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Principles from the Best Endurance Athletes for Our Times: Run the Mile You Are In

By now it should be clear that overcoming COVID-19 will be a marathon, not a sprint. We, as individuals and communities, must play the long game. Unlike endurance athletes, who choose to participate in prolonged and grueling events, we did not sign up for COVID-19. Yet there is still much we can learn from the experience of marathon runners, cyclists, and triathletes on how to move through extended periods of discomfort. 

There are four principles, all supported by science and practice, that guide successful endurance athletes: patience, pacing, process, and purpose. Now, perhaps more than ever as we consider how best to reopen the economy, these principles can help guide us too. (They can help outside of COVID too—with all big projects, really. It’s just that right now COVID-19 is the big project that we’re all in together, so I am going to focus there.) 

For the next four weeks I’ll be writing about each of these principles, one per week. 


The first rule of running a long-distance race is to acknowledge that the race will in fact be long (and hard). If you envision a race that is over quickly and without pain, you are setting yourself up for unnecessary frustration. This is true off the pavement, too. Studies published in the British Medical Journal and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that at any given moment your outlook, mood, and stress levels are a function of your reality minus your expectations. If you know something is going to be a protracted grind—and you go into it with that expectation—odds are you’ll feel a lot better throughout the entire ordeal

Also, understand that there will be highs and lows. Do not overreact to either, lest you’ll find yourself on an emotional roller coaster, draining you of the energy you so desperately need for running the race itself. When the highs occur, “this is what is happening right now.” When the lows occur, “this is what is happening right now.” It is good to understand the goal down the road. But you’ve got to run the mile that you’re in.

When the best endurance athletes begin to struggle they take productive actions—eat, drink, adjust their plan as needed—and then, they keep going. Also, they replace negative self-talk with kindness.

“If you are kind to yourself, most of the time you’ll get through the dark spot in a better mood and without wasting precious energy ruminating,” says seven-time mountain bike world champion Rebecca Rusch.

In order to avoid getting caught in our own struggles, we need to do the same. Figure out the productive actions we can take, take them, and be kind to ourselves along the way. It is fine to feel despair and sadness and angst. It is hard not to right now. They key is trying not to wallow in these emotions.


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