Is “Balance” Holding Your Performances Back?

Balance: it’s something you’ll hear experts urge you to find in every area of your life. But is balance holding you back?
Christine Ultra Running

To address this topic, I’ve invited my Content Editor (and rockstar runner) Christine to share her thoughts on what it takes to accomplish big goals.

Take it away Christine…

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We all know that you can’t go non-stop all the time. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

But when it comes to running goals, sometimes it’s better to set balance aside to see what you’re able to accomplish. Rarely can we achieve lofty goals without going all in, and that may mean committing to some unbalanced time in our lives.

I came to running later in life, after years as a competitive horseback rider. By the age of 13, I…

  • rode almost every day after school
  • spent long weekend days at horse shows
  • arrived at the barn before sunrise to prepare my horse and load up my equipment
  • would go home well after dark

For years riding was an integral part of my life and I thought of little else. Having a horse and competing regularly often meant passing up opportunities with friends on the weekends. And then (like now), I was rarely able to keep my eyes open much beyond 9 or 10 pm.

So it’s no surprise that once I started running in my late-20s I went all in. I slowly but steadily worked my way up from 5k to 10k races, then to a half marathon, and finally to a full marathon in 2007. I gradually went from running three days a week to six, with races scheduled frequently throughout the year.

In 2013 I started running ultras and recently finished the Boulder Field 100k last September. While I have always committed myself to training plans for any race distance, ultras have helped me push this to a new level. Committing to long miles on the trails and pushing myself to get stronger at climbing and descending hills was a significant commitment.

In the midst of training, some things I just didn’t have time for anymore. I didn’t have the time or energy for that extra yoga class each week. Running strong for 100k was my priority – trying to “balance” too many things just wasn’t going to work.

Balance, in some forms, does have a place. To avoid burnout and overtraining we all need days off (or even seasons off). It helps to have interests outside of running so that it doesn’t become your entire identity. We need variety in our training, including strength and mobility workouts to stay healthy.

But when you want to achieve something big your sense of balance needs to shift.

We usually think of the definition of “balance” in terms of this Merriam-Webster definition:

Stability produced by an even distribution of weight

This means that we spread our time evenly among the things we care about, essentially dividing our attention.

But in many ways this is much like multitasking which (despite its initial appeal) we’ve come to learn is far less productive than focusing deeply on a specific task.

What if we thought about balance more like this definition (also Merriam-Webster):

An aesthetically pleasing integration of elements

This would allow for an ebb and flow of what we do, meaning that sometimes we have to allow more time and space for the things that are currently most important to us.

Let’s think about where balance helps your training (and when it may hold you back).

The Benefits of Balance

1. Rest is necessary

This may sound overly simplistic, but it’s true. No matter how much time and energy you want to devote to your training, you also need to rest.

Rest comes in many forms:

  • a day off from running each week
  • 1-2 weeks off after a goal race
  • adequate sleep and recovery each day to bounce back from your hard training

Don’t underestimate rest – this is where growth happens as your body adapts to your training!

2. Interests outside of running

In the midst of pursuing a big running goal, you may have little time to devote to interests beyond your running. And that’s ok!

But that doesn’t mean those other interests can’t or don’t exist. Having other things you want to pursue can make your time away from running more fulfilling and productive.

If you’re injured and forced to take time off, having other passions can make that time less frustrating. You also may be less susceptible to runner problems like “taper tantrums” when you aren’t sure what to do with yourself without a schedule loaded with challenging training runs.

It’s always a little bit dangerous to have your entire identity wrapped up in just one thing.

3. Balance as variety in your training

Where balance is always appropriate is when it comes in the form of variety in your training.

Devoting yourself to a training goal doesn’t mean you run and that’s it. It means you do all the things necessary to support your running, including dynamic warm-up and strength routines, and varying your workouts between hard and easy efforts.

Without this kind of balance in your training, you’re probably headed down the road to injury and forced time off. Nobody wants that!

When Balance Holds You Back

50k Training Run

Christine having fun during a 50k training run

1. You’re not setting a lofty enough goal

The path to reaching your running goals starts with goal setting. And if you’re not setting big enough goals, it may hold you back.

After all, lackluster goals produce lackluster motivation to go after them. [Click here to tweet this quote!]

Goal setting starts with dreaming big about what you hope to achieve even though it may take years to get there.

Start with a long-term vision, but then break it down into more manageable chunks for the weeks and months ahead of you. What will it take to reach your ultimate goal, whether that means running a half marathon in under 2 hours, qualifying for Boston, or finishing a mountainous ultra?

When you’re pushing just beyond what seems possible, trying to maintain balance can hold you back. A big goal requires more than just dreaming – it requires putting in the daily work.

And that means that some other things in your life may get put on hold. Don’t quit your job, but you may attend fewer social events or have less time for other hobbies.

2. You’re trying to juggle too much

When you make the decision to pursue a big dream it means that some things will have to give. Most of us try to cram too much into our day – there’s so much we want to do, and it feels like we’re missing out by not doing it all.

But this is exactly where a self-imposed sense of balance holds us back. As with any form of multitasking, trying to spread our energy between too many things means we never really devote it to the thing that needs it most.

Maybe you can’t squeeze in that extra yoga class because you need to rest and recover from your long run.

Or maybe you need to put that new project on hold temporarily.

That doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do these things! We need to look at balance in the bigger picture – months or years rather than hours and days.

By letting go of the idea that we need to do everything, right now, we can focus on what’s most essential and reach our goals more quickly.

3. You haven’t surrounded yourself with like-minded people

When you make the decision to achieve something big with your running, you’ll learn that it’s nearly impossible to do it alone.

Surrounding yourself with people who support what you’re trying to accomplish can make all the difference (and we have just such a group for you!).

Your family or friends may think you’re nuts to start a running program or train for a race of any distance – and that’s ok! It simply means you need to find a community, either locally or online, that can help support you in your endeavors.

Over the last year, I’ve been fortunate to find a group of like-minded ultra running friends who made it seem as if running a 100-mile race is a fairly “normal” thing to do. Yes – it sounds nuts. But it’s amazing how surrounding yourself with others that go all in can shift your mindset.

The more time I spent with these friends, the more doable my 62-mile race felt. While these people are accomplishing some remarkable things, they’re not elites – they have jobs, families, and other commitments.

But they made training and running long distances a priority in their lives, and their accomplishments speak for themselves.

4. You have too many running goals

Even if you have gone all in with your running, it’s still possible to have too many conflicting training or racing goals that keep you from your ultimate accomplishment.

Are you the type of runner who wants to qualify for Boston, but also wants to race a 5k every weekend? It’s not efficient (or sustainable) to spread yourself that thin. At best you won’t get in any effective marathon training, and at worst you’ll end up injured.

A coach can be the perfect resource to look at the big picture of your training and help you weed out the non-essentials. If you have a 5k goal, focus on race-specific training with that in mind. If you want to PR in the marathon, your training is going to look very different.

“Balance” isn’t effective when it means running a 10k one week, a 5k the next, and a marathon right after that. Singular focus is a much more useful training tool.

5. You need daily focus to reach long-term goals

On Zen Habits, Leo Babauta describes the importance of focusing on an MIT – the “most important task” of the day. This is the heart and soul of single-tasking and avoiding the misconception of “balance” by juggling a never-ending to-do list.

While most of us would be hard-pressed to narrow our daily to-do list down to one thing, it’s a worthy goal. And when you’re trying to work toward a long-term accomplishment, the daily steps you take are the backbone of your effort.

Nothing big can happen without the daily work, whether that means fitting in a long run or strength session, or making a rest day truly restful.

Honoring your big goal means taking some time each day to push the non-essentials out of the way.

“Don’t worry if a few things slip when riding fast; they will!”

Growing up, one of my favorite riding  books was by George Morris (in the equestrian world his books and teachings are widely considered equestrian bible).

In one of his books, he has a picture of a rider taking a huge jump at a gallop, and comments on his form: “Don’t worry if a few things slip when riding fast; they will!”

I think the image has stuck with me all these years because this picture is the essence of someone going all in.

He’s flying around the ring at breakneck speed while steering his horse over a six-foot fence in an all-out effort to beat the clock and his competitors. Even the best riders in the world don’t have perfect form while doing this, but their heart and soul and focus are clearly evident in that breathtaking moment.

Yes, you can let some things slip.

You might not make every yoga class or spend hours in the gym on top of your training, but that’s ok.

Let go of the ideal of “balance” and do what matters most to get you where you want to be.

Additional Resources:

This post was written by Christine Sandvik.

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