just unfollow everyone, and I can only make comparisons with myself. I find that will be healthy, at least during the racing season, so I’m not tempted to blow myself up b/c a running pal did some grueling workout and I now wear the guilt of not keeping up!

David Roche
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Thanks for sharing your story Andy! Strava has the benefit of creating community and providing info, so it’s all a trade-off that works for some people, but not others. You rock!

Doug K
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how come a young man like yourself, already knows all this ? ha. 8 min/mi used to be my survival jog pace, after hitting the marathon wall and blowing up, knew I could always just shuffle at 8min/mi to the finish.. now it’s 5k race pace, on a very good day.. honest effort is my goal anymore. To quote myself writing about a competitive swansong, “I’d written HURT on my forearm, in the place where goal splits for each kilometer of the run would have been written, in the days of actual racing. The HURT was both to remind me… Read more »
David Roche
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Thank you Doug! Coaching lots of people from every background with a pretty intimate approach to the relationships lets me live dozens of lives, so the wisdom (if there is any) is not mine, but the amazing athletes’ on SWAP.

Adrienne
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It’s hard to be a new runner, where PRs can still be made, but realize that it isn’t in one’s best interest to always try for them. I appreciate this perspective!

David Roche
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Yay Adrienne for starting the lifelong running journey!

Jayme Theis
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I took my training and running mindset way too seriously for far too long. I was that hard core type A. I would crank out 6 minute splits bombing the descents. Do whatever I had to to maintain a 12 minute hike pace on the climbs. And gut out those 8-9 minutes on flats. The inevitable burnout happened. The saddest part is I always told myself it wasn’t good enough or sustained long enough to contend with front of pack in a race so I didn’t race! Then I burned out and didn’t run much for close to 2 years.… Read more »
David Roche
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Thank you for sharing your story Jayme. We call what you experiened the “F*ck it moment.” After the FIM, the world is your oyster, and running will be joyful (and faster) forever!

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[…] One easy trick to train more effectively: Stop comparing yourself to others. […]

Sharon
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At 75 yrs old I needed to read this article. I love trail running but I need to remember not to worry about pace but enjoy being able to still be out there on the trails.

Jenn
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Thanks for the article. It couldn’t have come at a better time as I was feeling mentally broken down on a long trail run this past weekend. I was frustrated, wondering if my race training was even “worth it”/paying off since I am not seeing consistent progress. I am glad to hear that there are other “drunken ducks” out there. =)

Stephen Robbins
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The 3rd paragraph in point #1 is simultaneously the greatest and worst thing I have ever read about trail running! I love it because it is true. I have come to appreciate the simple joy of trail running (AKA “wandering quickly through the woods) because I like being outside and my job keeps me inside. Keep up the good work David. I read your articles often yet I have never commented, I just commented this time because that paragraph was SO good!

David Roche
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HEART EYES EMOJI! Thanks for being so great Stephen!

Carolyn
Guest

This article came at a great time – I’ve had to back off running for a bit. Why? I’m nursing a hamstring injury after trying to keep up with a faster, stronger uphiller and thinking I should be able to do what they were doing. Time to reset my attitude! Thanks.

Merithed J.
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Thanks for this article, David. I’m training for my first trail marathon, and though I can see how much progress I am making (as in two years ago running a half marathon seemed impossible and feels pretty simple now), I still run pretty “slow” (relative to most in my hometown of Boulder, CO). On road runs, I like to run ten minute miles. On the trail, I don’t track my pace. Although sometimes I feel a little self conscious (people always seem to assume that since I can run long distances I can also run fast), I remind myself what… Read more »
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[…] of my friends (especially Dan) run a lot more miles than I do and I definitely can fall into the comparison trap at times. I’ve been feeling a little anxious about my training, thinking that I have to cram […]

Petonk
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This was wonderful for me to read. I love the drunken duck analogy. And the Roosevelt quote! Do you have any specific philosophical and/or strategic tips for people who like to run together but where one person seems to simply have a better capacity for hill speed and overall endurance? Specifically, this is about me and my guy. I am athletic and have until lately always found great joy i running or any kind of exploration that gets me out and up and away. We have always loved doing these things together. He is in fact the first person I… Read more »
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[…] of my friends (especially Dan) run a lot more miles than I do and I definitely can fall into the comparison trap at times. I’ve been feeling a little anxious about my training, thinking that I have to cram […]

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