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.
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