Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Things that are and are not the main thing.

Recently I finished reading Matt Fitzgerald’s latest, How Bad Do You Want It?, because Matt Fitzgerald and duh. To vastly oversimplify things, the book is about the psychological aspect of endurance sports, and how the more we learn about optimizing training and performance, the larger a role those mental and emotional pieces seem to play (for better or worse).

I have this feeling that what this book will mean to an endurance athlete & what they get out of it probably has a lot to do with where they are in their “career”/”journey”/whatever you want to call it as such. (As an extremely non-professional athlete, neither of those words feel right to me, but I can’t come up with anything better.) I think if I had read this book say five years ago, it wouldn’t have meant as much. Like, I might have just shrugged & been like, “Cool story, bro.” But reading it in January 2016, it resonated with me at some critical frequency. I think I read it in two days which is fast even for me.

Sometime soon (whatever that means) I really want to sit down and give it a proper review, but for the time being I’m still letting my thoughts marinate. I bring it up because some of the big ideas Fitzgerald touches on seemed connected to a fantastic blog post I read this morning courtesy of Mario Fraioli. (If you don’t get The Morning Shakeout, you should! Or you should at least check it out to see if you should.)

The post, The Art of Keeping the Main Thing The Main Thing, was penned by elite runner Phoebe Wright. Have you ever had a moment where something’s been bothering you for a while and you couldn’t put your finger on it, and then someone comes along and perfectly sums it up with exactly the right words and you go YES! YES, THAT! THANK YOU!

This was one of those moments.

During the time I’ve been reading and writing blog posts about running, there is a certain genre of post that is obsessive about little details and their effect on race day outcomes.

  • "My race was almost ruined because I forgot my extra special never-fail breakfast and we had to drive all over x city in order to find it. DISASTER AVERTED."
  • "In order to run my best I know it is critical for me to do y warm-up, exactly, and god help the fool that gets in my way."
  • "I was awake with nerves most of the night so I knew from the start that my race was doomed."
  • "Here are my extremely detailed taper nutrition/hot yoga plans, I have done exactly this for every race and this is obviously why I have PR’d every time."

And yes; I have definitely authored my share.

Something about it always bothered me, though; something I couldn’t quite get my head around.

Because the details are important, right? Aren't the details what separates a good race from a great one? Find out what works for you and then do exactly that every time, right?

Just a couple of paragraphs into Phoebe’s blog post, it hit me:

    ”We’ve all heard the advice: “It’s about the little things,” they say, “Do the 1%” they say.

    Well, this is kind of misleading advice. There, I said it. Because focusing on the 99% is probably going to get you farther than focusing on the 1%. That’s math. Or common sense? Sometimes, we get too zoomed in and can’t see the forest through the trees. This is a problem. It is good to take care of the little things, as long as the little things don’t become the main things.

*nailed it*

    ”Let’s talk for a second about the things that aren’t the main things:
      What you ate pre-race.
      If you got a cup of coffee.
      If you got a massage.
      What spikes [or whatever] you are wearing.
      How you felt in your pre race workout
      What your weight is.
      What the pace is supposed to be.
      Doing too many strides.
      Doing too little strides.
      Doing too fast strides.
      How much you hydrated.
      Talking about all the race plans.
      How much you were on your feet yesterday.
      How much you slept last night.
      The workout your competitor tweeted about.
      How fast you did your warm up.

Is she looking directly at me? I think she might be looking directly at me.

I’m a detail person. I LOVE details. Especially details that involve numbers! I love love love obsessing and quantifying and organizing and analyzing. Give me a good data set and you may not see me again for days. A data set drawn from my own obsessive, overly competitive hobby? I’m lucky if I remember to feed myself.


Part of this is just my personality (data analysis just makes me happy), but I felt like there was something else going on with the running part, particularly when it comes to what does or doesn’t happen on race day. Cue Phoebe:

    ”Reasons why the details are easy to focus on:

    1. Details help you take the pressure off. It’s like a defense mechanism. It resolves you from responsibility of your race. If you don’t race well, it is a nice excuse to fall back on. “Well, I would have raced well, except…”

    It’s really scary to try and lose and have to be like, “Well. I’m not as fit as I’d like.” Or “I didn’t try as hard as I wanted to.” That makes you feel bad on the inside. Where if you raced badly because of that Chicken Phad Thai spicy level 4 stomach issue, then it’s not really your fault!"

Ah! Right in the gut. HOW DID SHE KNOW??

    "2. Details allow you to zoom in so much that you don’t have to think about the race or the outcome. It is scary to line up and have no clue if you are going to win. It is stressful."

Truth. Keeping your head in the game when you really care is uncomfortable and stressful, so any excuse to take one’s head OUT of the game (while still pretending to be in it—‘Oh, whether I’m going to have a gel every 20 minutes or 25 minutes is CRITICAL TO MY RACE and obviously a VERY IMPORTANT THING to focus on right now’) can seem super attractive.

    "3. Details allow you to feel like the race result is predetermined. If you take care of all the details, then it is the universe’s way of saying, “Don’t worry, Phe, all the evidence suggests that you have already won this race.”

I think another way of describing this last one is “bargaining.” Okay, so maybe you didn’t do as many long runs as you should have and cut a few speed workouts short, but you carb-loaded, slept well, and wore the right shoes, so OBVIOUSLY you SHOULD PR.

(Or, alternatively, you ate like crap all week, barely slept, and probably picked the wrong shoes, so no need to stress yourself out trying too hard since a personal worst is pretty much guaranteed.)

    ”Let’s talk about the main things that are the main things:

    1. The work you put in over the last few months.
    2. Your mindset.

    THAT’S IT.”

On the one hand, it sounds liberatingly simple. Work hard, and get your mind right. That’s it.

But the simplicity of it is precisely what makes it so scary. It frees you of obsessing over details, but it also takes any excuses off the table. It bans the distractions that keep you from having to keep your head in the game.

Now, don’t get me/Phoebe wrong (because now I’m kind of going to speak for her a little). We shouldn’t completely ignore details. We should definitely do everything we can to have our best possible race, including eating what works for us, wearing the gear we’re comfortable with, doing our best to be rested and fresh, warming up however works best for us, etc. But we should never fall into the trap of thinking that those things are going to make or break our race (except in the most extreme situations we have no control over anyway) if we’ve done the work.

I’m hoping I’ll be able to keep this in the front of my mind as I start actually, like, running real races this year. Definitely book marking the page to come back to….


  1. Oh, this is so easy to do! I start by reflecting on what went wrong in past races, and trying to avoid that in the current race (a good practice by itself), but then it escalates into laying blame on time of race, age of shoe, what I ate or didn't, or how long my warm-up was. It's very distracting and completely unhelpful.

  2. Thanks for writing this. I definitely need to look this up now! It's so funny because as you allude to, running is pretty simple: feet, forward motion, repeat. Obviously some things make this process a little more appetizing (shoes, gear, and the like), but at its core, it's rather a simple pursuit. The same goes with competing: were you consistent in training for the past X weeks/months? Are you mentally on board? If yes, then we've "won," right? The forest among the trees metaphor just nails it. It's also interesting to think about our sport in this way because I think it shows how clever marketing is because we all want the latest and greatest that's promising us to get fitted, faster, stronger, whatever without the requisite work (and therein lies the problematic nature of hacking one's fitness, right?). Anyway... Rambling. Great post.

  3. Good post topic, and this brings to mind my favorite training advice from one of our country's greatest marathoners, Joan Benoit Samuelson: “My philosophy on running is, I don’t dwell on it, I do it.”

  4. YES. I listened to a Trail Runner Nation podcast with a similar theme with a sports psychologist, talking about fear of failure. He talks about sandbagging/using excuses just in case you don't reach your goals. I haven't finished it, but here's the link:

    My 10K PR came from doing everything wrong pre-race, which showed me not to sweat the small stuff. And then there are the races where I thought I did everything right, and I had a horrible day.

    p.s. the link to Phoebe's post is broken

    1. Ah, thanks! Somehow a wayward space snuck in there. Will have to check out the podcast!

  5. I read that post too and I was like DUH, hah! Also it kind of summed up my attitude recently; I've been trying to just focus on the main things and get the work done. It works surprisingly well.

  6. I really love this post. It is a great reminder to not obsess over the little things which have a funny way of becoming the big things and to appreciate the drudge work you put in that really counts. Even this weekend I had a great long run and thought, "Must have been that chocolate I ate the night before!" When in fact it was probably (and more likely) all the training finally showing up with a result.