Becoming Your Own Runner
By Bradley Meyer
I was never a great runner in high school. I was not bad, but I was not great. I could run 17 minutes in the five thousand, just under two minutes in the eight hundred, and my 1600 personal best was 4:38. To the average person, these times may seem quite fast; however, compared to the rest of the team, a team that scored 33 points in the Division Two Wisconsin State Cross Country meet in 2014, these times are just okay. I had my successes and failures. I first broke 17 minutes in the five thousand my Junior year at our home course, and I contributed to a solid third place finish at the state meet that same year. I was excited to see what the next cross country season would bring. Sadly, that was the only time I broke 17 minutes, and I was watching from the sidelines as our team won the title the next year. My Senior year was filled with bad race after bad race, and I did not even come close to touching my personal best. I did not know at the time, but I think what I experienced was a classic case of athlete burnout. Overall, you could say that my individual performance as a distance runner in high school was average at best.
Fast forward six years and I believe I am a better runner even though I have had no formal training, no coach and no team. I shaved off four seconds from my mile personal best, which is not a huge improvement, but most people are not setting personal bests in the mile after high school unless they ran in college. Cruising at 6:30 pace on 12 mile runs feels easy now, when seven miles at seven minute pace felt tough in high school. I have run two marathons in just over three hours, not stellar by any means, but anything over eight miles in high school seemed dreadful.
So, what changed? How have I become better, even if slightly, without the resources that I had in high school? I think the answer is that I have become my own runner. There are two lessons that I learned that helped me become my own runner after high school. The first is being intrinsically motivated, the second is how to listen to my body.
The first lesson I learned that helped me become my own runner is the importance of intrinsic motivation. Motivation is an important aspect of sports psychology. Coaches want to find ways to motivate their athletes, athletes try to motivate themselves on days where they just do not feel like working out.
However, there are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Some athletes are motivated by receiving awards, getting positive feedback from teammates, coaches and spectators, or being recognized in the paper or some other form of media. These are all extrinsic motivators, and although they can lead someone to push themselves to become better, they are not as powerful as intrinsic motivation. Athletes are motivated intrinsically when they push themselves because the work leads to a feeling of personal satisfaction, apart from any external reward.
How does one become intrinsically motivated? Unfortunately there is no switch you can turn or button you can press. Becoming intrinsically motivated takes time and practice. A good first step, though, is asking yourself one question. Why? Why do I run? I will let you know my answer to this question, the answer that helped me become my own runner. By default I am an anxious person. I would not say I am any more anxious than the average person; I am sure whoever is reading this has their fair share of worries. However, if you were to ask anybody who knew me well they would probably say I am pretty laid back, sometimes too laid back. I owe a lot of that anxiety management to running which relaxes me. Also, I would like to share that I have learned if you are an anxious person like me, but do not run, going on one run will not cure you of your anxiety. Chronic anxiety is treated by chronic running. So why do I run? I run because running calms my nerves.
Of course different people will have different answers to this question, as they should, because the goal is to become your own runner. No matter what your answer is, having an answer is the important part. Have something that motivates you internally because you will not always get awards, positive feedback or recognition.
The second lesson that I learned that helped me become my own runner is how to listen to my body. This involves two steps which are paying attention to your body’s signals, and adjusting your training based on those signals. The first step is being in tune with your body, or paying attention to your body’s signals. Try and pick up on physical cues such as how your legs feel or your breathing. Sometimes my quads burn even though I am just out for an easy run, but there are other runs where I experience the enigmatic “runner’s high”. Attend also to psychological cues such as mental processes and mood states. At the beginning of the track season during my junior year I dreaded the idea of another season of training. I was easily irritated and motivation was low, not just in running but in school, too.
The second step is adjusting training after you have received all of the signals from your body. A good training plan will allow for modifications to be made. For those days when your legs feel heavy or your mind is not in the right place, take a step back from training. I know this can be hard for people who are competitive and passionate about running. Your inner voice tells you that you are slacking off and losing fitness. However, rest and recovery are just as important for fitness as working out. For those days when your legs move effortlessly and your mind is clear, push yourself and see how much you can get out of that time you have.
I am not saying that these two lessons, being intrinsically motivated and listening to your body, will automatically make you a better runner. However, you will enjoy running more, and usually if your enjoyment increases, the more likely you are to get out the door and run.
Bradley Meyer currently works at the Berkeley Running Company in Madison, Wisconsin, where he began as a store associate during his senior year while attending the University of Wisconsin. In the fall of 2018 he obtained a position as assistant cross country coach in nearby Middleton, Wisconsin.