The Value of Holding Yourself Back

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I was struggling. I was in my competitive running days, in the best shape of my life, knocking out workouts I couldn’t imagine, but races were not going well. I just couldn’t put it together. I gave myself one last shot before packing in the bags for that season. In two weeks I was going to fly out to California for 1500m race and see what happens. Then, things got worse.

During a speed workout, I strained my hamstring. The next day, I couldn’t even jog. Maybe it was a sign to throw in the towel and call it a season. But as a twenty something who’d dropped too much money on a non-refundable plane ticket, I decided to wait and see. I threw everything I had at the dreaded hamstring and it slowly began to improve. After a few days I could jog slowly. Another day or two passed and I could run easy. With each passing day, I could run a touch faster. The problem, though, is that I was running out of time.

As the race drew nearer, I’d commence the same ritual. I wasn’t training, just hoping to heal. So every day, after a slow warm-up, I’d do some 100 meter strides, gradually getting faster to see when the hamstring clamp down. Seven days before the race, I could run 20 seconds for 100m. Five days before, I got down to 18 seconds. Three days before it was 16.5 seconds. I flew out to California. The day before the race, I ran a 100m in 15.5 seconds without pain. When I tried to go any faster, my hamstring clamped down.

Nevertheless, I decided to race.

Up until that point, as a healthy runner, I was racing 1,500s in the 3:50s, which was mediocre by my standard of the day. As I warmed up, I tested out my leg once more: 15.0 for 100m. That gave me my plan: try to run about 15 seconds for every 100 meters, and no faster.

As the gun went off, and everyone jetted off the starting line, I quickly eased off, finding myself near the back. As the race settled down, I stuck to my plan, clocking off low 15s for each 100m, ignoring what my competitors were doing and making sure to never surge. I worked my way through the pack, feeling surprisingly good. As I entered the final 200m, excitement took over. I was in 3rd or 4th place, not too far from the leaders, and having the best race of my year. The competitor in me took over: I started to dig down, to try and push a little more. Then, like clockwork, my hamstring reminded me: no running faster than 15 seconds per 100. The final 200 meters were an act of restraint. I rode the line to the finish, purposefully holding myself back just enough to not get greedy with a burst of speed that put my hamstring in peril.

I finished the 1,500 in 3:46 and change. My best time of the season.

For most of that year and prior to this injury, I’d bolt off the line, trying to force the breakthrough I knew was there. I’d press from the get go, which left me out of energy in the final laps. The speed limiter of my injured hamstring forced me to do the opposite: to conserve and relax. Having constraints freed me up to perform.

I’d been running at a high level for a number of years by the time the aforementioned race took place. I knew the value of pacing. I knew the importance of being fast but also relaxed. Yet, all of that went out the window because of insecurity. I spent every race trying to prove to myself I was still fast. It took a hamstring strain to remind me something recreational runners learn: pace yourself appropriately.

This isn’t just a lesson about running, it applies to the rest of life. When it comes to performing well, we are often our own worst enemies. We get in our own way. We listen to the social media gurus who tell us it’s all about the grind, and we end up working ourselves into burnout. We watch hype videos all day, working ourselves into a nervous mess for what should have been a routine pitch. We go “all-in,” not realizing that the security of having a backup plan is what freed us up to perform so well in our side hustle, which isn’t so fun anymore once our livelihood is dependent on it.

Humans are masters of self-sabotaging. It’s just what we do. Even if we know better. So what’s the solution? Build constraints into your life, things that will hold you back. Sure, you don’t have to strain a hamstring to remember what pacing is, but during your next marathon, you could commit to running with a slower friend through the first few miles to hold yourself back. Or if you are a workaholic, commit to locking your phone and computer away every Saturday. If you find yourself defaulting to answering e-mails all day in the name of productivity, give yourself a window of 30 minutes every afternoon to reply. If you’re a striver who can’t disconnect, schedule a vacation for the week after the big project is scheduled to finish.

To reach our potential, we have to get out of our own way. It’s much simpler said than done. But if you are someone whose natural inclination is to strive, you need to have things in your life that direct you in the opposite direction: to pause, step back, and occasionally even slow down.

Steve

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