The Value of Uncertainty

Back in January, I was thrilled to get into the Vermont 100 miler.  I watched and waited as they made the race selections public online, and with less than 30 slots left, my name was finally chosen!

VT100 Finisher

I started making training and race plans almost immediately – a 50k in the early spring, followed by a 50 miler, with a smattering of shorter races in between to have fun and maintain a little speed.

Fast forward several months, and race by race my calendar has slowly emptied. For a while, it seemed as if Vermont would happen. And then I got the dreaded email – that too had been canceled. Of course the cancelation was not unexpected, but that didn’t make it any less painful.

With so many of our race calendars empty until late fall or beyond, what do we do now?

We’re all facing a gigantic, looming uncertainty right now. Races have been canceled, our lives have been upended, and we’re trying to figure out how to navigate through it all. Even for those of us who thrive off change and last-minute plans, our present circumstances are not what anyone anticipated.

When it comes to running, however, I believe there is a bright side to all of this.

Any time there’s uncertainty, even at a level much lower than many of us currently face, there’s often stress and anxiety that comes along with it. Uncertainty in our running can make us uncomfortable since so many of us thrive off detailed training plans and races scheduled months in advance.

When approached from a positive perspective, however, uncertainty can help us in two important ways:

  1. It can help us dig deeper to find the “why” behind our running
  2. Uncertainty teaches us to adapt in ways that will be productive for our short and long term running plans

Let’s see how.

Uncertainty, Discomfort & Adaptation

Uncertainty can be scary – no doubt about it. Especially when it’s thrust upon you unexpectedly. Runners tend to be planners, with short and long term goals lined up months or even years in advance. Even if you enjoy flexibility, there is still comfort in the certainty of a plan, of knowing where you’re going and what you’re doing in the short and long term.

Uncertainty can also bring discomfort. But the most successful runners are those who learn to adapt to discomfort, even welcome it at times. We willingly subject ourselves to the discomfort of long runs and hard workouts like intervals and hill repeats. Races push us to new levels of discomfort and can bring unexpected circumstances with challenging courses and unexpected weather conditions.

Uncertainty teaches us to adapt, sometimes on the fly, and makes us contemplate what we’re trying to accomplish. The value in uncertainty is that it forces us to take a closer look at the “why” behind our running and think about questions that will help us achieve our goals over the long haul:

  • What do you love about running?
  • What do you dislike? (Be honest!)
  • How could you be more disciplined? Or more flexible?
  • What would you change?
  • How do you stay motivated?
  • What’s one thing you can focus on right now to improve?

Whether you’re facing uncertainty and change now or in the future, it’s worth taking the time to reflect on your running, what motivates you, and how to continue to grow as a runner even if it means taking a different path than you originally planned.

This is a great example of mental fitness:

Using adversity in a proactive way to benefit you is the very definition of being a mentally fit runner.

Reframing Uncertainty

While the uncertainty we face right now is world-wide and unprecedented in our lifetimes, we will continue to face varying degrees of uncertainty in the future. Aside from races being canceled or postponed, some other situations might include any of the following:

  • Major life changes such as moving, marriage, children, or a job change.
  • Injury or illness that requires extended recovery time.
  • Post-race blues – not knowing what to do next after accomplishing a major goal.
  • Stale training – feeling bored or stuck in your training and progress as a runner.

While some of these may be more serious or have a greater impact on your life than others, each brings some degree of uncertainty. Try to think about uncertainty in the same way you think about the impact of training stress on your body. A controlled amount of stress – an interval workout or lifting heavy weights, for example – can lead to growth and improvement.

There is a fine line with training stress: too little and you won’t see any change. But too much stress or inadequate recovery can lead to burnout or injury. Logically that makes sense, and a coach or individualized training plan can help you learn how to push yourself and “stress” your body just enough to continue to create constructive growth and change. If you reframe uncertainty in your life, you can start to take a similar approach.

While uncertainty and training stress are not the same, we can better manage uncertainty by learning from our training. Uncertainty is harder to manage than training stress because it tends to come from external factors that we have less control over. Even if the uncertainty comes from a “good” cause – getting married or receiving a promotion, for example – the change still requires adaptation.

In order to reframe uncertainty in your running, it helps to consider the following:

  • Uncertainty is a type of stress, so acknowledge that.
  • Reframing doesn’t mean ignoring or minimizing – just being realistic.
  • Uncertainty in your training means being in the moment if the future is uncertain.
  • Uncertainty can ebb and flow – things won’t always be the way they are right now.
  • Think about what you can control today – getting out the door, getting stronger, adding strides to your easy runs, etc.

These are all examples of being proactive in the face of adversity, rather than letting adversity happen to you unchallenged.

Finding Your Why & Using Uncertainty to Your Benefit

When you reframe the way you think about uncertainty, you can start to use it to your advantage in training. If your races have been canceled and you’re staring at an empty calendar for the months ahead, it’s time to step back and think about what direction you want to take.

2020 is the year of mastering your mindset on Strength Running, so stay true to that and dig a little deeper beyond times and distances and finisher medals. Think about what got you started in running and what gets you out the door each day. Knowing the “why” behind your running will help you with both motivation and discipline.

Most importantly, remember that you have options. Just because your training partner is suddenly running super high mileage doesn’t mean you have to do the same.

Maybe you’re feeling overwhelmed and just want to get out the door for 30 minutes every day for your sanity. Or maybe you want to improve your virtual racing skills. Any option is a good one if it motivates rather than overwhelms you!

In order to benefit from uncertainty, you need to manage how much stress it creates in your life. That means looking at your training more closely, deciding what you want from it, and making changes to keep the stress and uncertainty manageable rather than overwhelming.

If you’re struggling to figure out what direction to take with your running, there are many ways to make the most of whatever uncertainty you’re facing.  Creating a plan for yourself (or deciding that you need no plan for a couple of weeks!) can help minimize the stress of uncertainty and bring it back to a manageable or beneficial level.

Consider some of the following options.

 Mental Training Options

  • Consider your goals. If you’re used to thinking about planning for races, you may need to determine what else to focus on if you can’t race. What is important to you in the weeks ahead?
  • Control the controllables. Maybe you can’t get to the trails.  Maybe your time is limited.  Be realistic and use what you have around you.  Get a little creative if you need to!
  • Practice visualization. Even if you don’t have an upcoming race, try visualizing how you want your running to feel right now.  Do you want to feel fast and strong?  Or just enjoy your solo time outside?
  • Be kind to yourself. Uncertainty can be more tiring than you expect. Sometimes just getting out the door is a win!

Physical Training Options

  • If you have had a nagging injury, now may be a time to rest and heal while you focus on other things in your life.
  • Cross-train. Feeling stale with your training but still want to be active?  Take the opportunity to swap a run for a yoga or spin class one day each week.
  • Get strong. Whether it’s a bodyweight exercise routine or lifting heavy weights, getting stronger will benefit your running and reduce your risk of injury.
  • Build a bigger base. If you’re healthy and have the time and energy, increasing your weekly running mileage can be a great way to benefit your running long term. Even if you don’t include formal workouts, try to avoid running the exact same pace day after day in order to see the most improvement.
  • Work on running by feel. Learning to listen to your body is a skill that takes practice. If you’re used to staring at your GPS watch, try leaving it home and learning what easy, hard and moderate efforts feel like.
  • Refocus your training. If you have focused on marathon training for months on end and no longer have a race or are feeling burnt out, maybe try speed training so you can run a fast 5k or 1-mile time trial.

While uncertainty in any form can be challenging, knowing how to approach it with an open mind can benefit your running.

Use these opportunities to revisit the “why” behind your training and remember what drives you. Trust yourself to adapt to changing circumstances and you’ll find success in your running, in whatever way you choose to define it.

If you need help, browse our training programs and coaching services to see where you can improve!

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