Friday, June 17, 2011

Finding Your Strengths and Working Your Weaknesses

A Facebook friend recently posted a comment/question about the difficulty of determining one's best distance. This got me thinking: I believe this issue, of finding what one is truly good at goes to the heart of much in life, including running.

When I was in 5th grade I remember trying to earn a badge for the President's Physical Fitness Test. It was this experience that made me all too aware of what my strengths and weaknesses were, and still are. At that age I had no concept of inborn propensities or talents, but I soon learned that there were some things that came to me more easily than others.

Take, for example, the 50 yard dash and the 600 yard dash (Yes, this was so long ago that we ran yards not meters). My memory of the 50 yard dash goes something like this: Lots of kids lined up across the track. The gym teacher says "Ready, set, GO!" - and off we go. Or, at least everyone else goes. It seems, if memory serves me, that all the other kids were crossing the finish line while I was still pushing off at the start. I'm really not exaggerating here! I really sucked at the 50 yard dash. Next, I found myself starting, shoulder to shoulder, with the other kids for the 600 yard dash. Here's how this memory plays back: We start, the others take off like a shot while I do my darnedest to keep up, but then something truly unexpected happens - the other kids start slowing down, but I don't. I just keep plugging away at it, feeling good, passing one gasping runner after another until, miracle of miracles, I'm in the lead. And that's how the race goes. Hmmmm. I think this should tell me something. Today I remember that experience as formative for me as a runner. I knew from that day forward that I could not run fast, but I could run for a long time. I understood something about myself that I did not know when I woke up that morning.

So here I am many many years later still well aware of this fact - one of the few truths I'm fairly certain I know about myself. In other areas of life it is not so clear and simple discovering what one is naturally best at or drawn to. However, there's a catch to all of this. While it's all well and good to work and maximize one's strengths, often we improve the most by working our weaknesses. Again, this doesn't just apply to running - it applies to careers, relationships, parenting, friendships, and on and on. I know that I often get in my own way. The problem here is that it's rather unpleasant to work on the things you are not good at. I'd much rather go for a cruising 20 mile run than run 6 half-mile repeats at 3k-5k pace. I dread half-mile repeats. Why? Because I suck at them and because they hurt. But at some point, when we really desire to push ourselves, to see how fast we can run a particular distance, to beat or best ourselves, we must acknowledge that it is probably our weaknesses, not our strengths, that make the crucial difference.

So, what will I be doing this coming week?: One session of half-mile repeats. And, I really will be a better runner, and perhaps a better person, for it.


  1. Great post and I can completely relate. Throughout my elementary to high school years I played soccer because I never was fast enough for track. I didn't see myself as a runner but rather as someone who had endurance. Therefore, I often played middle field because it was a position who had to be constantly on the move with. It was in college where I really found the runner in myself and in hindsight, yes, I could have done track and focused on the longer races. But even though I don't consider myself the fastest runner out there, I put speed work into each week of training because I feel I can still become a faster me. Keep up the great work!

  2. Perhaps, you dread half mile repeats because your body truly understands they are a silly workout - too short to work on pacing for a goal race and too long to develop your oxygen efficiency. Aussie 200s/Bowerman 200s/In and Out 200s, and interval miles, coupled with fartlek workouts and 1K intervals occasionally are my bread and butter.

    Are you familiar with the story of the swimmer Janet Evans? A laboratory tested VO2 Max of 56...yet out-competing swimmers with scores between 70-80. Her weakness was moving large volumes of air, but she compensated by getting the most out of each breath. Currently my new hero (also has the same birthdate as me - just 10 years older).

    PS I always accept cards and emails...

  3. Well, Danny, I think the jury is still out on that one - but the mere act of getting my legs to turnover faster is an issue for me, so in my case it's muscle memory issue and probably neurological as well - so running short distances faster might help in that regard. I'll always make the aerobic elements central, since I tend to run longer distances, but I really do think my body needs to learn how to move faster as well. For marathoners, clearly the bread-and-butter workout are aerobic, marathon paced medium long runs, and tempo runs - I've been testing (and tweaking) Pete Pfitzinger's "Advanced Marathoning" and the advice of Brad Hudson - I don't use any one system, though I do lean toward the higher mileage philosophy (probably because I like long runs;) and that has to be balanced with my ever aging body. So, too much speed, for me, will probably lead to injury - but a little I think can go a long way.
    I'm the same way with climbing - I can climb long hard endurance route, but throw in a power move, and I'm outta there.

  4. Runningmom - I didn't play soccer because I also suck at team sports ;) Instead I ran cross country and the mile and half-mile in track. It wasn't until after college that I started running longer races and found my groove. I think I was instinctively drawn in that direction. I wrote a bit about this in the Feb. post "Road Not Often Taken: Girls and Running". Thanks for your comments - it's always nice to hear encouraging words!

  5. Team sports (i.e. basketball, soccer) are the ultimate form of "fartlek" workouts - especially the midfielder like Runningmom brought up.

    Absolutely, for the 4-6 weeks of marathon prep work quality tempo runs starting at 30 minutes working up to 90+ minutes are essential for the marathon 'bread and butter'.

    But from the standpoint of speed work to get faster (i.e. increase leg turnover), I wouldn't even do Aussie 200s. 100m Sprints (meaning near all out effort) with full recovery in between (even better if they were uphill). For a good workout to really let you know you're working I still like 200s.

  6. But anyway, I like how you inadvertantly showed us how you would modify your workouts based on your strengths and weaknesses...just like your post! Ironic? I think not.


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