Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Life Marathon: What Creatives Can Learn From Elite Runners

I’ve been running long-distance races for over 20 years. After cycling through a range of training regimes that had varying impact, I decided that if I really wanted to run well, I should study the best runners and emulate their approach. I didn’t become an elite marathoner but I did improve my results dramatically. And, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could use the very same methods to improve my work as well.

Here are a few key things that great long distances runners do to achieve their best that I believe are equally applicable to achieving remarkable things in your work life:

1. Adopt concrete goals that aim toward excellence.

Elite athletes have very specific goals about what they want to achieve. (Sometimes these goals can be measured right down to the sub-second!) Then they focus all of their efforts – workout training, mental visualization, eating regime, etc – on what it will take to achieve them. They do not train aimlessly.

Similarly, you will want to set specific goals for achieving personal excellence in your work. One approach would be to set a 1-, 2-, or 5-year goal to achieve a certain position within the company you work for, or to complete a major creative project that you can share with the world. The more excited you are about these goals, and the clearer they are, the more motivated you will be to do your best.

2. Design a training regime, engage coaches & expand your expertise.

Great athletes train constantly, and they have great coaches to observe and guide them. They never go on autopilot; rather, they constantly up the ante on their training regime to incorporate new challenges that force them to raise the level of their game.

You, too, should constantly strive to expand your skill set – be it with formal classroom training, on-the-job skill development, or even learning about new technologies and gaining expertise outside work. You’ll also want to get as much “coaching” as you can. Find mentors to guide you and give you advice. Talk to senior people around you and solicit their input. Talk to experts at conferences and other events and learn as much as you can, then turn around and incorporate that into the work that you are doing.

Elite athletes have very specific goals about what they want to achieve. They do not train aimlessly.

3. Keep a log of your efforts and the outcomes.

Good runners not only plan their goals and train, they also rigorously track their efforts and document the results. This allows them to observe patterns, see what is (and isn’t) working, and make adjustments to their training regime and goals along the way.

In a professional context, you can track, for example, how you are investing your creative time and what outcomes you have achieved. Perhaps you will notice that a small time investment in one arena (say, online marketing or generating new portfolio pieces) yields very high benefits, while your time spent cold calling clients yields little reward. Just keeping a log of your efforts and the end results allows patterns to emerge that you might not otherwise notice.

4. Take the long view.

While elite marathon runners always bring their full commitment to the race that they are running, they also commit themselves to a long-term series of events and races spread over many years. They want to succeed in the upcoming race, but they also want to use that race to prepare themselves for a bigger race that will be followed by a still bigger race, until they get to the world championships and the chance to set world records. They have a plan that will allow them to succeed and grow, and everything fits into place.

While the race of life may not be as predictable as a marathon, taking the long view can still yield huge benefits. Rather than bouncing from job to job or project to project randomly or without aim, try to plan your current work in such a way that each project or job builds upon the previous one, ultimately leading you toward the bigger, better opportunities in the future that come from accrued achievement.

What’s Your Experience?

Have you learned anything in your sporting life that carries over to your creative endeavors?

Bernie Michalik

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Bernie is a senior consultant with IBM. He provides leadership to global teams that create complex IT solutions for his clients. In the years of doing this, he has developed innovative ways to be most effective productively as well as creatively. He enjoys sharing that knowledge with a wide range of people, from deep technologists to UX specialists. Though highly mobile, he is based at the IBM Centre for Solution Innovation in Toronto.
load comments (26)
  • PillCFs

    Si, permanentemente controlo mis objetivos que tengo. Siempre me propongo 2 o 3 por año. 

  • blm

    ¡Bien pensado!

  • Pascal

    Great insight. Flows nicely with my observations on the similarities of running and running a business which I’ve written up here:

  • Matthew Butler

    great article.. Never would have put running and my career to compare each other. 

  • ~aquamarine~

    As a long-time distance runner myself, I couldn’t agree more. Every successful endeavor in life involves discipline, focus and commitment. Training for a marathon may seem to be only about training the body, but it’s training one’s mind as well, and that carries over into everything you do.  

  • blm

    Thanks, Pascal! And thanks for sharing your blog post: I recommend people who liked this go over there and read what your wrote.

  • blm

    Thanks, Matthew! I have found sport provides alot of great lessons that apply to all aspects of life, including career. Good luck with your career, too.

  • blm

    Thanks for the feedback. I agree: it does carry over into everything you do. Lots of people run the marathon or plan to run it as an accomplishment. What they should also know is that it provides so much more. 

  • Tina Matsimella

    Thanks, this was a great article. 

    What I’ve learnt from my sporting activities is that it pays to invest in good equipment. Cheap, temporary items can actually rob you of time and as in sport, cause you injury. 

    This insight may not always be relevant, but it if you’re questioning your productivity, this point bears reviewing.

  • blm

    Thanks, Tina! That’s true. Good equipment, be it for sports or for work, will pay off. Especially if you use it alot.

  • Lucas_frank83

    I enjoyed ready reading it!very cool, thanks!freelance research reports

  • (Jamie)

    Really like this, thanks for the article. As I have started my own business (A running wear brand called RunBreeze) this has a lot of cross over and point of interest. Many thanks Jamie co-founder of RunBreeze

  • blm

     Thanks, Jamie! Glad to hear that. Good luck with your business!

  • umyr mehmood

    i really appreciate this tip.

    Thanks for sharing with :)

  • advin steven

    Wow that was a great article keep shearing with us….!

    logo design guru

  • @PazzaArchitect

    Great tips, my tip FWIW = get a running buddy!

    Long-distance running and entrepreneurship are both lonely games.

    It helps to share the cold wet mornings as well as the celebrations with someone who truly understands what you’re going through … and why.

  • Simon

    This is a great article and I wholeheartedly agree with your thoughts. I went from couch potato to a marathon PR of 2:40:49 and the thing that I learned that has crossed over into my work as an account manager at a design agency, is that you get out what you put in. If you slack, you will NOT achieve your full potential. I have also learned that success breeds success and the faster I run, the faster I want to run. Similarly the more work we win, the more work I want us to win. 

  • blm

    Thanks for sharing that, Simon! That’s a really good example, and a really good time for a marathon, too.

  • blm

    An excellent addition to the tips!

  • blm

    You’re welcome!

  • natep219

    Thanks for the article. After reviewing I can certainly agree with your assessment. I am an elite marathoner with a best of 2.19.35 in the Army. We have a plan, focus on it almost obsessively and are always looking for the next race, the next goal. Like Simon said below you get what you put in and he can surely attest having an outstanding 2.40 best that it takes a great deal of work to get better. The great thing is it can carry over to any other part of your life, granted your willing to make the sacrifices.

  • Alison

     Becoming a competitive swimmer and then triathlete changed my approach to everything. 

  • olee22

    I got into running this year, and I love it. Actually, I had set competitive triathlon goals for my exercises, to keep myself motivated for the coming years, and to organize my healthy life.

    You’re article really inspired me. I can do the same for my pesonal life.
    So, let’s just fire up Mindmanager, and jot down my ideas for the future!

  • blm

    Thanks! I am glad to hear that!

  • blm

    Thanks, Alison. I am impressed to see the number of people takng up triathlons. It is impressive and inspiring.

  • Paul

    I told myself 8 months ago, I wanted to run the Maraton in Rotterdam (Holland). Last Sunday I ran 25 km before quiting. During training I had some setbacks, musclewise and allowed doubt to set in. 2 weeks before the Marathon I decided not to start at all, since I wasn’t preparde well enough. But the day before the Marathon I asked myself why I should give up even before I started?! So I started. And now I ran 25 km’s. Something I had never done before in my life. A nice experience. Like aiming for the strars and landing on the moon…

  • Nate Davis

    Great piece Bernie! As a competitive runner I’ve done all of those things with my training, but haven’t put them all together in my career. Thanks for the solid advice. 

  • Adhy Hosen

    Hi Bernie

    I can’t agree! I only took up running since March this year and already participated in three different 5K races and two 10K races.. It was only possible because I forced to discipline myself in following the mileage buildup. The mileage buildup table provides a specific guideline as to how many miles that I need to run to build my ‘capacity’ in running.
    Now, I am training for my half marathon and hopefully in time I will buildup my capacity/endurance for marathon.

    Adhy Hosen

  • VijayDinavahi

    Learning is like marathon and it is precisely presented in this article.

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