Why runners should set their sights on their next steps, instead of where they’ve already been.

It’s been said that you can never put your foot in the same river twice. Rivers are alive, flowing, and in constant motion. The river that was there a moment ago is long gone. The same is true for music, art, and movies. We never really hear the same song twice or see the same piece of art twice. What we bring to a second or third or hundredth exposure to a song or a painting is always different than the time before. We bring memories, feelings, and sensations. And the effect is cumulative.

Why is it then that runners think they can run the same route or same race twice? And why do runners think that comparisons made between running the same distance on different courses, on different days, has any validity at all?

You know what I’m talking about. I’ve done it, and I’m sure you have, too. We run our favorite route one day, then run it again a couple days later and beat ourselves up because we’ve finished a few seconds (or minutes) slower. Or we congratulate ourselves because we’ve run it a few seconds (probably not minutes) faster.

I hear these comparisons at races all the time. Someone will tell me, “I ran this race five minutes faster than last year,” as if it’s verifiable proof that they are “better” than they were a year ago. Even worse, I’ll talk to runners who are completely down on themselves because they ran the race slower than last year.

The thing is, you can’t run the same race twice. You can’t possibly recreate the exact circumstances on race day. You can’t have the same weather, the same people around you, the same amount of sleep, food, or sports drink. You just can’t.

You also can’t have the same training season twice. Your good and bad days will inevitably shift thanks to life. Your new job, new baby, or new focus on running will determine whether you get in more or less miles, do more or less speedwork, and arrive at the starting line more or less prepared than the year before.

It’s not that all relativity is bad. It’s fun to compare times. And it’s certainly helpful to look at the past and try to figure out what might and might not have worked in your training program.

But it’s just as important to remember that each footstrike carries you forward, not backward. And every time you put on your running shoes you are different in some way than you were the day before. This is all good news, since we have no control over the kind of runner we were in the past, yet we have a fair amount of control over the kind of runner we want to become.

In the future, will you be a faster runner? Probably, if you make weekly speedwork a priority. Will you be able to run farther? Most likely, if you gradually increase your weekly mileage. You have a say when you focus on where you’re trying to go instead of where you’ve been.

Waddle on, friends.

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