Think Thrice

What I've learned from running 10,000 kilometers

Graph of monthly running mileage from 2019 to 2022

I recently passed my 10,000-th kilometer running. Along the way, I've noticed that it's an unexpectedly philosophical activity. Here's what running has taught me so far:

Process over outcomes

Training is mostly guesswork and experimentation. Scientific principles can help guide things, but you ultimately don't control if or when your body will adapt to training, nor whether those adaptations will translate to your desired (race) outcome.1 If you hang your happiness on particular outcomes ("run X:XX in my October marathon"), you tend to be stubborn in your pursuit towards them, and being a bull chasing a red flag2 thoughtlessly leads to injury or burnout.

Rather, find meaning from the process instead of the outcome. The process of running is the mundane day to day: laps on the track in beautiful weather, feeling dully sore all the time, or being unexcited about doing an easy run. If you can find something meaningful in these ordinary moments and cherish it,3 you'll build an appreciation for the activities that drive the outcomes you want. This helps you put in the work when you'd rather not, and consistency is the decisive factor in whether you achieve your goal, not how much you ruminate on it. Put simply, take care of the process and the outcome will take care of itself.

Starting with a goal in mind is fine — it helps orient you in the right direction. You'll never get East of Eden if your process is to walk west. But after it's settled, it's best to keep it out of sight, otherwise it can be blinding. Then, knowing your bearing is true, focus all efforts to executing and optimizing the process. It's the only thing within your control. Outcomes are not, and trying to force things outside of your control will make you miserable.

Let go, embrace the ebb & flow of the process, and roll with the punches.

Patience is key

Meaningful outcomes require consistent execution of a process over time, which means you need patience to see things come to fruition. This can be difficult — training is principally an act of faith,4 so you'll always have doubts that what you're doing will get you to where you want to be. Embracing process over outcomes is one approach to resolve this doubt. Reframing the process itself as the goal means you avoid conditional gratification; the rewards are under your control and come daily. Doing this isn't a mere parlor trick, it's a deeper realization that the outcome is probably less meaningful than you think and the process moreso.5

Another approach is to increase your minimum unit of time. Instead of looking for outcomes in hours or days, force yourself to think in terms of months and years at minimum.6 This helps in several ways. Firstly, a compounding process begins slowly and yields the majority of gains later, so you need to keep the ball rolling (i.e. don't abandon it) long enough to reach exponential growth.7 Fitness is a compounding process since being more fit allows you to handle more training, which makes you more fit. Secondly, training requires productive experimentation to figure out what works for you, and good experiments that produce actionable insights take time.

Naval puts this best:

You have to enjoy it and keep doing it, keep doing it, and keep doing it. Don’t keep track, and don’t keep count because if you do, you will run out of [patience].

Be default uninjured

Fitness is a compounding process, so we want to avoid interrupting it. The chief way to do so is injuring yourself in stubborn pursuit of an outcome. Most runners ramp their training load too aggressively out of impatience or to hit a personal best in their next race. They're by default, all things constant, going to get injured. What we don't realize that the next race doesn't matter, nor the one after that — what matters is being able to run. When you get an injury that takes you out for months, these truths become self-evident. But everyone needs to learn for themselves that the stove is indeed hot.

To realize your potential, it's better to be "default uninjured" by progressing sustainably with a cautious eye to avoid ruin. This means dialling back your progression to a rate you could handle even on your worst weeks. It means changing your mindset from glorifying heroic willpower to rolling with the punches and keeping the ball rolling.8 This is difficult because it's not sexy. It requires more discipline than gutting it out and it means your immediate progress will slow down.

But, having realized that the process is the goal, we want to keep on running. The next week, next month, next year, and the next decade. We want to play the infinite game.

Everything is training

In order to play a game well, you need to know what knobs you can turn and what affects your score. A crucial realization is that the game of training is the game of life.

Our bodies experience the world as a black box that triggers internal sensations when we interact with it. Because of this, it can't differentiate between unproductive life stress and productive training stress. Since the body can only handle and adapt to a maximum dose of stress, any life stress reduces the capacity to respond to training stress. Put simply, everything is training — but not all training is productive.

The corollary is that there are impactful knobs we can tune other than how we train. How we eat, rest, and play are equally(!) as important. For example, sitting might be the new smoking, and even significant exercise can fail to counteract the effects of lots of sitting. Mid-day walks have helped my mental and physical performance tremendously.

This kind of advice has reached meme-level though. Less obvious is play: having high-quality, fulfilling leisure (i.e. not doomscrolling on Twitter/YouTube) is the equivalent of recovering with anabolic steroids. The problem is that it's hard to have a good time. Especially because we intuitively feel that it should be easy to have fun, so if we're struggling, we must be doing something wrong.

Accept that it takes work, comes with regrets, and make the time9 to cultivate high-quality leisure as a necessity to realize your potential.

Nothing matters

The outcome of your next race doesn't matter, nor the one after that. Similarly, neither does your next run, nor the run after that. Every workout is a minuscule drop in the bucket of your fitness, and a drop-a-day is all you get. While this means the best workout you ever did doesn't matter, it also applies to your worst workout. No single thing matters - meaningful outcomes arise from the aggregation and accumulation of work over long periods of time.

Certain events feel decisive when experienced locally, like their ripples will make-or-break our lives. We realize they aren't when we live to tell the tale and gain the clairvoyance of hindsight. All roads lead to Rome, and by keeping the ball rolling, staying in the game, and being default alive, we eventually pick up the trail that gets us there.

Crouching tiger, hidden dragon

There are two ways to progress faster: do more or reflect more on what you do. Insights about yourself and the world around you lie in everything, but are only unveiled when you take the time to look for generalities in between the lines. You may have learned these lessons another way, but for me, they manifested most during my journey running.

See you (me) at 20,000.

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  1. Professional athletes probably train "better" than the average person not because they're more scientific, but because they have more past experiences to draw on when constructing their training.

  2. Bulls and other cattle are colorblind and can't actually see red. Also, there's probably an optimal amount of "bullishness". If you've got blinders on all the time, you overlook opportunities hiding in plain sight. If you're easily distracted, you never end up putting in enough work to get the ball rolling.

  3. I cherish the feeling of energy as the world rushes past me. I cherish being sore because it means I'm growing. I cherish the fact that being bored of easy runs is a concern I have the bandwidth for. It really is a privilege to be a runner. Truly, never forget that you're living someone else's dream life.

  4. Franz Stampfl, coach to Roger Bannister, who was the first person to run a 4-minute mile in 1954.

  5. The goal isn't to run a marathon, it's to become the type of person who runs marathons - James Clear

  6. There might be a chicken-or-egg problem here, since doing this would require patience to begin with. I'm not sure, for now, let's just call this approach "advanced".

  7. Aka the first rule of compounding. You can take this to the limit by only doing things you'll commit to doing for the rest of your life, but this kills your willingness to experiment and pivot, which doesn't seem great.

  8. You can be a cockroach. Or a water bear, which is slightly cuter.

  9. Don't bother trying to find it - you won't.