How To Cultivate A Long-Term Growth Mindset in Training
Big goals and reaching your potential occurs through small steps each day that add up to huge gains over many months and years. There are no tricks or shortcuts.
Playing the long game is a different approach to training than training for event after event. That’s like trying to live paycheck to paycheck. It works, until it doesn’t. You can string along inconsistent training until you need to make a big withdrawal from your fitness bank, and it all goes to heck. Running is different from other sports because it involves impact, unlike swimming or cycling. It’s highly dependent on form and economic motion, unlike cycling where economy is less important than raw power.
What does that mean? To optimize your training, you need to do lots of running over time with consistent practice for both neurological and physiological adaptations. That means frequent and consistent practice over years. To really reach your athletic potential, you need to play the long game.
Believing in yourself and in your long-term potential is one of the bravest things you can do. Putting too much stock in one race or workout is selling yourself short, and can be a way of protecting yourself from the vulnerability that really, truly going for it in an athletic life requires. Putting yourself out there day after day in your training is a radical act of self-belief. Here’s how you can adjust your mindset to play the long game.
Are You Playing the Long Game?
Athletes who aren’t playing the long game will train only when they have an event on the race schedule. Their training might be focused on specific race day demands (like going long, or doing huge climbs) rather than on building economy and becoming a better overall runner, which supports long-term growth and goal setting. They do the bare minimum to eek it out on race day.
One drawback to the lily-pad hopping, “I only train for races” approach is that if there’s any setback like injury or a big project at work that takes time out of training, there won’t be a buffer of built-up training to fall back on. Little setbacks spiral into serious steps back. These athletes might struggle with self-worth, and view each race or workout as an evaluation of who they are as a person or athlete. (Spoiler alert: You are not your running. You are amazing, no matter what).
Many athletes come into running this way, and that’s okay. We’ve all been there. Driven by the allure of big goals rather than by investing in the process of improvement itself. By shifting your mindset to a more zoomed-out approach that involves improving over time through consistent training, you’re going to mature as an athlete, and though it sounds counterintuitive, shifting the focus away from performance will often result in better race-day outcomes as well.
Though it sounds counterintuitive, shifting the focus away from performance will often result in better race-day outcomes as well.
Think of yourself as an athlete first, and a racer second. Switching the focus of your identity will help you re-frame competition as a part of your training, not as an inevitable byproduct of it. You are an athlete who happens to compete, not just a racer who trains. Whatever the result is on race day, you’ll know that you did your best to prepare and that no one outcome is a referendum on who you are as an athlete or a human.
We pick goals not because they matter that much in and of themselves, but because chasing big dreams should allow us to live the kind of life that excites us. You’ll know you’ve picked good goals when you wake up most days and feel ignited by energy from pursuing your potential. Those goals will vary from athlete to athlete and change throughout your athletic life. That’s okay too! Results are so much less important than becoming the kind of person who pursues big dreams with their whole heart, no matter what the outcome is.
Always Be Training
Athletes who are playing the long game are always training. That doesn’t mean they will always be at peak fitness levels, because it’s not possible or healthy to aim for that year-round. But, they are consistently engaging in the process of training, stacking bricks each day that form an unshakeable and rock-solid foundation to support big dreams.
Your fitness should naturally oscillate throughout the year depending where you are in your training. The goal is to minimize that drop to around 10 percent. Everyone needs rest periods away from structured training, but that doesn’t mean it’s Spring Break for your fitness. It might mean slightly reduced volume while maintaining consistency, and adding in seasonally appropriate cross-training like skiing in winter, and biking in the summer to prevent injury and burnout.
To maintain that level of training, athletes playing the long game will take rest and down periods seriously, because they know that to grow over time, you need rest and adaptation to move forward. Growth happens in the empty spaces.
Runners who are playing the short game only train when there’s an event to train for. They struggle to motivate without a specific race on the calendar. Athletes playing the short game will skip rest days while they’re gearing up for an event because they’re not confident in their consistency and training. Their view of training might be narrow, which makes them feel like they can’t take time off to rest and recover properly.
There Are No Hacks or Shortcuts
If you’re playing the long game, you know there’s no special diet, sauna protocol or mushroom coffee that will “revolutionize” your training.
Athletes playing the short game will jump on every fad and trend. They’ll buy whatever supplement they think will help them run or recover better, spend hours with their legs in compression boots googling if an altitude tent or a sauna will help more. There’s little scientific evidence that any of those interventions are effective, and that’s why you won’t find TJ or Zoë chugging PH water in a cryosauna.
Athletes in it for the long haul know that their training is enough to complete the task at hand, and have confidence in their consistency. They don’t need a gimmick or hack because they know that the hard work they’re putting in is what really, truly matters.
Life is Good, But it’s Not all Training
Training is not a calculus test, and you can’t cram. Two weeks out from an event isn’t a good time to question if you’ve done enough climbing or speed work. If you’re a long-haul athlete that focuses on consistency, you know you’ve checked both of those boxes in training.
Athletes who aren’t playing the long game are always trying to squeeze training in, rather than making it a priority in and of itself. Athletes who are “cramming” always feel like they need to make-up mileage, rather than knowing that bonus rest days are a gift and part of the process. They feel like they need to constantly extend runs, add in extra intervals or round-up their mileage by doing laps around the parking lot. They might run laps around their kids in the yard to make-up for missed miles. Their short-term mindset leads them to feel like they are always behind in training, rather than zooming out to see the bigger picture.
The problem is psychologically being in a state of constant catch-up. Prioritize consistency, focus on training well when you can and then you can be fully present in the rest of your life. Train when it’s time to train, and hang out with the kiddos when it’s time for that. Avoid “grey-area” training like daily step totals or unhelpful time on feet. Not everything is training, and that’s okay! Justifying laps around the office, apartment or playground as training won’t realistically help you get ready for your next race, and it can detract from enjoying life as it is.
Avoid Injury, Embrace Rest
Athletes with a long-term mindset will typically be injured less, even though they do more total mileage in a year and have higher mileage peaks. When it comes to injury prevention, training load ramp rate (how quickly you ramp up volume or intensity) is more important that overall volume or intensity. It’s okay to do high volumes, provided you build up slowly. That kind of build is only possible with consistency and a long-term mindset.
Athletes with a short-term mindset can get stuck in a negative feedback loop. An injury forces them to take time off, then they succumb to the siren call of a big race. They ramp up training too quickly, get injured, take more time off and the cycle repeats itself. Focusing on the training forest rather than individual (workout/race) trees will help you be a healthier and happier athlete.
Seeing The Big Picture Is Brave
Running economy and aerobic development happen over years and years, not months. Chasing your potential should feel scary. It’s easy to get caught up in the details of strides and strength work, but zooming out to consider the years of healthy, happy growth you have ahead of you as an athlete will allow you to achieve things later that don’t feel possible now.
Adopting a long-term growth mindset is taking a big bet on yourself, and on your long-term potential. That kind of thinking is brave, and even radical in a culture that plays down long-term thinking in exchange for short term gains. Embrace the process and wherever you are in it. Focusing on the short term is selling yourself short, because (if you’ve read to the bottom of this article) you are capable of great things. Amazing things. Things beyond what feels possible, or even imaginable right now.