Running can fall victim to the comparison trap more than many other endeavors often because of the cold hard calculus of the watch, along with the eternal judgments of others about what a ‘Real Runner’s Body’ looks like. When we compare ourselves to other people however, cracks start to form in self-esteem. For those of us struggling with mental health, these little leaks can eventually spring into massive sinkholes.
Comparison doesn’t just make running less fun—it can ruin an entire running lifestyle. Here are four tips to help you fight the comparison game and start to find self-acceptance on the road, and in our lives in general as well.
Accept our present limits and move consistently towards the future ~
The rarely talked-about reality of running is that the very best 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 that many of them have a genetic advantage. The goal of running should be to get what we can from it, tempered by the genetic hand we each were dealt, along with our particular life circumstances and goals. When we start defining ourselves through comparison to others, we may be disappointed—often by factors outside of our control. This comparison trap also applies to self-comparison. Running ability and fitness levels rarely follow a linear progression. We progress, we regress, and then we progress some more. I think it’s safe to say that this pattern very much resembles what many of us face every day in life as well, while dealing with a mental health diagnosis. At some point in this trajectory, we often improve in many different ways, yet only after struggling in a variety of ways as well. The lesson may be that it pays to embrace the present no matter what it may look like at any given point, in order to progress to the next step.
Run and train by effort, not pace
Over the months and years, our running pace generally changes. A ten-minute 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. Training by effort level instead (easy, moderate and hard) removes the option to judge our pace during runs, making sure we stay in the moment and focus on the correct stimulus. We may not be able to run ten-minute miles every day—or every decade—but we can always put in a good effort. In the same way, we may not be able to get out of bed on any given day, or face any of the stresses of life, but we can do our best at practicing simple self-care methods, along with maintaining contact with mental health practitioners to help give ourselves a better chance of functioning out in the world.
Take pride in keeping 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 we do on days we feel great) often leads to running faster than we should on relaxed training days. Too much intensity, however, causes injuries, burnout, and fatigue, resulting in sub-par workouts. Running fast at the wrong time can make us slow all the time. Slowing down to reflect on life, and check-in with ourselves and our loved ones about how we’re doing is very similar.
Race when motivated by the process, not solely the results
A majority of runners are motivated to race for a variety of reasons—self-exploration, adventure, the joy of movement. But if the motivation is fueled primarily by finishing times alone, racing can be a slippery slope to feelings of 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 simply wanting a goal to train towards in the first place, meeting new people, or experiencing a fun course environment and route, is process-based.
For some, the results-based approach is sustainable. For others, it can bring on post-race blues and a daunting blow to self-esteem and self-value. When we reframe races as a step along a journey as opposed to a destination, 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. I also believe that this same approach works well for all of us as we take on the complexities and challenges of living with mental illness.
In the process, a beneficial goal may be to avoid using training and racing to answer the question “Am I enough?” Instead, the goal can be to run with unconditional acceptance both on the roads and on our life paths knowing that the answer is….
“I am enough, and some days more than enough.”