Endurance: A Dirty Word?

This may sound crazy from a guy who’s spent the last 20 years competing in endurance sports, but I’ve come to the conclusion that endurance is overrated.  As a matter of fact, I now realize there are times in my life I should have considered endurance a mark of shame rather than a badge of honor.

Let me explain:

Years ago I was looking for a way to stay in shape and decided to run a marathon.  Like many others, I considered the marathon to be an admirable fitness goal.

Since my running background was minimal, I bought a “Marathons for Beginners” book and eagerly followed its advice.  90% of the book’s pages stressed one point: Build your endurance.
Begin with short runs and slowly over time build up the distance of your runs until you can shuffle along for the entire 26 miles.

I followed the plan and after a few months I was sufficiently trained to go the distance.  The marathon was grueling but I finished and got the t-shirt.  You know what else I got?  A serious case of achilles tendinitis and a strong aversion to ever running again.

The constant, repetitive motion of training at about the same pace and at about the same intensity for so many miles burned me out, both physically and mentally.

“But Ben,” you argue, “learning to endure hardship is a valuable lesson.  Life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, and learning to suffer in one part of life teaches us to suffer in other parts of life.”

Indeed!  I agree with you.  Learning to face adversity, stick to one’s guns, and fight through hard times is important.  In my experience, though, we often face adversity and fight through hard times sooner than we should.  Is success – and one’s happiness –  90% dependent upon one’s ability to suffer?  Or is success mostly dependent upon one’s ability to learn and adapt?

Training for that marathon, I made a fatal mistake that I’ll bet you’ve made, too, in some part of your life:

First, I focused on endurance.
“I’ll push myself to survive one more mile on this week’s run than I did on last week’s run.”

Second, I focused on speed.
“OK, now that I can run 26 miles let’s see if I can run it a little faster.”

Third – and last – I focused on form.
“If I run with better posture maybe I won’t hurt my achilles tendon.”

The problem:
By focusing on endurance first, I’m suffering through most of my runs and forming terrible habits before I pay attention to what’s more important: speed [i.e. efficiency] and form.

The solution to avoiding the endurance death spiral: REVERSE the order of focus.

1.  Begin with FORM.

How can I run more effortlessly?  Where does my body need to be stronger and more flexible in order to run smoothly, lightly, quietly, and happily?
(Think of how a world class runner moves: On the balls of her feet, shoulders back, head up, core steady, minimum bounce…  vs. the “shuffler” at the back of the pack: hunched forward, eyes cast to the ground, heel striking, and jarring her entire body.)

2.  Next, and only after my form is very good, add SPEED.
How can I maintain that perfect form while moving faster?

3.  Finally, and only after I’ve mastered steps one and two:  build ENDURANCE.
How can I maintain that form, move quickly, and cover a longer distance?

Running is only one example.  The same principal – first master technique, then move to speed, and as a final step focus on endurance – applies to nearly everything else in life.  Think about times in your life that you’ve:

  • Started a new job,
  • Entered a new relationship,
  • Taken on a new responsibility,
  • Begun a new activity.

In most cases, we learn through repetition.

Learning through repetition is OK, but make sure the “reps” you’re performing are done properly!

Here are some hints you’re on the wrong path and how you might push back to get on the right path:

Scenario:

Your sales manager gives you only a half-day of new product training and then says, “Now go hit the streets, champ!  Try to sell this product to at least 30 people every day.  Eventually you’ll figure it out.”  [What he’s not telling you but he is thinking: “You’ll either figure it out or go down in flames of failure.”]

Push back:
Before you spend too much time pitching your new product to 30 people every day, ask your sales manager if you can shadow a top performer and observe his/her tricks of the trade.

Scenario:

Your new swim coach orders,
“Get in the water and swim today as far as you can.  Tomorrow we’ll swim even farther.”

Push back:
Before you start grinding out hundreds of laps with that awful form, read a couple books and do some video analysis on your form.  Figure out how to stop fighting the water and instead move effortlessly through it.

Scenario:

You find yourself suffering through countless time-wasting meetings.

Push back:
Research best practices for minimizing meetings and making them more efficient.  Share your research with your colleagues and encourage them, along with you, to try a better way.

No writer or coach I’ve ever encountered better emphasizes this “form over endurance” philosophy than Terry Laughlin.

Terry is the founder of a swim coaching method entitled Total Immersion.  Even if you’re not a swimmer, I encourage you to follow his blog and read his books.  Coach Terry is constantly extolling the value of good form, and you’ll find countless ways in his teachings to apply those principles in other parts of your life.

(Terry: If you’re reading this, THANK YOU for teaching me how to replace ugly, brute force with something more graceful, sustainable, effective, and enjoyable.  Without your guidance, my endurance sport journey would have ended long ago.  Here’s to another 20+ years of kaizen!)

Oh, and one last thing…

If you ARE interested in improving your running form and improving your fitness, here’s a feat I’ll argue is more beneficial and gratifying than shuffling through a marathon:  Run a 5K in under 21 minutes, and do it barefoot.

Why 21 minutes?

Almost impossible to lack strength & flexibility and still run that fast.

Why barefoot?

Almost impossible to run with bad form in your bare feet.

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