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Three Lessons for Success from Marathon Training

Three Lessons for Success from Marathon Training

How imagination, habits and getting outside your comfort zone are crucial to growth.

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There are a few experiences as intense as writing your first book and training for your first marathon at the same time. That was my life this year and at first glance they seemed mutually exclusive. But, as my book was on the science of personal growth, I quickly realized that marathon training was just an experiential metaphor for the research and writing I was buried under.

One day, during a long run it dawned on me that many runners don’t realize just how much their training prepares them for greater success in other areas of life.

There are many lessons, but allow me to quickly touch on three.

1. Imagination

 One of the most underrated resources we all have is our imagination. Our ability to imagine things that do not yet exist is nothing short of breathtaking. We can visualize new ways to present ideas, solve problems, and help others.

While all of us has this innate capacity, its use has largely been relegated to children, artists and entrepreneurs. The rest of us live in the “real world” where imagination is seen as unproductive. We’re too busy to dream.

But imagination is not only a critical component for education, poetry and innovation. If used properly, it can dramatically increase your ability to accomplish any life goal. As an example, let’s take a look at a highly productive and successful group of people – the Navy SEALS.

For years, SEALS have utilized the power of imagination to boost passing rates for their recruits. During training, recruits undergo a drill where they are forced to remain under water for a specific period of time. They are given all the necessary equipment – oxygen tanks, masks, etc. At first glance, this drill seems easy, almost too easy. But these are the SEALS, and as they say, “the only easy day was yesterday”.

As soon as recruits jump into the water, instructors jump in after them and begin harassing them. They rip off their masks, punch them in the stomach and tie up their oxygen tubes. Should recruits keep their composure for a few moments, the instructors move on and recruits would be able to regain control of their equipment and complete the task. In essence, this is a test of remaining calm under pressure.

Most recruits panic and fail. Instead of staying calm, they swim to the surface before time is up.

The Navy consulted with a group of psychologists to see how they can help increase passing rates and together they built the Mental Toughness Program. A key component of this program is utilizing recruits’ imaginations. Before drills, in a room away from the pool, the recruits would conduct a mental rehearsal of their upcoming experience. They imagine themselves being harassed and remaining calm under the pressure. After recruits went through this program, passing rates went up from 25% to 33%.[1]

Your most valuable resource for success is your mind and leveraging its incredible capacity is a key component for peak performance.

For me, running a marathon was beyond anything I had ever imagined. In fact, up until the marathon I had never run anything close to 26 miles in my life – ever. What got me started, and kept me going during training was one thing — imagining the finish line. My mental picture of crossing that line, in one piece, fueled my motivation. Before each run, I spent a few minutes visualizing the euphoria of accomplishment as I crossed the line. I saw myself during the run feeling fatigued but persisting anyways. Anytime I felt down or unmotivated, or when feelings of inactivity clouded my mind, that picture became my inspiration.

Some of the greatest thinkers and performers have used imagination as a key to their success. From Einstein to Walt Disney to Jack Nicolas, from neurosurgeons to chess masters, visualization has served not only as a guide to creating a new future but also as an internal source of inspiration through the arduous journey.

Try to use imagination for other areas of your life. Picture a goal you want to accomplish. Make it realistically ambitious, something you can reach though hard work and determination. Dedicate the time to imagine it. See it for all its details. Let the possibility of accomplishing it inspire you. The clearer the vision, the more drive you will have to achieve it.

2. Habits not Resolutions

The mind alone won’t get you to complete a marathon. It will point to the right direction and even inspire you along the way but it’s your body that needs to deliver. So, how do we get our bodies to change?

New Year’s resolutions are of the most ineffective methods for change. Millions make them and only a small fraction stick to them. A recent study shows that only 8% of resolution makers reach their resolutions. [2] Eight percent. What’s more, 25% of resolution makers drop their resolutions within the first week.[3]

Contrary to popular belief, resolutions don’t help us reach our goals, they help us fail.

Why? Because resolving to change doesn’t lead to long term results. Change doesn’t happen when you create new goals. Change happens when you create new routines.

When you create a routine and repeat it, your neurological wiring changes. Your brain forms new neuro-connections which not only affect your ability to complete the task, but actually change how you function as a person. Routines literally change you.

For example, I bet you brushed your teeth this morning and you don’t even remember doing it. Why? Because brushing your teeth is a routine. You do it every day at roughly the same time. At first it was hard to remember, which is why at my house every morning I hear my wife ask the kids if they remembered to brush their teeth. Over time that routine became habituated as your brain slowly adapted to the new behavior. You changed.

With each repetition your mind strengthens the connection between waking up and brushing your teeth. You didn’t need to be inspired this morning or use self-discipline to complete the task. It is now a part of you.

As Aristotle said, “Excellence is an art won by training and habituation… We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit”

When you sign up for a marathon, you can’t just resolve to run. There is no cramming the week before. You can’t rely on loads of self-discipline or inspiration to complete it. You can’t just wing it, you have to transform your body to run 26 miles.

That only happens with routines. No matter which program you follow, it has the same basic framework. Turn running into a routine. Do it consistently. No weeks off. Why? Because the body is rebuilding itself. It’s recreating you to be able to handle this challenge. By reprogramming your neuro-connections, your brain makes the necessary changes to your body.

Take the goal from a above and try to design one routine that will help you get closer to it. The routine should be something small that can be done on a consistent basis. It shouldn’t need too much self-discipline to complete because then you’ll abandon it. Commit yourself to doing that routine for just a month. Watch and see how quickly that routine will become second nature and how it will inch you towards the reality you imagined.

3. Life Begins Outside Your Comfort Zone

How many times have you heard that expression before?

While it’s easy to post or share a meme about pushing past our comfort zone, when you train to run, you live it. As my training continued, I realized how little patience the program I was following had for being comfortable. As soon as I felt I could run a certain distance, I had to increase it. It was as if the point was to find my comfort zone and then push past it. To run just a little further than I felt I could, again and again until my perceived limitations were in the rear view mirror.

It dawned on me that for many of us, life is the pursuit of comfort. We work to be comfortable, we avoid challenges and circumstances that would leave us feeling vulnerable or emotionally exposed. We hang around people who share our views, and we avoid opinions that may bring us new perspective but are uncomfortable to digest. The desire for comfort is why so many don’t take new jobs, speak in public, share their deepest feelings with loved ones or put in the effort to follow their dreams. Comfort, for many, is the goal.

What if we lived each aspect of our life with the training mindset? What if in our careers, our relationships, and our self-growth we pushed ourselves to hit challenging milestones, enjoyed the moment and then pushed ourselves further?

For marathon runners, life isn’t about being comfortable. It’s about being great. It’s about constantly pushing yourself past your comfort zone to see how far and fast you can get your body to move.

As a mentor told me years ago, “life will present you will the choice between being comfortable or being great, and you can’t have both.”

Success in life is not an accident, its based on certain principles. When you use the power of your mind to imagine a better future, establish routines to get you there and progress by pushing past the comfortable, you could accomplish things beyond your dreams.

If you want proof, spend some time at the finish line.

To subscribe to Charlie's newsletter, please email charlie@charlieharary.com


[1] See II, Bakari Akil. “How the Navy Seals Increased Passing Rates.” Psycholo-gy Today. November 09, 2009. Accessed September 5, 2016. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/communication-central/200911/how-the-navy-seals-increased-passing-rates.

[2] Tom Anderson, “5 Ways to Keep Your Financial New Year’s Resolutions,” Forbes, January 8, 2016

[3] Norcross, John C., Marci S. Mrykalo, and Matthew D. Blagys. “Auld lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self‐reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and nonresolvers.” Journal of Clinical Psychology 58, no. 4 (2002): 397-405

December 2, 2017

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Visitor Comments: 1

(1) Deborah Litwack, December 3, 2017 3:26 PM

Another great one Charlie

Really enjoyed this one. Yasher koach!

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