Don't Judge a Book by Its Cover
During an interview with Competitor Magazine I was asked for “the biggest mistakes runners make.” One of my answers was the same point of this section, the misinterpretation of race results. Are we supposed to become faster with each race we run? Should every race be a PR? Are we supposed to PR at every distance during the same time of year? How do we know when to shoot for a PR and when to have other goals in mind? First, the short answer: You are not supposed to set a PR every race, so let’s have a round of applause for that peace of mind. For a beginner it is easier to hit PRs with each successive race because the room for improvement seems almost endless. However, for experienced runners and/or as fitness increases the window for opportunity becomes increasingly smaller, which is known as the ceiling effect. Race day conditions and the runner’s state of being that day also need to be factored prior to solidifying race goals. Unfortunately, not all runners engage in this foresight, so damage control becomes the name of their mental game, without realizing they set the wrong goals. This is one of the benefits of a coach—preventing the need for damage control in the first place by setting appropriate goals for each race (as well as help with race selection in general).
The human psyche is very good at making one feel better after a subpar performance (whether it was actually subpar or just perceived that way). It’s what some researchers call cognitive ease or the psychological immune system. It goes like this: You finish a race, see your results, think you could have done better and feel more unsuccessful than you should, but then the psychological defense mechanisms (rationalization) turn on to make you feel better. In other words, after the race, some runners will begin to factor in the heat, humidity, hills, wind, etc., so that they feel better about the finish time. However, what if they were able to make all of those calculations and predictions before the race began?
The main point is that foresight is a more powerful tool than hindsight. Hindsight is always 20/20, but again, it deals with rationalization and damage control. What if there wasn’t any damage at all? Meaning, what if your goals were properly adjusted ahead of time (and mid-race as well) so that you felt successful as soon as you crossed the finish line? Goal setting done properly is a wonderful tool for avoiding damage control. Factor in as many variables as possible before setting concrete goals.
The Technology & Psychology blog relates to this section. When training is going well, yes, it is much easier to rip one PR after another, but as a runner becomes faster and keeps improving, there’s a greater need to more closely weigh the conditions, both internal and external. If you’re not improving every race, then relax, it may simply mean that you’re getting closer to your full potential; this is not something to fear. If one race isn’t a PR, it’s okay; it’s just one race. Don’t judge a book by its cover.