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April 24, 2006

Finding the Balance

None of us like to admit it, but we all have our limits.

Almost nobody is the runner (or triathlete) they would like to be. All of us are bound by countless barriers that prevent us from training more consistently, or performing better in races.

Some of those limits are beyond our control – our age, our genetics, and (although it may be sexist to say) our gender. This is just as true for elite athletes as for everyday back of the pack runners. There’s ample evidence at races: some runners can simply train less and still run faster than others who spend much more time and effort training. We all know the guy who you never see on the road for several weeks, then he shows up at a local 10K and runs 36 minutes.

Sure it’s frustrating, but there’s nothing we can do about it. Like they say, the first step to being a great runner is to pick the right parents. Fatalistically, our highest level of performance is largely determined before we are even born.

Yet no matter how genetically gifted a person is, somewhere out there lies a physical task that is unattainable. It’s just at a different place for each person. That guy who can run a 36 minute 10K on minimal training may have a barrier of 32 minutes. Somebody else may never break 40 minutes. For elite level marathoners, it’s somewhere under two hours. Paula Radcliffe’s might be 2:10. Although the boundaries to these limits are nebulous (maybe Paula is capable of 2:05 or better - who honestly knows?), they are as immutable as the laws of nature.

So we all have a physical barrier that is unsurpassable. On top of that, we have additional limits that we impose upon ourselves, in how much time and effort we dedicate to maximizing our potential. These limits are largely determined by how we prioritize our training in relation to everything else in our lives.

If training is a relatively low priority, we will never come close to approaching those physical boundaries. Typically, the self-imposed limits completely overshadow our genetic predisposition, so most of us have no idea what our true potential might be. In fact, it’s entirely possible that there’s someone more gifted than Lance Armstrong walking around out there who is oblivious to his gift because he’s never been involved in athletics.

On the other hand, the exclusion of extraneous concerns allows us to fully maximize our potential. This is exactly the theory that has produced dramatic improvements in American distance running over the past several years: gather a group of promising athletes together, provide all of their living expenses so they don’t need jobs, give them expert coaching, and let running be the sole focus of their lives for several years. (It seems like an obvious formula – so how come it took us 20 years of getting our butts kicked to figure this out?)

The rest of us make our own decisions as to how much time and effort we devote to reaching a certain goal, and how much we set aside for other things. That balancing point is in constant flux; it may vary greatly from year to year based on countless other circumstances.

Eventually the runner in us strikes a bargain with all our other roles (as a family person, a professional, etc.), and uses whatever hours we are allotted during the week to develop our athletic talents, and gain an approximation of where our ultimate barriers might reside.

That's actually part of the attraction for many runners: the chance to explore the outer limits of our body's physical capacity at a given task.

I’ve often wondered about where my limit as a marathon runner lies. It’s a romantic notion to ponder how fast I could run if I were fully committed to training. Really now - who wouldn’t want to know? After several years of racing, I think I have a ballpark idea, which I’ll save until the next post (in the biz, that’s what's known as a “teaser”).

There’s no question that if I didn’t have a job, slept eight hours per night and took midday naps, spent as much time as I wanted in running or cross-training, and could afford unlimited physical therapy or massage therapy, I could easily shave several minutes off my marathon time. But for me, that reward wouldn’t justify the sacrifices required to attain it (plus, I couldn’t watch nearly as much reality TV – and what kind of life would that be?).

Over the years I’ve struggled to balance of the amount of training I do with my roles as a husband, father, and provider. It’s taken a lot of trial and error, and there were definitely times when I overemphasized running to the exclusion of more important things.

Right now, the balance I have is comfortable, if delicate. I’m usually satisfied with the amount of training I can do, and I’ve given up the longing to find out what my ultimate limits as a marathon runner might be.

All of which brings me to the task I’m facing this weekend. But today’s post is long enough already. Come back tomorrow, and I’ll elaborate more.


backofpack 4/24/06, 11:41 AM  

Very appropriate and thoughtful post. I completely agree with you. Personally, I don't think I got any fast-twitch muscles when they were handing them out. They are all slow-twitch, hence my slower speeds. (I'll fess up, I really don't have any idea what fast/slow twitch muscles do, I just know I don't react fast at all).

angie's pink fuzzy 4/24/06, 12:52 PM  

Donald, this is quite relevant to what I have been thinking about over the last few weeks. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

Susan 4/24/06, 2:06 PM  

That's great Donald - I can sprint and I can run far but I just can't do them together.

It's awesome that you have found your balance.

olga 4/24/06, 3:12 PM  

This is a great discussion, and now that's every runner's season is started, very timely...where is the balance? I sacrifise my sleep for training more, yet, invariably, because of lack of sleep my training suffers:) The rest of my life is too important to cut back on.

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